Like flat earthers, Holocaust deniers simply refuse to acknowledge reality. On being shown pictures taken from a satellite that showed the earth as a sphere, Samuel Shenton, the head of the Flat Earth Society, reportedly said, "It's easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye." In a similar vein, British Bishop Richard Williamson, the renegade Roman Catholic cleric whose excommunication was recently lifted by Pope Benedict XVI, declared on Swedish television that, "I believe that the historical evidence is largely against, is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler . . . . I believe there were no gas chambers." Williamson went on to say that he thought that "between two to three hundred thousand Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers." To the likes of Shenton and Williamson, facts and evidence do not matter.
While the flat earthers are, on the whole, benign kooks, Holocaust deniers are dangerous, generally combining their efforts to defend and whitewash Hitler, Nazism and the Third Reich with an obsessive, more often than not virulent anti-Semitism. In addition to his denial of the Holocaust, Williamson has endorsed the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious Russian Czarist forgery that purports to depict a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world, and has written publicly of "the false messianic vocation of Jewish world-dominion, to prepare the Anti-Christ's throne in Jerusalem."
Pope Benedict's decision to bring Williamson back into the Roman Catholic fold has met with a firestorm of criticism. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, said that Pope Benedict's rehabilitation of Williamson gives credence to "the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism." While American Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops have been reluctant to criticize the Pope, some of their European counterparts have been far less reticent. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, sharply criticized the lifting of Williamson's excommunication, declaring that "he who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated within the Church." Ad van Luyn, the Bishop of Rotterdam and chair of the Dutch Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference, called the decision "disastrous." Archbishop Reinhard Marx of Munich said that "Every denial of the Holocaust must be punished harshly." And the Archbishop of Hamburg, Werner Thissen, told a German newspaper that "There is obviously a loss of confidence" in the Pope, and that "rehabilitating a denier is always a bad idea."
To be sure, Pope Benedict has sought to distance himself from Williamson's views, albeit without directly criticizing the Holocaust denying cleric, by saying that "I wish that the memory of the Shoah will prompt humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the hearts of men. May the Shoah be a warning for all against forgetting, denial and reductionism." This Papal pronouncement does not, however, undo the damage caused by Williamson's legitimation.
A little more than two years ago, in December 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad convened an international pseudo-academic conference in Tehran entitled "International Conference on 'Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision'," with the participation of such luminaries as David Duke, the erstwhile Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Robert Faurisson, a former professor of literature at the University of Lyon who, like Williamson, claims that the Germans did not use gas chambers to annihilate European Jewry, and Australian socialite Michele Renouf, who explained that anti-Semitism is caused by "the anti-gentile nature of Judaism." For two days, they and other likeminded sociopaths "debated" at the Iranian Foreign Ministry whether or not my grandparents and my five-and-a-half-year-old brother were gassed at Auschwitz.
Why do Williamson's rehabilitation and the 2006 Tehran conference have ominous significance? Because Duke, who managed to get 43 percent of the vote in his unsuccessful 1990 U.S. Senate campaign from Louisiana, is now able to tell students at colleges in heartland America with a straight face that his contention that there were never any gas chambers has international academic and institutional support, and because Holocaust deniers across the globe will interpret Williamson's return into polite Roman Catholic society as a victory for their cause.
Holocaust denial is a pernicious strain of anti-Semitism, and Pope Benedict's ill-conceived embrace of Bishop Williamson sends a clear message that anti-Semites are welcome within the Roman Catholic Church. As my friend Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University, explains, Holocaust denial
"has no purpose but to inculcate contempt for Jews. According to deniers Jews use the Holocaust to win the world's sympathy and, in the course of so doing, win reparations from Germany and political support for Israel. Such a charge, based as it is the imagery of money and political manipulation, hearkens back to traditional antisemitic stereotypes. Why a pope would want to give support to such a movement is baffling. More baffling, however, is why a pope would want to associate the Vatican with someone who preaches lies and manipulations of history."
What can Pope Benedict and the Roman Catholic leadership do now to at least mitigate some of the appalling fallout from the Williamson debacle? They must not only publicly and unambiguously repudiate and disavow Bishop Williamson's heinous views, something the Pope has yet to do, but they should make Holocaust education a required part of the curricula of all Roman Catholic seminaries, universities and schools throughout the world. By affirmatively committing themselves to serious and comprehensive Holocaust education, they can demonstrate that the Vatican is serious about improving Jewish-Catholic relations.
Menachem Rosensaft, a lawyer in New York City, is the Founding Chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors