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Susan Estrich: History Lessons

As the generation that witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust slowly passes away, liars and deniers gain ground.

On Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet soldiers entered the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland and liberated the 7,000 prisoners who were still there, most of them sick and dying.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich
In 2005, for the 60th anniversary of the liberation, the United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

And so it was certainly not a coincidence that the official spokesman for Iran‘s government chose Jan. 27, 2009, to make a statement denouncing the Holocaust as a “big lie” used to justify the existence of the state of Israel. “The Holocaust is a concept coming from a big lie in order to settle a rootless regime in the heart of the Islamic world,” Gholam Hossein Elham told a conference on Gaza held in central Iran’s religious city of Qom.

Iranian leaders are well known for their embrace of the real “big lie.” In 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced the Holocaust as “myth” and said that Israel was doomed to disappear. The next year, Tehran played host to a convention of liars and deniers; a mass-circulation newspaper sponsored a cartoon competition seeking the “best” cartoon mocking the deaths of millions; and only last September a student group got more attention than they deserved for a disgraceful book celebrating anti-Semitism and mocking the Holocaust.

Sixty-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the generation who witnessed the barbarism first-hand is slowly passing on, many of them, like those who were liberated, sick and dying. The danger is that with the passage of that generation, the very existence of the Holocaust becomes not a matter of historic fact, but a subject of pseudo-intellectual debate, a subject about which reasonable people can differ, and a rallying cry for the ignorant and hateful enemies of Israel. News organizations will report the comments of the likes of Gholam Hossein Elham as if they were opinions, not lies. Children will grow up believing that he might be right — or at least that he is not certainly wrong.

On Monday, the eve of the anniversary, President Obama reached out to the Muslim world, granting his first network interview as president to the Dubai-based al-Arabiya network. It was an important symbol, intended to convey to the Muslim world that “the Americans are not your enemy.” The new president said America had made mistakes in the past, but “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.”

I do not believe America is the enemy of the Muslim world. But we are, and should be, the enemy of those who would deny the slaughter of six million Jews and denounce Israel as a nation doomed to disappear. I don’t know exactly what “mistakes” the president was referring to, but supporting Israel’s right to exist and defend itself is not, at least in my book, among them.

It is right, and appropriate, to reach out to the Muslim world diplomatically. It is right, and appropriate, for the new president to reach out personally, to remind Muslims of his many relatives who share their faith and of his commitment to find common ground.

But the common ground must include recognition of the lessons of history. It must include respect for the suffering of those who died at the hands of Jew-haters. It must include support for the security of the state of Israel. January 27 is an appropriate day to remember and reaffirm that.

Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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