Countering deniers a problem in Armenian and Jewish genocides

Is Holocaust denial intrinsically linked to Holocaust studies? Should deniers be given a forum to express their viewpoints in an academic setting?

Those are some of the questions Australian professor Paul Bartrop wrestled with Sunday, Dec. 18 in his lecture “Education as a Tool for Combating Denial: The Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.”

His talk at the Holocaust Center of Northern California was jointly sponsored with the Genocide Education Project in San Francisco.

Raffi Momjian, executive director of the S.F.-based education project, spoke prior to Bartrop and commented on how denial has also impacted knowledge about the Armenian Genocide of 1915, during which 1.5 million Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Turkish

government of the Ottoman Empire.

Momjian’s group was formed in the wake of a 1985 state mandate that the Armenian Genocide be taught in high schools. He said, however, that the mandate was ineffectual because there was no infrastructure to support it.

“We realized that the teachers themselves weren’t that educated about the Armenian Genocide, and part of that was the denial factor.” Momjian said. He hoped to see an “educational bridge” between the Jewish community and the Armenian community on the topics of both genocide and its denial.

The talk at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was the inaugural topic of the Martin Sloan Family Lecture and Discussion Series.

Bartrop, a history instructor at Bialik College in Melbourne, Australia, began his talk by noting that the last time he addressed the topic — in his native Australia — many audience members were wearing neo-Nazi regalia and were somewhat less than receptive to his ideas.

However, as he pointed out, denial itself rarely comes wrapped so obviously.

The author of numerous works on the Holocaust, Bartrop told the packed room that denial often has nebulous antecedents. He said it could be characterized in one of three ways: as “rationalism” (i.e. suffering is innate to humanity, so why focus on a particular group?), “relativism” (one violent death is every bit as tragic as a million), or “trivialization” (the Holocaust must be seen within the framework of the two World Wars).

Nationalism also figures prominently in Holocaust denial, he said. This was underscored just recently when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the Holocaust as a Zionist fantasy to plant a Jewish state in the heart of the Muslim world, and when Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk faced jail time for “insulting the country” by castigating Turkey for failing to come to grips with the Armenian Genocide.

Historical amnesia also afflicted Bartrop’s homeland, he explained, as the aboriginal community was either ignored or viewed as “savages” in need of Western enlightenment and cultural values.

While calling denial the “final phase of genocide,” and adding that it “murdered the dignity” of survivors, Bartrop nonetheless said that children must be taught about the Holocaust — including the gas chambers of Nazi Germany, the Armenian Genocide, the massacre of Bosnian Muslims and the Rwandan genocide — and its deniers.

But the professor was admittedly unclear how much “denial” education should take place.

“Is denial education something teachers should dwell on?” he asked. “And if deniers are invited into the classroom, who shall provide the funding: The school system? The private sector? Individual communities?”

The problem of “denying the deniers” becomes exacerbated in a cultural climate where the freedom of speech is paramount, he added.

Noting that Holocaust denier David Irving faces two decades of imprisonment in Austria for disseminating his ideas (a set of circumstances that has apparently ameliorated Irving’s desire to articulate his views), Bartrop was less than sanguine when asked by an audience member if jail time was an appropriate remedy for Holocaust denial.

“The honest answer,” he said, “is that I don’t know.”