Leading Holocaust historian to receive Alumni Achievement Award
By David E. Nathan
Deborah Lipstadt, MA’72, PhD’76, says fame hasn’t changed her one bit: She’s still cantankerous, combative, loud and tough. Her friends tend to agree.
“I’m asked all the time, ‘How has this changed you?’ ” the Emory University historian said from Toronto, two days before the world premiere of the film “Denial,” which chronicles her legal battle in 2000 with Holocaust denier David Irving. “My friends will tell you it hasn’t changed me at all. I’m still a genuine troublemaker.”
Rachel Weisz, the Academy Award-winning actress who plays Lipstadt in the movie, goes a step further. “She’s a very colorful character and interesting and a pain in the ass and no bull,” Weisz told The Los Angeles Times. “She’s larger than life and not a shrinking violet.”
Lipstadt will return to Brandeis on Sept. 22 for a special 6 p.m. screening of “Denial,” and a Q&A after the movie with filmmaker Errol Morris. President Ron Liebowitz will present Lipstadt with the Brandeis Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor the University bestows exclusively on alumni. The award recognizes alumni for distinguished contributions to their professions or chosen fields of endeavor. List of past winners.
While Lipstadt maintains she’s still the same person, she recognizes that the volume on her microphone has been turned way up. She is no longer simply a Holocaust scholar with a high profile in the world of academia. Once the movie has its full release on Sept. 30, she will be known by millions and millions of people around the world.
“I now have a platform to reach people that I didn’t have before,” she says. “It’s incredibly humbling. What it has done is make me try to be even more careful about what I say because people tend to pay more attention. With greater prominence comes greater responsibility.”
While the type of Holocaust denial that Irving peddled has largely been discredited except in the Arab world, Lipstadt maintains that “softcore Holocaust denial” still exists.
“There are simplistic kinds of comparisons that minimize the Holocaust,” she says. “People talk about the ‘Nazi-like tactics’ of the Israeli Defense Forces or the ‘genocide of the Palestinians.’ I’m not defending Israeli policies, but those are gross exaggerations.”
Lipstadt looks back on her days at Brandeis with great fondness. She arrived on campus in the fall of 1968, just as the field of Jewish studies was becoming an increasingly popular and respected area of academic inquiry.
“Brandeis and NJES (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies) were at the nerve center of what was happening in Jewish studies,” she says. “This wasn’t about consciousness-raising, this was about academic study. It was a tremendously exciting time to be at Brandeis.”
While at Brandeis, she focused her research on contemporary Jewish history, worked closely with Professor Benjamin Halpern and wrote her dissertation on American Zionist leader Louis Lipsky. Lipstadt became the 100th individual to earn a doctorate from Brandeis.
She did not actually begin a serious study of the Holocaust until after she joined the faculty at the University of Washington, where she taught from 1974-79. “I was driven to it by my students, who asked whether I would teach a course on the Holocaust,” she said. “As I began to look at it more, I became more interested.”
She has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Holocaust. Her books include “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust,” “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” and “The Eichmann Trial.”
Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory for more than 20 years, served as an historical consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. She received the Albert D. Chernin Award, the highest honor presented by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, for exemplifying “the social justice imperatives of Judaism, Jewish history and the protection of the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment.”“I owe a lot to Brandeis,” Lipstadt said. “Coming to Brandeis was a great opportunity for me.”