This month the Pope visited the Middle East. His 'pilgrimage of peace' was prompted, in part, by the controversy surrounding his revoking of the excommunication of a Bishop who has publicly denied the Holocaust.
Neither the original excommunication nor its revocation were directly related to Bishop Richard Williamson's (pictured) views on the Holocaust, but the Vatican's action in welcoming the Bishop back into the fold nevertheless caused controversy around the world.
It led to the publication of a pastoral letter, the content of which is about as close to an apology as you can possibly get without actually being an apology. This was followed up with a very public and clear denunciation in L'Osservatore Romano of 'Holocaust denial and all other forms of anti-Semitism'.
In the same week, in Australia, 'revisionist' historian Frederick Toben was sentenced to three months in jail for contempt of court, after repeatedly publishing statements which denied the Holocaust and implied that Jewish people were of limited intelligence, despite federal court orders prohibiting him from doing so.
Toben was freed pending an appeal of his case, and the website of his 'Adelaide Institute' carries a banner asking 'will he be fit for work, or will he be gassed immediately upon arrival' at Adelaide's Yatala prison.
What happened to freedom of speech? Since when do we jail people in Australia for publishing an idea, even an unpopular one? Why should the church go into damage control over the eccentric political and historical views of an obscure bishop? Has the world gone mad, or is there something in those conspiracy theories after all?
Anti-Semitism is an historical phenomenon which has been well documented from the ancient world, through the Middle Ages to the present day.
Repressive laws of both church and state in the Middle Ages and the pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries reached their climax in the Nazi-led attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. The true number of those who died will never be known, but six million is considered by most historians to be an accurate estimation of the number who were murdered.
After the war, when the camps were 'liberated', the world vowed that never again would humanity stand silent while such an outrage was perpetrated. Humanity has not kept that vow, as the citizens of Sarajevo and Darfur know too well. That is a source of great shame.
But what must be a source of no less outrage is those who would deny that the Holocaust took place at all. They desecrate the memory of those who died, pour salt into the wounds of those who still grieve, and most dangerously they pave the way for those who would do it all over again.
Toben and Williamson are small beer, when compared to the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, who is probably the leading denier of the Holocaust in the world today, and who was recently given a platform by the United Nations, no less, to spout his hatred against Israel and the Jewish people.
Ahmadinajad has publicly trivialised the Holocaust, lent the weight of his support to Toben and other Holocaust deniers, and called for Israel to be expelled from the United Nations.
This from a man who heads a nation with the strongest military force in the Middle East, which openly supports Hamas and Hezbollah with arms, funds and political muscle, and which has a controversial nuclear program which is not subject to any form of international oversight or accountability.
Holocaust denial needs to be seen from a global and historical perspective. It is not merely the advancement of a harmless, eccentric set of ideas. It is the deliberate denial of verifiable historical evidence.
And its purpose is far from benign. By denying what evil has worked in the hearts of human beings in the past, deniers of the Holocaust give aid and comfort to those who would do it all over again.
The courts are right to demand that Frederick Toben cease publishing his hateful words. The Pope was right to denounce the views of Bishop Williamson, and to pledge on behalf of the Church 'full and indispensable solidarity with Jews against any Holocaust denial'.
It is only by being vigilant in these matters that the world can keep its pledge: Never again.
Nigel Mitchell teaches Religion and History at St Ignatius College, Athelstone SA. He recently spent a month in Israel studying the Holocaust and anti-Semitism at Yad Vashem.
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25 May 2009
I agree with the general tenor of this piece but I think that Dr Toben can, in no sense, be called an historian. Holocaust deniers are anti-historians if anything other than mere ideologues.
26 May 2009
Is Al-Nakba denial also wrong? Never again, unless it is the State of Israel on the end of the rockets! Never again should mean never again.
28 May 2009
Never again is a chant used by the extreme and often violent Marxists. Everything is cyclic, and ideology will be analysed and the truth will be known whatever it is. Stopping ill informed debate by force of law or threat of violence is never the answer.
28 May 2009
Nigel Mitchel in effect asserts that there is "verifiable" historical evidence. I would appreciate it very much if he could send me the most compelling evidence. If it anecdotal evidence can't be verified by more of the same.
29 May 2009
When I read stories like this it is a reminder that history can't be changed and none of us has the authority to undo it.
30 May 2009
It's articles like this that keep me coming back to Eureka Street.
06 December 2009
The Holocaust is a fact: so is the round earth. Both have deniers, as do several other truths. Turkey denies the Armenian genocide, Israel denies the existence of a Palestinian nation etc. These are facts that have to be fought out,debated and exposed. Expression of opinion, however distasteful, is not a crime.
If that was Golda Meir and an entire Zionist section will have to be in prison for denying the existence of a living people.