“Historical Revisionism”

Noam Chomsky

March 31, 1992

Dear Dr. Keren,

I’ve been away, and just received your message from March 24.

I’m aware that there has been a lot of debate about my alleged opinions on “historical revisionism,” but I don’t agree with your assumption that there is interest in my opinions, for several reasons.

First, if my opinions were of interest, they could be determined readily enough by means that are, after all, rather familiar: namely, reading what is in print. I don’t exactly keep quiet. I write quite a lot, am not known for cutting corners or being diplomatic, and have been writing on these topics since my earliest political essays. My first book of political essays appeared in 1969, as did my first essay on the Middle East. These are accessible (“American Power and the New Mandarins,” 1969; 1969 and later essays reprinted in “Peace in the Middle East?,” 1974). Anyone who was interested in my opinions about these matters would, surely, have looked up what I have written, from these earliest essays (long before “historical revisionism” of the kind to which you refer had become a cause celebre). My views are quite explicitly stated: the Holocaust was the most extreme atrocity in human history, and we lose our humanity if we are even willing to enter the arena of debate with those who seek to deny or underplay Nazi crimes. Subsequent writings take the same stand, without variation. In brief, anyone who was actually interested in my opinions could quickly determine them.

But my writings on the topic never figure, or are even mentioned, in the debates to which you refer. Well, almost never: I do remember one case. An ultra-right Zionist writer, Professor Edward Alexander of U. Washington, cited my statements about unwillingness even to debate with Nazi apologists as “proof” that I do not believe in freedom of speech! A brilliant insight repeated several times by the equally fanatic editor of the New Republic. If there’s another reference to my writings on the topic, I’ve missed it.

A second reason why it is difficult for me to accept your assumption is that there are many prominent examples of denial or downplaying of huge slaughters, even Nazi genocide, and these do not arouse any interest. That fact in itself will suggest to any rational person that the alleged concern about “revisionism” has little to do with denial of genocide, or about my views concerning the Nazis.

Take again Edward Alexander, a writer widely published in the mainstream. We need not ask what his views are on Nazi crimes: he denies them explicitly, and with utter contempt for those who charge the Nazis with genocide. In his words, the charges of Nazi genocide are an “exploded fiction” (Congress Monthly, journal of the American Jewish Congress). Of course, Alexander is referring not to the genocide of the Jews, but of the gypsies, which was comparable to that of the Jews. The author of these apologetics for the Nazis also happens to have direct neo-Nazi connections. Alexander is a leading figure in Americans for Safe Israel, which sponsored the US tours of Rabbi Kahane, who was an outspoken advocate of the Nuremberg laws, was bitterly condemned as a Nazi in Israel, and was denied the right to run in elections for this reason. Such examples as these can readily be extended. They do not figure in the debates to which you refer. The reason can only be that those who participate in these debates are not interested in Nazi crimes, or those who deny them, or my views on this matter. The facts could hardly be more clear.

A further reason for doubting your assumption is that even the ravings of virulent Nazis and anti-Semites are dismissed as a minor matter when the political agenda of “support for Israel” (which means, in these circles, “support for Israeli expansionism and denial of Palestinian rights”) is served. Thus for the New Republic, the discovery of unreconstructed Nazis in high places in a Republican Party that was then considered to “support Israel” was a minor matter; Nazism, Holocaust-denial, hatred of Jews are only “antique and anemic forms of anti-Semitism,” the New Republic explained, in contrast to the serious stuff: the “Jew-hatred” in the Democratic Party, which debated a two-state resolution at its convention. Similarly, scarcely an eyebrow was raised when the Education Department of the Reagan Administration went out of its way to reject funding for a highly-regarded school program on the Holocaust because it was unfair to the Nazis and the Klan and might lead to a “guilt trip.” The Anti-Defamation League has even sunk to the level of redefining “the REAL anti-Semitism” to include people who give war “a bad name and peace too favorable a press,” “sniping at American defense budgets,” criticizing US policy in Vietnam and Central America, etc.; their reasons are that US military power benefits what they regard as Israeli interests, hence the interests of Jews. For details, see my “Necessary Illusions” (316f.), and sources cited. Such disgraceful antics, and the lack of concern over them, once again reveal the very thinly-disguised reality.

The reason why my writings are ignored or comically falsified is that, contrary what you assume, those who focus on the matter haven’t the slightest interest in what my opinions are about this topic, just as they are not concerned about denial of genocide, apologetics for the Nazis, or even outright unreconstructed Nazism. Rather, they object to my opinions about other matters, and being unable to deal with them at the level of fact and argument, turn to what comes naturally: throwing slime. The similarity to the good old days of Stalinism is not coincidental — and, incidentally, is often noted by Israeli commentators.

In brief, it seems to me that your initial assumption is not tenable. Nevertheless, let me turn to the specific questions you raised. You asked several questions about the Institute of Historical Review (IHR). I have heard of it, but know virtually nothing about it. The statement you quote about the petition on Faurisson is false. The petition called upon the Courts to defend F’s civil rights; it did not imply that his work in this area had any significance or should be pursued. That nothing of the sort was implied will be evident to anyone who follows the efforts of the commissars to twist the words to tease out such an implication. In this respect, the F. petition was different from many others, e.g., those I signed supporting Rushdie, which went far beyond free speech, applauding his book as well — a fact that doubtless enrages the Mullahs in Qom. But as anyone minimally involved in civil liberties issues knows very well, one doesn’t inspect calls for defense of civil and human rights with a magnifying glass before signing them — in contrast to the Mullahs in Qom, the Stalinist commissars, or their counterparts here.

You then asked three questions. First, do I believe that IHR and other revisionists are motivated by search for truth, or by antisemitism (or, we might add, other forms of racism)? Having no interest or knowledge about the IHR, I cannot answer, and find the question rather odd — as you would, if someone approached you with a similar query. In some cases, I suppose that the answer to your question is negative. Thus when Alexander writes his apologetics for the Nazis in the journal of the American Jewish Congress (where he also denies the genocide of Blacks on the Atlantic passage and of American Indians, insisting that this was only “oppression”), I doubt that his motive, or that of his publishers, is anti-gypsy (anti-Black, anti-Indian) racism. Rather, I imagine that their apologetics for genocide are to be explained in terms of their conception of Israel’s interests. In the case of other apologists for Nazism, one would have to inquire into their particular reasons. Similarly, when serious Holocaust historians (Hilberg, Bauer, etc.) suggest that some of the figures of slaughter may be inflated, or reject some specific anti-Nazi charge (e.g., about making soap), no one supposes that they are motivated by anti-Semitism.

If you or others are interested in the IHR, then by all means undertake the kind of inquiry that would answer your question about them. There is no point asking me. Surely all this seems obvious enough.

Second, you ask whether I believe that there are antisemitic implications in F’s work. I haven’t looked at anything that he has written since about 1980, and then very little. I had a brief look at what appeared to be a textual analysis of a diary of some Nazi doctor (it looked boring; I flipped through it quickly, and have never seen a reference to it in the vast literature condemning him). I also saw a letter he wrote to the French press that included routine praise for the heroism of the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto and generally for those who fought the “good fight” against the Nazis. I received letters from his harshest detractors in France at that time, one of whom later identified himself publicly (Pierre Vidal-Naquet). They condemned F bitterly (sometimes in print as well) but without citing anything anti-Semitic in his writings, at least to me. While I have no interest in his writings, I am much interested in the scandalous violation of elementary civil rights, and therefore followed the judicial proceedings as reported in the French press. The Court condemned him for “allowing others” to use his writings for nefarious ends, for lack of care in use of documents, etc.; not for anti-Semitism. I have read condemnations of F as an anti-Semite here, e.g., by Anson Rabinbach in the Nation. Rabinbach, who is described as a scholar dealing with these topics, gives quotes that indeed are anti-Semitic, perhaps the most blatant being the description of Chaim Weizmann as President of the World Jewish Community — a clearly anti-Semitic canard. Out of curiosity, I looked it up in the source Rabinbach cited, and found that he had just lied about the quote: what F said is that Weizmann was the President of the World Jewish Congress, false of course, but not anti-Semitic. If you are interested in whether there are antisemitic implications in F’s work, why not look at it? I haven’t, because I have no interest in him, any more than I have any interest in Arthur Butz — who, oddly, does not come up in these discussions, though his significance in the US is far greater.

Your third question asks about the beliefs of F, Irving, Weber: do they really believe what they write, or are they trying to incite hatred of Jews? I’ve never heard of Weber. About F, I’ve already answered. As for Irving, I’ve read nothing of his beyond a few letters to editors, and therefore cannot comment. In the case of others who explicitly deny Nazi genocide (e.g., Alexander in the journal of the American Jewish Congress), I have no idea whether they believe what they write, but I doubt that they are trying to incite anti-gypsy (Black, Indian) hatred, as your question would suggest (properly generalized). Similarly, when Elie Wiesel intervenes personally to try to convince Yehuda Bauer not to attend a genocide conference in Tel Aviv because it will deal with the Armenian genocide, I do not know whether he really believes that the genocide didn’t take place, or is just following the dictates of the Israeli authorities who tried to cancel the conference because it might harm their relations with Turkey. Same in other cases. Outstanding American anthropologists until quite recently denied extensive evidence about the destruction of the American Indians, underplaying the figures by a huge factor; I suspect their reason was not anti-Indian racism, but apologetics for the conquest. Asked to estimate Vietnamese casualties during the Indochina war, Americans polled gave the (median) figure 100,000, about 5% of the US government estimate. I do not assume that they are anti-Vietnamese racists; rather, they have been inundated by propaganda that leads them to believe this. You might, incidentally, ask what the reaction would be if a poll of Germans today estimated Jewish deaths in the Holocaust at 300,000; the question was raised by the authors of the academic study in which the results just cited are given, and it is worth pondering, in the present connection — though it never is.

There are many real and significant cases of denial of genocide — never discussed, precisely because they are not useful as ideological weapons, and pursuing the issue would reveal the wrong truths. If you want to know something about the “historical revisionists,” look at their work, or ask people who are interested enough in them to read their work; that would seem a plausible enough suggestion. Butz, for example, is said to have published a long book denying the Holocaust. He’s a professor of engineering at some major university, maybe Northwestern. There should be no problem in your inquiring, perhaps from your colleagues there, about what would appear to be the most important example of “revisionism” for those in the US who were authentically concerned about the matter.

You end your letter by saying that “many people are interested in hearing [my] opinion.” As noted, the evidence suggests otherwise. If they were interested in my opinions, they would know where to look: not in fairy tales invented by apologists for state violence and repression, or in grossly distorted fragments of personal letters, or the wording of civil rights petitions as interpreted by various commissars. Rather, in what I have written for many years, or in the books of published interviews, material that is more than extensive enough to answer these questions.

You asked if you could publish my response on the net. I won’t refuse, if you want to, but I would like to make clear that the whole discussion, in my opinion, is ludicrous. Perhaps there is a debate like this one among extreme sectors of Iranian fundamentalism, with regard to people who signed petitions for Rushdie (or went far beyond that). And perhaps these circles have even sunk to the levels of dishonesty and deceit of the material that apparently inspired your questions. If so, and if I were asked to comment on specific charges, I would agree. But I would add that the entire discussion is ludicrous; the issue lies elsewhere. The point is far clearer in the present case: the Mullahs are doubtless really concerned about Rushdie’s alleged insults to the Prophet, while here it is plain enough that the whole affair is simply a cover for something quite different — which there is no difficulty in determining.


Noam Chomsky