A cartoonist and a moviemaker take on the most infamous propaganda creation in the long history of anti-Semitism.
The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
By Will Eisner
New York: W.W. Norton, 2005, $19.95 (hardback)
"Protocols of Zion"
By Marc Levin
Thinkfilm, 2005, 93 Minutes
In the last few years, the increase in anti-Semitism around the world has become indisputable. Violence against Jews is up around the Western hemisphere. Synagogues in France, California and many other places have been burned. Neo-Nazi movements have sprung up not only in formerly fascist countries like Germany and Austria but also in well-mannered social democracies like Sweden and Norway. Television and newspapers in many Muslim countries spout vitriolic attacks on Jews. In one remarkable speech, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told leaders of 57 Muslim nations in 2003 that Jews "rule the world by proxy," invented communism and democracy as part of a plot, and are a dangerous "world power."
Among American Jews, this resurgence has provoked a variety of reactions. As long ago as 1994, Emory University scholar Deborah Lipstadt published a book that took on leading Holocaust deniers -- a book she resented writing because she could hardly believe Nazi Germany's murder of millions of Jews was a disputed fact. Lipstadt was sued for libel by denier David Irving in a London court, but won a dramatic victory. Even that, however, did not slow spreading anti-Semitism.
Now come two American Jews who are not scholars, but artists, men who apparently each felt they had to react to the noxious poison. In highly individual ways, each man uses his craft to take on the myth that has fueled anti-Semitism more than any other for 100 years -- The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book purporting to be a verbatim record of Jewish leaders plotting to take over the world.
In a work completed in the last month of his life, cartoonist Will Eisner, famed as "the father of graphic novels," attempts to untangle the extremely complex story of the Protocols. Initially published in Russia in the first few years of the 20th century, the Protocols (of which there are a great many versions) is a fictitious account of a Jewish plot to conquer the world. It claims to quote secret speeches given by an anonymous Jewish leader at 24 meetings of the so-called Elders of Zion. The basic idea is that the Jews, using Masonic lodges, the power of gold, subversion of public opinion and morals, and the ideologies of both capitalism and communism, are engaged in a centuries-old plot to destroy Christianity.
Eisner's graphic novel attempts to tell the story of how the Protocols was actually written, a story that is largely known but to which certain new revelations have recently been added. In 1921, a British journalist established that the Protocols was largely plagiarized from an 1864 political satire by Maurice Joly aimed at French dictator Napoleon III from a liberal point of view. Joly's book, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, never mentioned Jews at all. Joly himself also plagiarized from popular fiction of his day to enliven his own book.
Ultimately, it seems clear that Russian tsarist secret police in France put together these strands and others to create the first version of the Protocols. A Russian forger, Mathieu Golovinski, apparently had a prominent hand in the creation, a recent finding that is heavily emphasized by Eisner. Golovinski may have been responsible for adding the venue of the Protocols -- a Jewish graveyard where the Elders of Zion are described as holding their conspiratorial meetings.
The story Eisner tells, which ends with the seemingly irrepressible Protocols resurfacing repeatedly in the contemporary world, is Byzantine in its complexity and occasionally makes educated guesses about matters that cannot be known. It can be a fascinating tale, but it more than once suffers from the blizzard of exhaustive and confusing detail that Eisner felt compelled to include. One example is the 17 pages of side-by-side comparisons of the texts of the Protocols and Joly's book.
Marc Levin's documentary film is not directly centered on the Protocols, but it keeps circling back to what is undeniably one of the most important documents in the long history of anti-Semitism. The film begins at the site of the World Trade Center destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, where black street activists are angrily telling passersby that Jews were secretly warned away from the buildings. (This false theory, including the assertion that 4,000 Jews would have died had they not been warned, is immensely popular both abroad and, in America, among many black extremists.) Levin, who with his father is an on-air presence in the film, follows the threads of that conspiracy theory and others that inevitably lead back to the Protocols. In fact, some of the most compelling footage -- clips that are scattered throughout the film -- comes from "Knight Without a Horse," a lurid, 30-part series based on the Protocols that was aired on Egyptian television in 2002.
Levin's film is a highly eccentric, personal exploration of almost every theme imaginable connected to anti-Semitism. Levin talks about his own family, the history of American anti-Semitism, the role of Hitler and the Nazis, Muslim hatred of Jews, Arab communities in the United States. He visits with prominent American neo-Nazis, including an amusing sequence with Shaun Walker, the current leader of the National Alliance (Walker looks as if he's about to have a seizure when Levin suggests to him that Hitler may have had some Jewish ancestry). He talks to black and white inmates of a maximum-security prison in New Jersey, discusses the slave trade (falsely said by black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam to have been dominated by Jews), and interviews his dad about Catholic anti-Semitism. Experts are consulted and Palestine is visited. The beheading of Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is discussed. It all ends with Levin and his father together at a cemetery looking at a relative's headstone: "God Means, Go Do Good."
Like Eisner's book, Levin's film is sometimes a bit difficult to follow. Undoubtedly, it is too ambitious in its attempt to cover virtually all themes related to modern anti-Semitism. But its central message, like that of the book, is undeniable: Anti-Semitism is on the rise and must be combated directly. As Eisner wrote in the introduction to his book: "[T]here is now an opportunity to deal head-on with this propaganda in a more accessible language. It is my hope that, perhaps, this work will drive yet another nail into the coffin of this terrifying, vampire-like fraud."