Copies of the "Protocols," passed from hand to hand, helped stir up anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia in 1905, and the book's thesis played a major role in the intellectual development of Adolf Hitler and the design of his genocidal campaign against the Jews. With the train of hatred and violence it carries, it may come as a surprise to some (though not, alas, to most Jews) that the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" have emerged resurgent in recent years, showing up everywhere from Egypt to Manhattan, and treated by many as a legitimate historical document.
Two recent works have sought to explore the ugly history of the "Protocols," one with an eye to the past, and one looking to the present. The graphic artist Will Eisner, who passed away in January, completed his last book just before his death: "The Plot," an illustrated history of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." A new documentary by filmmaker Marc Levin ("Slam"), "Protocols of Zion," documents the text's strange re-emergence, journeying deep into the heart of contemporary world conspiracy theorizing to find the "Protocols" seemingly lurking everywhere.
The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" began life as a forgery by the Russian czar's secret police, intended to serve as an all-purpose slander against hated Jewry. It sought to convince the Russian citizenry of the Jews' nefariousness, and the ill will they bore the Gentile world at large, and in that task, it was monumentally successful. The "Protocols" were so triumphant, in fact, that they spilled over their intended audience and into the world at large. Henry Ford, the notorious Jew-hater, published them verbatim in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent. Even after the Holocaust, traffic in the "Protocols" continued unabated, with fringe figures like American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell preaching its message of hate.
Eisner's book, meticulously researched, begins in the 1850s, when a French writer named Maurice Joly wrote a diatribe against Napoleon III thinly disguised as a dialogue between the political philosophers Machiavelli and Montesquieu. That book made only the smallest of splashes, but some 40 years later, when the Russian secret police hired a writer named Mathieu Golovinski to create a false document detailing the Jews' perfidy in order to yank Czar Nicholas II from his liberalizing tendencies, he turned to "The Dialogue of Machiavelli and Montesquieu" for inspiration, lifting large chunks of Joly's work wholesale. In Eisner's telling, the "Protocols" are like a hydra-headed snake, continually beheaded by scholars and debunkers, only to find new life among a new generation of Jew-haters and conspiracy theorists.
Levin's film begins in the aftermath of September 11, when unfounded rumors spread about the alleged 4,000 Jewish workers at the World Trade Center who had received word to stay home from work that day. Jumbled together with talk of a Mossad conspiracy to destroy the Twin Towers, the pseudo-history of the "Protocols" found a new home in post-9/11 conspiracy-mongers. Manhattan street vendors began carrying the book, and certain fringe elements found solace in their vision of a world secretly run by a Jewish mafia.
In Paterson, N.J., where stores bear names like "Palestine" and "Aqsa," the publisher of the local paper the Arab Voice came under fire for publishing the "Protocols" in his newspaper. He did it, he said, "to educate the people." Levin is both director and interrogator here, pacing the screen with a hip-hop MC's nervous energy, waving his arms around by way of gesticulation, and speaking to his interviewees like he was spitting lyrics onstage, and what he finds is profoundly disturbing. In the confused minds of poorly educated, angry men, no matter what their agenda or racial background, anti-Semitism becomes a healing balm, and the "Protocols" a spark of truth in a world that appears to them to be a constant whitewash.
America, of course, is not the only place where the "Protocols" have found new life. Egyptian television broadcast a miniseries based on the "Protocols" called "A Knight Without a Horse." It aired during the month of Ramadan (the Muslim television world's equivalent of sweeps week) in 2002. This 41-part series sought to portray the 20th century history of the Arab world as affected (and derailed) by the machinations of the Jews, seen here as demonic hook-noses in Chasidic garb, meeting in candlelit chambers to plan Egypt's destruction. Aside from its obvious inaccuracies (Benjamin Franklin is referred to as a former president of the United States, and Israeli leaders look like Polish yeshiva students), "A Knight" is a profoundly disturbing web of lies, partial truths, and truths spun together, so that history and racist fantasy grow tangled and inseparable.
The anti-Semitic canard of the "Protocols," as Levin astutely points out, is merely a modern replacement for the ancient slur against the Jews: namely, their role in the death of Jesus. Whether in medieval Europe, turn-of-the-century Russia, or modern Egypt, anti-Jewish thought always revolves around the scapegoating of Jews for the crimes of others, or merely for the world's imperfections and inequities. The "Protocols" are merely the latest incarnation of nearly two millennia of anti-Semitic hostility, but in their historical ubiquitousness they serve as proof that some forms of hatred simply cannot be debunked. They provide answers in a world where anger spills over unchecked, where the answers provided by politics and religion are not up to the task of accounting for the world's injustices.
Jewish history is rife with the lies told about their nefarious practices, from Christ-killing to blood libel to secret global domination. The Protocols are not the problem; they are merely its expression, and Eisner and Levin both adopt a mournful tone when it comes to discussion of its eradication, because this malevolent weed simply will not die.