Bowing to intense pressure, the Australian government has banned British historian David Irving from the country.
In a February 10 letter, the best-selling historian was informed of the decision by Immigration Minister Gerry Hand to deny him a visa to visit the country for a lecture and promotional tour that was to begin March 17. The pretext given by Hand for barring Irving is that he is “likely to become involved in activities disruptive to, or violence threatening harm to, the Australian community or a group within the Australian community.”
This government action, which has received enormous media attention in the island nation, is part of a growing international effort to silence Irving and all others who reject the orthodox Holocaust story. (Because of his dissident views on the Holocaust, Irving was deported from Canada in November, and in January a German court fined him $18,000 for telling an audience that the “gas chamber” shown to tourists at Auschwitz is a postwar reconstruction. For more on this ominous campaign, see the January-February 1993 Journal.)
Australia's Zionist and Jewish community organizations — which have expressed anger over the British historian's dissident views of the Holocaust story — predictably applauded the ban. To permit Irving into the country, claimed The Australian Jewish News, would be “against the national interest.” (Editorial, Feb. 19)
On the other hand, the country's leading daily newspapers and civil rights organizations have sharply criticized the ban as an unnecessary and dangerous assault against free speech.
With candor that is all but unthinkable in the United States, Canada and western Europe, Australia's leading newspapers identified pressure from Jewish organizations as the critical factor behind the government ban. The country's most influential papers also forthrightly condemned the campaign by Jewish groups to impose their views on the rest of society.
Typical is the view of The Age, one of Australia's most influential papers. The Melbourne daily editorially denounced the ban as “neither courageous nor right” (Feb. 13), and went on to explain the political factors behind the action:
The government was under strong pressure from the Jewish community to exclude him, but the reasons given by the Minister for Immigration, Mr. Hand, fall short of a convincing justification. It appears that the government calculated that — especially with an election pending — it would be politically safer to placate an influential lobby group, and others who find Mr. Irving's view obnoxious, than to uphold the principle of free speech and travel for a highly provocative polemicist.
Another prominent Australian daily, The Sydney Morning Herald, expressed a similar editorial view (Feb. 16):
The Zionist Federation of Australia and the Council of Australian Jewry last year opposed the entry of Mr. Irving into Australia because of his views on the Holocaust. The federal government has now bowed to this pressure from Jewish community groups. Re-election considerations, rather than the maintenance of a vibrant and healthy concern for free speech in Australia, have — unfortunately — won the day … The ban on Mr. Irving should be lifted.
The Adelaide Advertiser called the ban “an assault on free speech.” (Editorial, Feb. 17). While dismissing Irving's views on the Holocaust issue as “outlandish,” the paper forthrightly affirmed:
… In succumbing to pressure from The Zionist Federation of Australia and the Council of Australian Jewry, the government (and the [political] opposition) risk appearing as bigoted as the man it apparently thinks we should all fear too much to allow into our midst.
There is little substance to claims that Mr. Irving presents a public danger, or is likely to incite violence. And the law is well equipped to deal with such eventualities. He has not done so in previous visits to Australia.
In a country that thrives on freedom, it is intolerable to have censorious politicians abrogating on our behalf one of our most basic tenets of democracy.
The Australian similarly termed the Irving ban “an ill-conceived exercise in censorship.” (Editorial, Feb. 15). The Sydney-based national daily went on:
It would be unwise for a government to deny entry to a person receiving implied threats of violence rather than seek to prevent those making the threats from succeeding in an attempt to muzzle views they oppose.
… Only the naive observer would accept the government's stated reason for not granting Mr. Irving a visa. It is his views that are considered unacceptable, not the likelihood of their public expression being the occasion of violence.
Restraints on open debate, in the long run, are not in the best interests even of a societal minority such as the Jewish community, however understandable its sensitivity about the Holocaust, and the persistence of its horror in living memory, may be.
After declaring that the ban against Irving “must be reversed,” the Melbourne Herald-Sun (Editorial, Feb. 16) went on to explain:
The ban makes a nonsense of the government's censorious hectoring of other countries for their denial of human rights, including the right of free speech… If the Australian government had not bowed to pressure from the understandably sensitive Jewish community, few Australians would have noticed Irving's coming and going.
An emeritus professor at Australia's La Trobe University, J.S. Gregory, eloquently denounced the ban against Irving. (The Age, Feb. 17). The former history professor wrote:
Now that Salman Rushdie is venturing out into the world again and giving the occasional lecture, would Mr. Hand be prepared to ban him from entering Australia, should he express an interest in doing so, and should some pressure group, different from that active in the Irving case, argue that any lecture by him could provoke community disturbances?
Just for what sensitive issues, for which pressure groups, is Mr. Hand prepared to abandon the liberal principle, basic to our democratic system, that any minority opinion, however extreme, may be freely expressed in our open society unless it actively advocates violence and civil disorder?
Unless Mr. Hand can prove that this is Mr. Irving's intent, he should revoke his obnoxious ruling and help defend, not subvert, this honorable and civilized principle. This current ruling fits such governments as that of post-Tiananmen China, and too many others, but not Australia's — whichever party wins the coming elections.
The Australian Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has offered legal help to overturn the ban. “There is no valid reason to refuse him [Irving] entry into the country, and I think he will win a High Court appeal,” said ACLU president John Bennett, who is a member of this Journal's Editorial Advisory Committee. (Herald-Sun, Feb. 15.)
In an op-ed opinion piece in the Herald-Sun (Feb. 17), Bennett went on to explain:
The main argument to exclude David Irving is that his presence may have been disruptive. I have chaired two meetings for Mr. Irving, in 1986 and 1987, during his lecture tour. His meetings were well publicized and well attended, with not one interjection, and neither being disruptive by inciting violence or racial tension.
Mr. Irving says the explanation of the Jewish Holocaust is exaggerated, and I think his view should be capable of public discussion and to be treated fairly.
As a result of the ban, Irving and his Holocaust views have, ironically, become better known than ever in Australia. The enemies of free speech seemingly did not reckon with the staunch stand of Australia's major daily papers, or with modern communications. Because of the ban — and in defiance of it — Irving appeared, for example, by satellite hook-up as a guest for 20 minutes on a prime-time Australia television program, February 16.
Reflecting on the furor over the ban, Isi Leibler, President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), complained (in the pages of The Australian Jewish News, March 19) that “the public debate centered on the `powerful Jewish lobby' and what was presented as its denial of freedom of expression …”
He went on to revealingly admit: “… the ECAJ accepts that one lesson the Irving episode demonstrates is that it can be sometimes be counter-productive for Jewish organizations publicly to express satisfaction when the government responds positively to our concerns.” In such cases, Leibler suggests, Jewish groups should act silently and conceal their role.
Declaring that “the battle for freedom of speech is just beginning,” Irving himself remains defiant and confident of ultimate victory. “I don't intend to be beaten. I'm a fighter.” He says:
Free speech is becoming a rarity around the world, and it is being restricted to those with politically correct views. I'm not politically correct. I express views based on information I've dug out of archives. I may be wrong, but freedom of speech means the right to be wrong. If I'm telling lies or half-truths, why don't they let me come to Australia and expose me?
By this restriction of the freedom of speech in Australia, and of the rights of Australians to hear me, my opponents will regrettably achieve precisely the result they wished to avoid — namely an increase in anti-Semitic feelings among ordinary Australian citizens.
Encouraged by the strong press support for his right to speak in Australia, the British historian is optimistic about winning a High Court appeal because, as he puts it, the government “has no case.”
-- M. W.
From The Journal of Historical Review, May/June 1993 (Vol. 13, No. 3), page 13.