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When I first traveled to Israel in 1969-1970 for my junior year of college, an instructor in one of my classes brought up the topic of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I had never heard of it, but what especially rooted in my mind more than 50 years later was the ugliness of the portrayals of the Jews in the book.
The Protocols were likely written in Russia in the early 20th century. Here is one description :
[The Protocols] is a fabricated text purporting to detail a Jewish plot for global domination. Largely plagiarized from several earlier sources, it was first published in Imperial Russia in 1903, translated into multiple languages, and disseminated internationally in the early part of the 20th century. It played a key part in popularizing belief in an international Jewish conspiracy.
The accusation of “blood libel” is one term used to describe lies about the Jews. In a recent article, Alan Dershowitz describes these accusations appearing much earlier in history:
A document from the end of the 15th century features an illustration of a bearded Jew extracting the blood of a Christian child. The adjoining text explains that Jewish law requires that Passover matzoh be baked with the blood of Christian children.
Such documents were widely circulated through Europe during the Easter season and led to frequent pogroms — murder, rape, and destruction — against Jewish children, women and men in revenge for allegedly killing Christian children for their blood to make matzoh. There was never any actual evidence of such cannibalism. In fact, Jewish law explicitly prohibits the consumption of any blood or its use in cooking.
This particular blood libel has endured through the centuries. When a child from the greater community would disappear, the Jews were blamed for kidnapping and killing the child for its blood. No evidence was ever found.
Why has the book repeatedly been discredited? Daniel Pipes has explained it this way:
The book’s vagueness—almost no names, dates, or issues are specified—has been one key to this wide-ranging success. The purportedly Jewish authorship also helps to make the book more convincing. Its embrace of contradiction—that to advance, Jews use all tools available, including capitalism and communism, philo-Semitism and antisemitism, democracy and tyranny—made it possible for The Protocols to reach out to all: rich and poor, Right and Left, Christian and Muslim, American and Japanese.
Pipes notes that the Protocols emphasizes recurring themes of conspiratorial antisemitism: ‘Jews always scheme,’ ‘Jews are everywhere,’ ‘Jews are behind every institution,’ ‘Jews obey a central authority, the shadowy ‘Elders’’, and ‘Jews are close to success.’
What led to the Protocols being such an enduring document, given the number of times it’s been discredited?
One theory that makes sense to me is that the human being, who desires stability and safety, fears forces that will destroy his well-being. Those forces are alien to the ordinary person, are viewed as mysterious and secretive and have the ability to control the world. And when the unforeseen happens, people desire to seize upon something or someone who could be responsible for these frightening incidents or outcomes. Since Jews historically kept to themselves in earlier times, to preserve their faith and traditions, they were at the very least puzzling to some people, and alarming to those who didn’t understand them.
They made the perfect culprit, a ready scapegoat.
The Protocols have been used as a credible reference in the 20th and 21st centuries. Henry Ford was a rabid anti-Semite who promoted the lies:
For nearly two years starting in 1920, the American industrialist Henry Ford published in a newspaper he owned —The Dearborn Independent — a series of antisemitic articles that quoted liberally from the Protocols. The actual author of the articles is generally believed to have been the newspaper’s editor, William Cameron. During 1922, the circulation of the Dearborn Independent grew to almost 270,000 paid copies. Ford later published a compilation of the articles in book form as ‘The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.’
In 2012, Ilias Kasidiaris read them aloud in the Greek Parliament. And the Palestinian Solidarity Committee of South Africa distributed copies of the Protocols at the World Conference against Racism in 2002.
The political Right has had its offenders, too:
Mary Ann Mendoza was removed as a speaker for Trump’s campaign in 2020 after she re-tweeted an anti-Semitic link.
In her now-deleted tweet, Mendoza urged her roughly 40,000 followers to read a lengthy thread that warned of a plan to enslave the ‘goyim,’ or non-Jews. It included fevered denunciations of the historically wealthy Jewish family, the Rothschilds, as well as the top target of right-wing extremism today, the liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
The thread also made reference to one of the most notorious hoaxes in modern history: ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’
Although my recent citations to the Protocols are limited, the book still receives international attention. It’s just one source used to justify the hatred toward Jews.
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Human beings will always need scapegoats. They will always fear for their wellbeing. They will always need someone to hold responsible. In these times when we experience much fear, violence, and hatred, we want to blame someone.
As long as Jews live, anti-Semitism will exist.Published in