James Libson on Denial: 'I thought we’d beaten hate — I was wrong'

James Libson was part of the legal team that acted for Deborah Lipstadt when David Irving sued her for libel. As a film about the case is released he is shocked by some responses.


This month sees the UK release of Denial, a film based on Professor Deborah Lipstadt's book about the libel case brought against her in London by the Holocaust denier, David Irving, which came to trial in 2000.  I was one of Deborah's lawyers, and 2000 feels longer ago than 17 years.  A world pre 9/11, pre the ubiquity of social media and, for Jews, pre the emergence of much-debated new forms of antisemitism. 

I was a youngish lawyer, nine years into my career and I knew, even then, that the case was one of the most exciting and important I would be involved in. We won, convincingly.

Irving had sued Deborah because she had called him — correctly — a Holocaust denier in her book on the subject Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

He was a Holocaust denier, the judge said, because he did what Holocaust deniers do, which is to lie about the facts to diminish the crimes — in Irving’s case so as to exculpate Hitler and Nazism. And Irving, like other Holocaust deniers, accused the Jews of inventing the Holocaust to achieve all sorts of things, including the creation of the state of Israel and maintaining, by owning the historical narrative, their control over other nations, the media etc.

All of this was familiar territory to me and many other activists of the time. Irving was well known to anyone involved in student politics or Jewish causes.

I had read Deborah’s book before the case started and had had another encounter with Irving in a separate piece of litigation. We knew where we stood with him. He came out of a recognisable school of right-wing antisemitism. Adulated by right-wing parties in Europe; aligned with David Duke in the US; and borrowing tropes well known to students of antisemitism, Irving was almost a parody of an antisemite.

We set out to show that he was a liar; how he lied; and that his lies had political purpose. And that was, I thought, job done. Obviously not job done on antisemitism or even Holocaust denial, which is rampant in the Arab world. But job done on a small byway of antisemitism: Holocaust denial given the veneer of respectability by bogus historical argument coming out of the traditions of western, right-wing extremism.

So we moved on. And, in that sense, the case was no different from any other. Litigators form intense relationships with their clients for short periods of time. We speak every day.

We become expert in arcane subjects that are our clients’ lives, businesses or passions. Extruded plastics, 1950s Ferraris, even the tensile strength of prophylactics have all become my obsession. But as soon as the next case begins, we are on to the next subject.

Deborah’s case was no different in that respect. There were books and talks, reminiscences of a singular team experience and the great pleasure of remaining Deborah’s friend, but the case was over. David Hare had been commissioned to write a film script based on Deborah’s terrific book but, other than the occasional tongue-in-cheek “who’s going to play me” conversation, I did not think it would ever be made. And that seemed to me to be fair enough. What else was left to say?

So, when I heard the movie was going to be made, I was somewhat ambivalent. Of course, most of the ambivalence evaporated when I learned who had been cast to play me. Jack Lowden, who recently played Nikolay Rostov in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace is one of the most handsome, up-and- coming stars of his generation.

And he’s thin. Attending the shoot and watching Jack play me in our offices recreated, with incredible accuracy, to their 1998 state, was a time-travel moment. It was strange in a way I did not expect. It was like a false memory.

I was watching something I knew to be a fictionalised version of my own life but the surroundings made it feel like a documentary. Six months later, I watched a cut of the actual movie with some trepidation. First, of course, was a concern — to put it mildly — about how I would be played. The nerdy, junior lawyer? The key strategist with the light-bulb moment that wins the case? The dashing young romantic lead? (Answer: much closer to the first option).

Self-obsessing meant that it took a while for me to be able to focus on the rest of the film. It felt very faithful to the case. I watched it with the three leading lawyers: my colleague Anthony Julius; Richard Rampton QC; and his “junior” Heather Rogers.

It was like a reunion and unexpectedly stirred our emotions. The four of us emerged moved and with a renewed sense of the case’s place in our professional lives. It wasn’t just another case — even though each of us has been involved in equally newsworthy cases and many of greater legal complexity.

And then the trailer came out. You can watch it on YouTube. You will get a good sense of the film’s dramatic tone. It was only through the skill of my son’s screen-shotting that I can confirm that I do indeed make a half second appearance at 1:45. But then read down to the comments. Over 4,000 of them when I last checked. I have not read them all, but every one I have looked at could be taken straight from the David Irving phrase book. “20 trillion Jews died to bring us the documentary”. “Jews make holohoax movies more often than other folks make breakfast in the morning. I foresee this one winning six million Academy awards”. And so on.

Social media has allowed what I thought we had left behind to flourish: old fashioned, western-style, right-wing antisemitism for which a principal feeder is Holocaust denial. I don’t know if 4,000 comments is significant, but other sites hosting the trailer were similar. Maybe, having been immersed in the subject for so many years during the case, I developed a tin ear for Holocaust denial, but I was really shocked reading the comments.

The case was about historical truth. What is the objective truth about the Holocaust that allowed Deborah to say she was correct in saying Irving’s version was denial? The boil I thought we had lanced had become infected and, as Deborah calls it, remains a clear and present danger. And the infection is fed by the current trends of relativism, demonising of expertise and prevalent conspiracy theorising. All of which have also contributed to a monumental outpouring of abuse and hatred against Gina Miller whom I have the privilege of representing in her case concerning the manner in which Article 50 is triggered. The parallels are striking — a strong woman client provoking intense scrutiny and vile misogyny and racism.

This time, 2016 style, where the internet, social media and our fractious politics have amplified the hate several decibels louder than it was in 2000.

Deborah likes to compare deniers to flat-earthers. At the moment, we need neither a legal case nor a film to prove the earth is round. But as the dangerous term “post-truth” takes hold and Donald Trump starts to build a coalition that is admired by David Duke containing fellow travellers of deniers, the film’s strident defence of truth has led me to re-assess the case’s significance today. The trolls won’t be persuaded but Denial is of more value today than it would have been in 2000 and is a fitting record of Deborah’s brave decision to fight an evil that has not abated. And look out for the thin, nerdy lawyer.


James Libson is an executive partner at Mishcon de Reya and was formerly chairman of World Jewish Relief.


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