Sunday, July 22, 2007

Holocaust 'revisionism' in Ventura County

From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

The way Jews in the Conejo Valley describe it, Joseph Goebbels would be proud of the propaganda proffered as academic discourse at the Goebel Senior Adult Center last month. That's when John Bravos, a commissioner of the publicly funded facility, focused a lecture in his comparative religion series on the Holocaust. The first question asked by a flier for the event was: "Did it happen?"

When about a dozen seniors showed up, Bravos began by talking about deniers who use the phrase "so-called Holocaust," comparing the atrocities of World War II to other genocides and saying that far fewer Jews were murdered by the Nazis than historians have long believed.

"I was devastated and irate and just very insulted and offended," said Honey Bencomo, a 67-year-old Jewish woman from Agoura Hills who attended the lecture with her husband, who is Catholic. "He was talking about something that is a very significant part of Jewish history and was saying it didn't happen."

Word of the June 19 lecture spread slowly through the Jewish community of eastern Ventura County at first, and then gathered momentum last week after Thousand Oaks resident Dina Adler heard what happened and notified local and national Jewish organizations. On Friday night, Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, a shul where Bravos once lectured on being involved in counter-intelligence during World War II, noted from the pulpit that some contradictory information regarding the lecture was swirling around.

Many Jews already have branded Bravos, a veteran of the Allied Forces, with the distinctions of being a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite.

"To live long enough to see your family's suffering and martyrdom spat upon to your face, it is really something that -- I mean, we can talk about it, but I don't think we can understand how painful that really is," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But what's unclear is whether a sincere but ill-prepared teacher found his words taken out of context by what one attendee called "a lynching mob," until -- thanks to e-mail blasts and a furious game of telephone -- one awkward lecture became a cause celebre.

In a phone interview, Bravos, who said he worked as a Nazi-hunting spy after the war, said he has long been a friend of Israel and of the Jewish people.

"This is just like the McCarthy era," the 81-year-old retired social anthropologist said, "where people call you a name and tarnish you with mud for the rest of your life."

Some of Bravos' Jewish friends -- like Rhoda Vestuto, whose Hungarian parents lost much of their family in the Shoah -- have come to his defense.

"I hadn't talked to him in a long time, and I called him because I was so upset with peoples' self-righteous indignation. There is no way he was calling the Holocaust imaginary, that it didn't happen," said Vestuto, 78, of Thousand Oaks. "He is not an anti-Semite."

The Conejo Recreation and Park District, which runs the Goebel center, is now scrambling to figure out what happened. The district launched an investigation to learn exactly what Bravos said, and to determine who approved it beforehand.

At a specially called public meeting Tuesday, recreational supervisor Steve Wiley apologized for the lecture and, more specifically, the incendiary flier that asked whether the Holocaust happened, if it constituted "ethnic cleansing or mass-murder" and what its "moral dilemmas" were.

"The first question -- did it happen? -- is the one I need to apologize for. We all know that it happened," Wiley said at the contentious meeting, which was attending by more than 200 people, including representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the Wiesenthal Center and local synagogues.

"That was a question intended to spur interest. It wasn't intended to deny that the Holocaust happened. ... I don't think there was any malice intended on the instructor's part," Wiley said.

What is known is that Bravos has volunteered for years at the Goebel Center and throughout the Conejo Valley and this spring was leading a series called "comparative religion." The first lecture focused on the origin of deistic worship. Discussing Islam dominated the second and third classes, and then Bravos was asked to dedicate the fourth session to the Holocaust.

"So I created a flier, that said, 'The Holocaust, did it happen? How many people died? Who did it?'" he said. "I wanted to get some of these naysayers to come into the class, so I put this on the flier, because I don't think we can ever talk enough about the Holocaust. It is 60 years old, but it's still a horrific event."

Bravos began the meeting by talking about deniers and then read a definition of the word "holocaust" and asked why Jews used that term when others had suffered, as well. Discussion was limited and a few in attendance left shortly after the lecture began.

Regardless of whether Bravos is a sincere philo-Semite who is sorely misinformed or a veiled Jew hater, the scope and highlights of his lecture bear a resemblance to tactics used by Holocaust deniers, particularly saying that atrocities did occur, but that they weren't as bad as succeeding generations were told.

Holocaust deniers, who prefer to be called "revisionists," play the part of truth-seekers, pseudo-academics on a quest to uncover the fallacies of history. But revisionism has become an important and powerful tool for anti-Semitism.

Bravos didn't claim Jews weren't killed during World War II. But he insisted that a major statistic historians agree upon -- that the Nazis exterminated about 6 million Jews -- has been proven wrong by recent research, information he said he found through a Google search.

"For 60 years, we knew those numbers; now new numbers are out," he said. "Based on the information I read, they said 3.5 million were killed in the Holocaust, which is still horrible."

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