Room for a view?

Antony Loewenstein

Truly free societies are defined by the limitations placed on free speech. What is permissible or illegal often determines the way we view subversive, extreme or outrageous opinions. The US is the most open nation on earth. Other countries are not so tolerant.

Disgraced historian David Irving languishes in an Austrian prison for denying the severity of the Jewish Holocaust. It is illegal in Austria to minimise the crimes of the Third Reich and Irving once claimed the gas chambers never existed in the Nazi death camps. (He now claims to have recanted this egregious position.)

Leading Jewish American historian Deborah Lipstadt -- who won a court case against Irving in 2000 after she accused him of Holocaust denial -- argues that Irving should not be in jail. "I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech," she says. "Let him go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens."

Australian philosopher Peter Singer agrees. "How is the case of truth served by prohibiting Holocaust denial?" he writes. It is vital, he argues, that evidence and argument be marshalled to at least try to persuade doubters of the Holocaust (or any other historical anomaly).

In Australia, Irving has been banned from entering the country since 1993, when the Keating government blocked his entry (since confirmed many times during the Howard years). The Zionist lobby was keen to ban Irving - "a neo-Nazi hipster", according to the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council in 1996 - principally because, in its view, Irving's ideas might create doubt in the minds of Australians about the calamity of the Holocaust. He was therefore too dangerous to speak here. Irving's views may be repugnant, but a ban only gives him the status of a martyr. He is not restricted in the US and is barely known there.

There is an unfortunate tendency by the Zionist lobby in many countries to try to restrict robust debate on matters related to Israel, Judaism and the Holocaust. The strong implication is that our secular society isn't mature enough to withstand opinions some may find offensive or false. Alternative viewpoints and narratives should exist in a democracy, though when it comes to the Middle East, Arab or Palestinian perspectives are rarely offered the same column space or air time given to Israeli or Western sources. The present conflict should ensure we hear equally from Hezbollah, Hamas and Israel.