The recent assault on one of the world’s most recognizable survivors of Nazi death camps, Elie Wiesel, has several Jewish communal leaders warning that Holocaust deniers are resorting to increasingly aggressive tactics.
In the attack, which occurred February 1 but was not picked up by the media for several days, the author and Nobel Peace Prize winner was dragged off an elevator at San Francisco’s Argent Hotel. Wiesel was in town to speak at a global conflict resolution conference sponsored by the RockRose Institute, a not-for-profit organization that promotes nonviolence.
Following the incident, Eric Hunt, a known Holocaust denier, wrote on an antisemitic Web site reportedlybased in Australia that he had accosted the 78-year-old author of the best-selling Holocaust memoir “Night” in order to “get a confession out of the ‘Pope of the Holocaust Religion’.”
According to a sergeant of the San Francisco police, Neville Gittens, a young man asked Wiesel if he could interview him. When Wiesel suggested that they do the interview in the lobby, the man accosted him and tried to pull him off the elevator and into a sixth-floor room. When Wiesel screamed, the suspect fled. Wiesel was unharmed. Authorities are still searching for the assailant, who they now believe is located on the East Coast.
Jewish communal leaders say this is the first known case of a Holocaust denier taking violent action. They point to the recent Holocaust-denial rhetoric coming out of Iran as helping to foment a climate in which deniers are becoming more emboldened.
“The one thing that Iran has achieved with the Holocaust cartoon competition, with the continuous challenges to the concept of Shoah, and now with the conference, is that it’s put it on the front of the agenda of the hatemongers and the extremists,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “When you repeat a hateful canard often enough, chances are it may reverberate by an individual wanting to show how seriously he takes this hatred.”
Wiesel himself made a similar case in an interview with the Milan-based Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “Until now they used words; now they have switched to violence,” he told Corriere. “My incident shows a global trend; if society doesn’t act immediately against these individuals it will end up encouraging others to do the same.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, who is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, concurred: “This shows a new brazen attitude” among Holocaust deniers.
The incident comes as Germany is pushing for all European Union member states to adopt legislation criminalizing Holocaust denial. As of now, only seven out of 27 E.U. countries have laws specifically targeting Holocaust revisionism. Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the E.U., is hoping to unify the laws — despite protests from some member countries that Holocaust-denial legislation impinges on free-speech rights — before its six-month term is up in July.
The most prominent example of such laws being put to use involves British historian David Irving, who served 13 months in an Austrian jail after being found guilty of denying the Holocaust. Irving previously lost a libel suit he initiated against Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies, after he sued her in England for referring to him as a denier in her book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”
Despite her five-year legal battle with Irving, Lipstadt opposed his imprisonment, saying that censorship was not the way to fight Holocaust deniers.
In an interview with the Forward, Lipstadt rejected the notion that the assault on Wiesel portended a growing phenomenon. She said that while she was horrified that this would happen to Wiesel, “one incident does not a trend make.” Lipstadt also said that she has always taken precautions and will continue to do so.
Newly minted presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement on the assault after speaking with Wiesel. “The shameful attack on Elie Wiesel is a violent reminder that we must continue to speak out against Holocaust denial and against hate crimes that seek to silence free speech,” she said.
A spokesman for the FBI, however, said that the incident was not classifiable as a hate crime.
In his Internet post, the man claiming to be the assailant said that “after ensuring no women would be traumatized by what I had to do (I had been trailing Wiesel for weeks), I stopped the elevator at the sixth floor.”
“I pulled Wiesel out of the elevator,” he wrote. “I said I wanted to interview him. He protested, grabbed at his chest as if he was having a heart attack. He then screamed HELP! HELP! at the top of his lungs.”
Hunt said he let Wiesel go because “he was no use to our worldwide struggle for freedom if he had a heart attack,” and claimed that he “had planned on either getting Wiesel into my custody, with a cornered Wiesel finally forced to state the truth on videotape, getting arrested, or fleeing.”