What Does Professor Erlinder's Rwandan Imprisonment Mean for Jews?

This is a guest post by Emily Cutts.
Denial is something almost everyone will face. For most of us it won’t be a matter of prison or freedom, it will be something banal like; “I haven’t gained weight, these pants just shrunk in the wash.” For some though, denial won’t be about something minial. It will be about something big, something awful–like genocide. This is the case for a Minnesota lawyer currently in prison in Rwanda.
A Brief History
Peter Erlinder, a William Mitchell constitutional law professor, was arrested May 28 for promoting genocide ideology. As an attorney, Erlinder was known for taking unsavory cases and in 2003 he became lead attorney for one of the four main people on trial for genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
His client was convicted to life in prison for genocide but was acquitted for conspiring to committee genocide before the 1994 assassination of then President Juvénal Habyarimana. During the trial Erlinder took aim at now President Paul Kagame. In April Erlinder and two other attorneys filed suit against Kagame alleging that he was behind the genocide. Erlinder went to Rwanda to defend presidential candidate and Hutu, Victoire Ingabire, who is charged with promoting genocide ideology.
But What Does This Mean For Jews?
As a people we have been on the receiving end of an extreme amount of hatred and cruelty. Our grandparents (and for some parents) have lived through the Holocaust, and even more did not. When a person denies that such atrocities have happened it is hard to be rational and rage free.
Upon first glance this is a case when rage should bubble up and rationality would fly out the window. This could be a time to think, “good, this man should be given the full prison sentence for his crime.” But Erlinder’s case warrants a second glance. The Star Tribune reported:

“As I understand it, I don’t think he’s really denying that there was a genocide,” said William Mitchell professor emeritus Kenneth Kirwin, who has known Erlinder for decades. “I think he is more concerned with who was more at fault, or more responsible.”

This could change everything, at least for me.
When I first read the headlines I thought that he deserved what was coming to him. He knew the laws of the country and still had the nerve to enter and expect that he would no suffer consequences. But upon further research my ideas have greatly changed.
As Jews we believe in social justice and helping those in need, so we could say that what Erlinder is doing is a mitzvah. I might even go so far as to site a poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller:

“THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

If no one is willing to stand up for those who may be wrong we are all in trouble, because eventually we all will be wrong. Maybe I am making an outlandish claim trying to say that what Erlinder is doing isn’t wrong but I might not be. All the facts in the case are not yet known and what Kirwin said about Erlinder could be true.
The Big Question(s)
As Jews what do we do when some denies the Holocaust? As Jews what do we do when someone denies genocide? I can only think of one answer between the two questions and that is that we shouldn’t ignore these people’s denials. But if we don’t ignore their denials what is our next step?
Is the proper punishment 25 years in prison like Rwanda or three months to five years like in Germany? And if these are the proper punishments does this mean the person’s opinion will change in prison?
Erlinder’s case leads only to more questions than answers for me. Where do you weigh in?
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)