Holocaust denial statutes proliferate in Europe, unlike the United States, where free speech is much more highly valued. My own view is that such statutes are almost guaranteed to be counter-productive and serve as bad precedents.
Bans on Holocaust denial are unlikely to ever succeed, even if a few repugnant characters are jailed along the way. But they are likely to fuel the fires of anti-Semitism and give credence to the views of the deniers. By attempting to suppress discussion such statutes offer anti-Semites a powerful example of the reach and power of the "Jewish/Zionist cabal" ever manipulating the strings of power to their advantage. And such statutes invite the obvious response that the deniers must be banned because their arguments cannot be refuted.
Among the arguments for such statutes is that survivors of the Nazi's industrialized slaughter of human beings should be spared the pain in their final years of being exposed to the denial of the nightmares that constantly accompany them. And that argument is true, as far as it goes. Holocaust denial is one more cruelty imposed on the survivors.
The problem, however, lies in the precedent of limiting speech based on the pain or affront it may cause to listeners. The room for extrapolation from Holocaust denial to other forms of potentially offensive speech runs the gamut from the absurd to the truly dangerous. Students, led as usual by radical feminists, on a number of U.S. college campuses have demanded that professors issue "trigger warnings" concerning any course readings that may provoke an adverse reaction in students.
At the far more serious level, the EU and various European governments have built upon the precedent of Holocaust denial to ban other forms of speech that particular favored minorities may find offensive. A EU framework decision in late 2010 instructed member governments to combat "certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law." Predictably, those laws have been used almost exclusively to prosecute critics of any aspect of Islam, even when the only thing they did was to quote Koranic passages and hadiths. The impact of a rapidly growing and thus far unassimilated Moslem population on Europe is at once among the most important issues confronting the continent and one about which it is forbidden to speak.
Ironically, that sensitivity to Moslem feelings has been used as an argument against the teaching of the Holocaust in European schools with large Moslem populations. In many English schools teachers avoid the Holocaust lest they appear insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes who may not be able to handle the truth. Teachers do not wish to deal with the anti-Semitic reactions of students who have been raised in homes steeped in it. That can be quite a number when 37% of British Muslims agree that British Jews are legitimate targets as part of the ongoing struggle for justice in the Middle East. Or they do not feel up to the challenge of dealing with contentious "historical narratives" – e.g., 9/11 "truthers" – with which pupils have been raised at home or their mosques.
In the Netherlands, teachers claim to be afraid to teach the Second World War – a fairly large topic in European history, one would think – in "particular settings" either because students don't believe the Holocaust happened or because they think the Germans should have finished the job. (Often times those two beliefs co-exist: one of the great paradoxes of Holocaust denial is why those who eagerly proclaim their anticipation of the next Holocaust so strenuously deny their predecessors' success.)
The second justification for Holocaust denial statutes is that the historical veracity of the Holocaust is beyond dispute and those who deny it do not fall into the category of harmless cranks – like proponents of the flat earth or those who claim that Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon was an elaborate hoax. Rather Holocaust denial is central to the most virulent forms of contemporary anti-Semitism.
The problem here is two-fold. Once we start with legal declarations that matters are beyond dispute we are on a slippery slope. We have already heard the calls for criminalization of "deniers" of the alleged consensus on the catastrophic impact on climate from increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by human emissions. And the second is, as noted above, the bans are likely to play into the hands of the Holocaust deniers and provide them with additional ammunition for their perverse narrative of Jewish power and manipulation.
BUT THERE IS A BIG DIFFERENCE between opposing Holocaust denial statutes and thinking schools should introduce Holocaust denial into the curriculum, as a California school district recently did. Five teachers in the Rialto Unified School District came up with the idea of having their eighth-grade students debate whether the Holocaust really happened or was it "merely a political scheme to influence public emotion and gain wealth." School administrators approved the effort to develop critical-thinking skills. Perhaps it is not altogether coincidental that the district superintendant is named Mohammad Z. Islam.
There is virtue in having students consider and evaluate rival interpretations of historical events to develop their critical facilities. I can recall such a high school exercise in evaluating Charles Beard's thesis of the economic underpinnings of the American constitution. But the focus was on evaluating interpretations or debating matters of opinion about which facts could be adduced, not about the facts themselves.
In effect, the Rialto school district was encouraging, indeed forcing, students to visit some of the most fevered anti-Semitic websites on the planet, for that is where Holocaust denial materials are most readily found. There they would have been exposed to all manner of "information" on the perfidious Jews.
Perhaps there is some virtue in producing students who can find multiple ways to m'taher es hasheretz, but that is only true if the students are aware that there is a specific verse that the sheretz is tamei, and that they are engaged in an exercise in mental gymnastics not truth-seeking. Nothing of the kind can be assumed with respect to the eighth-graders in question. Few of them probably know anything of the Holocaust, have been exposed to the overwhelming evidence of the genocide perpetrated against European Jewry, or have ever spoken to eye-witnesses. For them, the topic was probably a fifty-fifty proposition at best.
Nor should we assume that eighth-graders lacking any depth of knowledge of world history or a background in historical research will easily see through the deceptions of the Holocaust deniers. Historian Alex Grobman and Michael Shermer required an entire book, Denying History, to unravel the tangled skein of arguments offered up by various deniers and to show why they do not undermine the facticity of the Holocaust. Grobman and Shermer provide cringe-provoking examples of what happens when a poorly informed and prepared adult confronts an articulate denier.
Anyone who has ever watched interviews of students at leading Americans universities coming up blank when asked the most basic facts about events then dominating the headlines knows that eighth-graders cannot be relied upon to separate truth from fiction. As Mark Steyn put it, "The idea that in an educational culture that barely teaches the history that actually happened, there should be room to teach Holocaust denial as in intellectual exercise is ridiculous.
In the case of the Rialto School District, the story had a happy ending. Two thousand students are scheduled to visit the Anne Frank exhibition at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance prior to graduating, and while there will hear eye-witness testimony of survivors of the death camps. But as Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center notes ominously, even if none of those students leave doubting that the Holocaust actually happened, "One day soon there won't be any survivors left to share their real-life experiences."