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Ask A Jew: Is it worth arguing with a Holocaust denier?

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By Neal Schindler

Is it worth arguing with a Holocaust denier?

A conversation I had recently raised a question that seems very relevant to our politically polarized, extremism-plagued times: Under what circumstances is arguing with a Holocaust denier a lost cause? Or is it always worthwhile, even if it ultimately doesn’t change the person’s mind?

When I posted this question in a Facebook status update, the responses I got varied widely. I’ll include several of them here:

  • “I would think (hope) that testimonies from allied soldiers that liberated the camps should be pretty convincing. Also, I do know ‘reformed’ holocaust deniers, so there is at least sometimes hope.”
  • “I think it is always worth the effort to attempt to plant a seed of doubt. One never knows when it will bear fruit.”
  • “Always good to ask people how they came to believe what they believe and what would change their opinion.”
  • “I would also ask them what led them to that conclusion. A lot of strongly held beliefs come from personal experience and if you address those first (often with empathy) then they might be more willing to listen to hard data. I would also look up ex-Holocaust deniers to see what convinced them and refer the person to that resource. It might help to have someone who could be sympathetic with their worldview telling them how they reformed themselves.”
  • “Holocaust deniers are tunnel-visioned. Anything but their own ‘sources’ (we read: fake facts) satisfy them. They deny the truth of any and all sources — Jewish and non-Jewish — that prove that the Holocaust was, indeed, real. … I’ll add this: talking to a rabid Holocaust denier would raise my blood pressure sufficiently to stop pretty quickly. It is nothing short of disgusting, despicable, outrageous, etc., to hear these people’s claims.”
  • “Holocaust deniers are nuts — no way to reach them. I’m sorry to sound so absolute, but it’s like flat-earth folks and Sandy Hook massacre deniers, there is no reasoning with folks who are brainwashed.”
  • “Asking them what would it take to prove it existed and in the way most think it happened. Because some people believe that there were no gaming or extermination or cruel experiments, ‘just’ that people lived too close and infected each other to death with diseases. If they can’t say a film, a [firsthand] account, a news film clip or anything would prove it to them, they are a [lost] cause.”
  • “Try offering said person a history book. Most of them have both narrative and pictures of that period of time that includes the Holocaust. If that isn’t good enough, give up.”
  • “I think arguing on Facebook is a lost cause a lot of the time — but it really depends. … Say we’re both volunteering at an animal shelter. We know each other for a few months and we like each other, and eventually, you find out I think politically opposite as you on almost all the things. We might then be able to talk because we have something else in common besides those political talking points. I think building those relationships up is the key to making these discussions not a lost cause.”

One of the commenters recommended Megan Phelps-Roper’s excellent TED Talk about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church and eventually finding her way out. I recommend it as well, since it provides remarkable insight into the psychology of someone raised on hate and what it takes for such a person to unlearn it.

The answers my question received break down pretty evenly between optimism and pessimism. Personally, I don’t feel especially optimistic about arguing with a Holocaust denier. Once you’re struggling to convince someone who the gas chambers were a real thing, on some level you’ve probably already lost.

On the other hand, as long as you feel safe confronting a Holocaust denier, I imagine there isn’t much harm in pushing back. As several people noted in the comment thread, it may be unwise for a Jew to engage in such a confrontation, as Holocaust denial can be very upsetting to deal with, and maybe even traumatic for someone who has close ties to the Holocaust (as I do — my grandmother was in a labor camp, and she lost several family members in camps).

Phelps-Roper’s talk provides a compelling example of the principle one commenter described in the thread: “building those relationships up is the key to making these discussions not a lost cause.” Phelps-Roper found someone who didn’t give up on her simply because she had been raised to hate, and that person’s nonjudgmental curiosity about her eventually awakened her own curiosity about worldviews other than her own. That said, it may take some distance from the subject, paired with exceptional patience, to work effectively at helping Holocaust deniers unlearn their false and harmful beliefs.

Neal Schindler
Neal Schindler
A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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