Letters to the Editor

AHA Failures on Holocaust Denial

Elizabeth Jensen, September 1994

In May 1993, I and one-half the AHA membership received a mailing from the "Institute for Historical Review" (IHR), an anti-Semitic group specializing in denying the Holocaust, which you in your apology characterized as "unwelcome" but I considered revoltingly offensive, to say the least. Of course, you apologized in the September issue of Perspectives, blaming it on failures in your mailing-list vending procedures, and I at the time simply breathed a sigh of relief. (I was worried that they had reached me through the History Book Club membership I had at the time; it seemed logical that they would target amateurs, who would presumably be more vulnerable to their attempt at the appearance of scholarly revisionism.)

Recently, however, I read Deborah Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press, 1993), in which she chronicles the attempts of Holocaust deniers to gain an audience by calling on "free speech," "open debate," "objectivity"—twisting scholarly ideals to their own purposes. Indeed, the student editors of my own university's newspaper fell into their trap by printing an anti-Semitic op-ed piece (from someone without any affiliation to the school) and later one of the infamous Committee on Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH) ads with the belief that "free speech" compelled it, and that in the light of day the deniers' claims would be seen as patently false. (Tragically, 22 percent of Americans could indeed be lured in, according to a 1993 poll in which that percentage said that they thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened.)

Lipstadt goes on to describe the involvement of professional historical organizations. In 1980, OAH sold its mailing list to the IHR, who sent copies of the first issue of their Journal for Historical Review to the whole OAH membership. This resulted in protests by some, but, shockingly, defense of "intellectual freedom" by others, and only an ambiguous final statement by the OAH. In 1981, the Journal of Modern History likewise sold its list to a related anti-Semitic group, the Liberty Lobby, though they had the good sense to later apologize to their readers via letter. Also, in 1991, the OAH faced controversy over the placement by the IHR of an ad in the OAH newsletter (Lipstadt, pp. 203–206). Given these events, and presuming even minimal contact between professional organizations, the AHA should have been on guard against this horrifyingly anti-Semitic organization, so that it would have no more chance of "slipping through the cracks" of the AHA's list-vending procedures than the KKK.

What sort of policy does the AHA have in place that will ensure that this betrayal never happens again? According to Lipstadt, the AHA in 1991 adopted a statement condemning Holocaust denial; it seems to me that, especially in light of the student newspaper "ads," we as professional historians have a responsibility to take a more active role in opposing these people—perhaps, at the least, through publications: a set of guidelines for the individual historian when the problem surfaces on his or her campus, a pamphlet available for general use, etc. Lipstadt argues persuasively that to engage them in debate, in any way, would be granting them a sort of legitimacy; instead, we need to expose their so-called "objective arguments" as intrinsically bigoted and hateful.

Elizabeth Jensen
Notre Dame, Indiana

Editor's Note: Ms. Jensen accurately sums up the points made by Ms. Lipstadt, but the latter's account of the response of professional historical organizations to the Journal for Historical Review is incomplete. The AHA actually had encountered the JHR prior to the 1993 incident—in 1983 the Association sold its mailing list to the journal. At that time, an apology was issued in Perspectives, and, to guard against a recurrence, the Association established a two-level procedure for review of mailing list requests. Within that context, the 1993 incident was even more problematic than Ms. Jensen realizes.

The AHA has policies in place to address this matter. The terms upon which we make our mailing lists available provide the basis for denying a request from a group such as the Institute for Historical Review: "Labels are for mailing materials of genuine professional historical interest, and the AHA reserves the right to refuse orders." Any questions about whether publications such as the JHR are of "genuine professional historical interest" are answered by the Council's 1991 resolution: "The American Historical Association Council strongly deplores the publicly reported attempts to deny the facts of the Holocaust. No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place." Unfortunately, the existence of both policy statements did not prevent the 1993 episode. The key is careful screening of requests. The two-level review procedure in place in 1993 involved staff members who were not historians and did not have a full understanding of the issues at stake. We now require approval of all mailing list requests by the executive director. There remain concerns, however, about our policies and procedures regarding mailing lists, and the AHA Council will discuss the development of clearer guidelines at its January meeting. Ms. Jensen also raises the possibility of a publication that would arm historians to deal with Holocaust deniers on their own campuses. The AHA Council is willing to consider specific proposals to address that need.