VIENNA, Austria — Iran’s hard-line president said Tuesday that Israel will one day be “wiped out” as the Soviet Union was, drawing applause from participants in a conference casting doubt on the Holocaust.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments were likely to further fuel the outcry prompted by the two-day gathering, which has gathered some of Europe’s and the United States’ best-known Holocaust deniers.
Anger over the conference could further isolate Iran as the West considers sanctions in the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Harsh rhetoric aimed at Israel
But Ahmadinejad appeared to revel in his meeting Tuesday with conference delegates, shaking hands with American participants and sitting near six anti-Israel Jewish participants, dressed in black ultra-Orthodox coats and hats.
“The Zionist regime will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was, and humanity will achieve freedom,” Ahmadinejad said during Tuesday’s meeting in his offices, according to the official IRNA news agency.
He called for elections among “Jews, Christians and Muslims so the population of Palestine can select their government and destiny for themselves in a democratic manner.”
Ahmadinejad has used anti-Israeli rhetoric and cast doubt on the Holocaust to rally anti-Western supporters at home and abroad, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Several times he has referred to the Holocaust as a “myth” used to impose the state of Israel on the Arab world.
“The Holocaust is the device used as the pillar of Zionist imperialism, Zionist aggression, Zionist terror and Zionist murder,” David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and former state representative in Louisiana, told The Associated Press.
Iranian leader vows ‘fact-finding commission’
Ahmadinejad announced the conference would set up a “fact-finding commission” to determine whether the Holocaust happened or not. The commission will “help end a 60-year-old dispute,” he said.
The Tehran conference was touted by participants and organizers as an exercise in academic freedom and a chance to openly consider whether 6 million Jews really died in the Holocaust, away from Western taboos and the restrictions imposed on scholars in Europe, where some countries have made it a crime to deny the Nazi genocide during World War II.
It gathered 67 writers and researchers from 30 countries, most of whom argue that either the Holocaust did not happen or that it was vastly exaggerated. Many have been jailed or fined in France, Germany or Austria, where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust.
Participants milled around a model of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought by one speaker, Australian Frederick Toben, who uses the mock-up in lectures contending that the camp was too small to kill mass numbers of Jews. More than 1 million people are estimated to have been killed there.
Jewish group attends conference
Rabbi Moshe David Weiss, one of six members attending from the group Jews United Against Zionism, told delegates, “We don’t want to deny the killing of Jews in World War II, but Zionists have given much higher figures for how many people were killed.”
“They have used the Holocaust as a device to justify their oppression,” he said. His group rejects the creation of Israel on the grounds that it violates Jewish religious law.
The gathering of Holocaust deniers touched off a firestorm of indignation Tuesday across Europe, where many countries have made it a crime to publicly disavow the Nazis’ systematic extermination of 6 million Jews.
The European Union’s top justice official condemned the conference as “an unacceptable affront” to victims of the World War II genocide. British Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced it as “shocking beyond belief” and proof of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extremism.
“I think it is such a symbol of sectarianism and hatred toward people of another religion. I find it just unbelievable, really,” Blair said in London.
In Washington, the White House condemned Iran for convening a conference it called “an affront to the entire civilized world.”
The conference drew especially sharp condemnation in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country repudiated it “with all our strength.”
“We absolutely reject this. Germany will never accept this and will act against it with all the means that we have,” Merkel told reporters. She stood alongside visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who denounced the meeting as “unacceptable” and a “danger” to the Western world.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was interrupted by applause from lawmakers when he told parliament in Paris that the conference showed a resurgence of “revisionist” theories “which are quite simply not acceptable.”
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, answering critics who contend revisionists are simply exercising their right to free speech, quoted an unidentified survivor as saying: “If the Holocaust was a myth, where is my sister?”
Free speech issues
Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, drew a sharp distinction between the conference and this year’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which triggered protests across the Islamic world.
“It’s one thing to poke fun at a faith — even Judaism. It’s a different thing to lie about history,” she said in a telephone interview. “The question is: When does hate speech become incitement? These people are haters — and haters can cause great damage.”
But Soeren Espersen of the Danish People’s Party, which staunchly defended the Muhammad cartoons, said people should have the right to speak their minds — even at a “hideous” conference like the one in Tehran.
“We believe in freedom of speech also for nut cases,” he said.
‘A slap in the face’
Frantisek Banyai, the head of Prague’s Jewish community — which was decimated during WWII from 120,000 people to just a few thousand today — decried the meeting as “aggressive, wrong and disgusting.”
“It’s immoral. It insults me and it insults each member of the Jewish community, because we lost members of our families,” he said. “It’s a slap in the face of those decent people who know the history and want to learn a lesson from it.”
EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini also condemned Ahmadinejad, who considers the Holocaust a “myth” and has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, for hosting the gathering.
“I want to state my firm condemnation of any attempt to deny, trivialize or minimize the Shoah,” Frattini said. “Anti-Semitism has no place in Europe; nor should it in any other part of the world.”
Vatican warns against indifference
The Vatican called the Holocaust an “immense tragedy” and warned the world not to react with indifference to those who challenge its existence.
“The memory of those horrible events must remain as a warning for people’s consciences,” the Holy See said.
Francois Nicoullaud, France’s ambassador to Tehran from 2001 to 2005, saw the conference as another expression of Ahmadinejad’s continuing efforts to get back to the basics of the Islamic revolution.
“He’s trying to scientifically justify the unjustifiable, in a sense,” he said.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.