Again With the 'Jewish Conspiracy'

Editor's Note: This story was originally posted in The Mix.

Sometime in the late-18th century, a cabal of powerful Jewish elders sat around a table and hatched a plot to take over the world. If you get that, you get the gist of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. All the rest, as the rabbis say, is commentary.

Shortly after 9/11, a young Egyptian cabdriver assured filmmaker Marc Levin that no Jews had perished in the World Trade Center because, he explained, all the Jews had been "warned in advance." It's all in that book, the driver told him, written 100 years ago. No matter that "the book" has been debunked a half a dozen times since the Times of London first exposed it as a forgery in 1921.

Levin was surprised by the stubborn prevalence of the 9/11 rumor and alarmed by the penetration of the discredited Protocols, so he set out to explore the history and the current status of its fictions. In a personal, sometimes courageous, but ultimately sloppy journey, his film "Protocols of Zion" engages Arabs, Muslims, Jews, white supremacists and scholars on the Protocols, Israel and 9/11 in an attempt, apparently, to understand the lure of the book's message. The film premieres Tuesday, April 11 on Cinemax.

The Protocols were fabricated by order of the Russian czar in the early years of the 19th century in a classic attempt to rustle up a scapegoat as he began to fear that a revolution was fomenting. Ironically, once the revolution did take place a century later, the Jewish plot once contrived to divert revolutionary energy was subsequently blamed for it. Later, as the communist regime took an ugly turn, Jews would once again make convenient scapegoats and were persecuted accordingly.

The book reached the shores of America when Henry Ford began giving away free copies to anyone who purchased his anti-Semitic classic, The International Jew.

To Levin's credit he walks into some harrowing situations neither faltering nor, for the most part, judging his subjects. In front of a bookseller on 6th Avenue who sheepishly admits that the book has been very popular of late, Levin confronts a black man ranting about the Jewish ownership of the city of New York. The man points to the mayor, Bloooomberg, he says, to achieve maximum Jewification of the name.

When Levin responds that Giuliani was mayor for eight years before Bloomberg, the man stops and thinks for a minute before enunciating, with equal fervor, the previous mayor's name: Jewwwwww-liani.

"Jewliani?" replies Levin, "Listen to what you're saying!"

But you needn't go to the street to find a copy. Until September 2004 the Protocols were available at Wal-Mart (whose review of the book -- We neither support nor deny its message. We simply make it available for those who wish a copy -- was more open-minded than its employee benefits policies). Levin also finds copies on the internet and at a white supremacist compound (though they're sold out during his visit).

Interwoven with Levin's conversations with Protocols proponents are clips from an old audio production depicting Jews as subterranean power players hatching nefarious plots to rule the world, and scenes from a TV miniseries. One scene reenacts the ritualistic murder of a screaming Christian child whose blood has been rumored, over the centuries, to be a key ingredient in the preparation of Passover matzoth.

The most interesting moments in the film come when Levin explores the reasons why a person or a group of people might be attracted to the pernicious lies served up by the Protocols.

Author Doug Rushkoff's take is that the Protocols believers have it partly right; Jews are a "corrosive force." He writes:
"[T]he thing that makes Judaism dangerous to everybody, to every race, to every nation, to every idea; is that we smash things that aren't true. We don't believe in the boundaries of the nation-state, we don't believe in the ideas of these individual gods that protect individual groups of people, these are all artificial constructions and Judaism really teaches us how to see that."
While that's the Judaism I believe in, and while I suspect there's some validity to this explanation, it strikes me as just a bit too glossy to provide the whole story. The elephant in the room is Israel, a topic Levin eventually gets to, just but not extensively enough, in my opinion.

At a parade he gives the mic to a young right-wing Jew who says of the Arab/Muslim world:
"From the minute they're born and they can talk, they're brainwashed to hate Jews, to hate Christians, to hate America, to hate hate hate. Now if you want peace with people like that who are programmed -- that's insanity, that's suicide … you wanna embrace these people and treat them with all this peace and love, your head's gonna be rolllin'… rollin' in the street … rollin' on the internet for all to watch. That's what's gonna happen to all these peace lovers that they think that peace is the answer. Peace is great in a perfect world, but these people don't want peace."
Another says: "Yeah, I'll criticize Israel; they're not right-wing enough."

It begins to play out like a microcosm of the Israel/Palestine mess, with fanatics on both sides grabbing the headlines. Hamas, now the elected representatives of the Palestinian people, has an official charter containing a reference to the Protocols:
"The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying."
A clip from an Egyptian TV program shows a 3-year-old girl, clearly coached by adults, calling Jews "apes and pigs."

At the heart of the desire to believe in the Protocols is the desire for some other to blame for our misfortunes. It's the same driving force behind any conspiracy theory; find some discrete group to blame for the world's and tragedies or an individual's own pain and desperation.

But there's another side, one seldom discussed in polite company. It's the difference between responsibility and blame. While Jews certainly aren't to blame for the despicable beliefs advanced by the Protocols, we are responsible for our actions and our attitudes. At the heart of Levin's film is a muted call for Jews -- for all of us -- to acknowledge the role we've played in increasing the Protocols' attractiveness and power.

As Levin notes: "In much of the world today because of their support for Israel, the new Jews are Americans." Just because opponents of Israel resort to anti-Semitic tracts and repugnant rhetoric to bolster their case, doesn't mean we shouldn't hold Israel to a high standard of justice. As Americans we may not be to blame for our leadership and for every pernicious rumor running about, but we most certainly are responsible for the policies enacted in our names.

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