Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher revealed either simple ignorance of a well-established school of thought or journalistic laziness when he attached the label of ‘Holocaust revisionist’ to respected author Norman Finkelstein.
If Fisher had taken five minutes to read the six-page introduction to Finkelstein’s well known book, The Holocaust Industry, he would have learned that Finkelstein’s entire family, except his parents, was murdered at the hands of the Nazis, a fact that a Holocaust revisionist would hardly want revealed.
But Fisher evidently didn’t read the book’s intro nor did he seek comment from Finkelstein before writing in a Dec. 3 column that Finkelstein is a “writer celebrated by neo-Nazi groups for his Holocaust revisionism and comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany.”
If he had done some homework, Fisher and the Washington Post could have avoided the embarrassment associated with running a retraction five days later. At the bottom of his Dec. 8 column, Fisher conceded that he “did not intend to suggest that” Finkelstein is a writer championed for Holocaust revisionism.
To his credit, the assertive Finkelstein won the retraction after a lot of back-and-forth between both Fisher and Washington Post lawyers.
In a Dec. 4 letter to Fisher as part of the exchange, Finkelstein wrote: “I stated that the claim that I am a Holocaust revisionist means that I doubt whether my late parents endured the Nazi death camps and that their respective families were gassed to death. You stated that this isn’t what you meant by Holocaust revisionism but rather that I was revising the conventional understanding of the Nazi holocaust.”
A Post attorney, Eric Lieberman, failed to grasp the distinction between reporting how an Ernst Zundel might react to Finkelstein’s writings and actually writing a column for a major U.S. newspaper calling Finkelstein’s writings Holocaust revisionism.
“We appreciate that you may disagree with the characterizations of your work by these and other groups, and would be glad to ask our Editorial page to consider publishing a letter to the editor explaining your objection to Mr. Fisher’s statement,” Lieberman wrote to Finkelstein.
Finkelstein was not happy with the response. “I couldn’t care less what anybody else writes about me,” Finkelstein wrote to Lieberman. “The point at issue is simple: Fisher makes explicit claims about what I’ve either said or written. He states that the praise of neo-Nazis springs from ‘his’ — meaning my — ‘Holocaust revisionism.’ I want Fisher’s evidence that even a phrase of mine can be in any way construed as ‘Holocaust revisionism.’ Otherwise this is a grotesque libel, and I will seek legal redress unless a retraction of equal prominence is published.”
The Post eventually grasped Finkelstein’s point. Three days after the offending column was published, a different Post attorney sent this letter to Finkelstein:
Dec. 6, 2002Finkelstein had challenged one of the most influential newspapers in the United States and walked away victorious. “I consider the matter with the Washington Post closed,” Finkelstein said on Dec. 8.
Dear Mr. Finkelstein:
I apologize for injecting yet another Washington Post person into the discussions about Marc Fisher’s column, but my colleague, Eric Lieberman, is out of the office today, and we didn’t want to wait for his return before responding further. We have no objection to clarifying the point that seems to be at issue in these discussions and would propose to publish the following language:
“In Tuesday’s column about academic freedom, I mentioned writer Norman Finkelstein, who lectured recently at Georgetown University. Although neo-Nazi groups have cited his work in support of their theories, Finkelstein has never denied the existence of the Holocaust, and I did not intend to suggest that.”
I would be glad to take steps to get that into the paper as soon as possible.
Mary Ann Werner
Vice President & Counsel
The Washington Post
As with most smears, though, the initial attack often inflicts irreparable harm. Most readers of Fisher’s original column probably never noticed the retraction. Finkelstein will forever be a Holocaust revisionist in some Post readers’ minds because of Fisher’s choice of words on Dec. 3.
The phrase “Holocaust revisionism” entered the vocabulary of discourse about 25 years ago as a pejorative describing a school of thought that espouses the beliefs that Hitler and his lieutenants did not draw up plans for the systematic killing of Europe’s Jewish population and that the internment camps set up by the Nazis in Germany and its occupied lands during the Second World War did not contain gas chambers used for the mass killing of Europe’s Jews.
That Fisher would equate Finkelstein’s analysis of the “exploitation of Jewish suffering” during the Nazi Holocaust with the “Holocaust-is-a-hoax” school of thought reveals either a lack of understanding of the issues or an indication that he has bought into the notion that any sort of criticism of Israel or the conduct of Jewish groups is anti-Semitic.
Of course, though, the real Holocaust revisionists and their fellow travelers have been targeted by governments seeking to censor them, imprison them or deport them for stating their opinions about the intention of the Nazis. These cases have attracted the attention of many around world who support the concept of freedom of expression, even for speech that they may abhor.
Perhaps the most famous case is France’s Robert Faurisson who was brought to trial by a Paris court for “falsification of history” because he had written that the Nazis, use of gas chambers at Auschwitz was a myth. Noam Chomsky and hundreds of others signed a petition urging Faurisson’s civil rights be respected. Faurisson wrote a book on the case published in 1980 entitled Memoir in Defense Against Those Who Accuse Me of Falsifying History. Faurisson used a letter written by Chomsky expressing elementary principles on freedom of speech as a foreword for his book.
In its Dec. 7 issue, the Post published two letters to the editor criticizing Fisher’s Dec. 3 column, one of which was from Georgetown University Professor Hisham Sharabi, another target of Fisher’s criticism. In his letter, Sharabi said his comments that were quoted in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper and then cited by Fisher “were intended to underscore the urgency within the Arab world to respond to issues that hinder progress in the region. … It is unfortunate that these points were not highlighted, as they were the crux of my presentation. Instead, proponents of Israel once again distract us from core issues and legitimate criticisms of Israel by crying anti-Semitism.”
As he did with Finkelstein, Fisher painted Sharabi, a Palestinian-American and long-time professor at Georgetown University, as an extremist without offering the professor an opportunity to defend himself. “Jewish students and faculty are outraged by the comments of Hisham Sharabi,” Fisher wrote.
Perhaps they were merely outraged because Sharabi holds an unfavorable opinion of Israeli government policies?
Mark Hand, an energy trade journalist since 1988, is editor of Press Action, an online newsletter of investigation and news analysis.