Friday, February 19, 2010

A Jew Behind Every Corner

Modern antisemitism has two facets: it’s both racial and conspiratorial. To be sure, some Jew-haters in earlier times had based their persecution of Jews on the issue of racial purity, most notably in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella. Moreover, belief in secret plots conducted by Jews was not new in the modern era. Modern antisemitism, then, differs more in degree than in kind from religious antisemitism of the Middle Ages. I would like to focus on this second aspect of modern antisemitism—the notion of a Jewish conspiracy. An alleged Zionist plot to take over the world has found a wide and receptive audience for over a century.

During the outbreak of bubonic plague in late-medieval Europe townspeople and villagers believed that the Jews were spreading the horrific death by poisoning the wells. It didn’t matter that Jews also died in the Black Death. At other times they accused the Jews of abducting Christian boys to torture them and drink their blood in a perverse ritual. These plots weren’t random acts by aberrant individuals, it was thought, but a concerted effort by the Jewish community, either in part or in whole, to express their contempt for Christ and his children. Yet, these accusations were short-lived, emerged largely during times of adversity—and the Late Middle Ages had its fair share—and rarely extended beyond local or regional communities. Modern Jewish conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is a different beast.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion brought belief in a secret Jewish plot to a new level. The “bible of modern antisemitism,” to use Walter Laqueur’s phrase, was first published in 1903 in Russia, but it did not exercise influence or enjoy wide multi-lingual distribution until after World War I. The origins of The Protocols are still murky. Most scholars ascribe authorship to the Russian secret police who possibly wrote it in France sometime in the late 1890s. The document purports to be the record of a 24-session meeting of Jewish leaders in a cemetery in Prague (some versions set it in Basel, Switzerland). Their alleged aim is to use any means at their disposal—socialism, communism, democracy—to topple the governments of Europe and establish a Jewish Empire from the seed of David.

As a piece of propaganda The Protocols had much to recommend it. First, it had the matter-of-fact tone of a business meeting and was clearly an improvement over its earlier incarnation as a speech in Hermann Goedsche’s 1869 novel, Biarritz. This setting seemed to lend authenticity to the document (despite a fanciful 9th protocol that has the Jews threatening to blow up capitals across Europe). Secondly, The Protocols was flexible and could be adapted to regional forms of antisemitism. Variant versions of the alleged meeting circulated. The myth found especially fertile ground in revolutionary Russia and Weimar Germany where social discontent and antisemitism were deeply embedded. For antisemitic propagandists, The Protocols was a goldmine. Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi philosopher, published a German version. No less than the automobile magnate Henry Ford promoted its publication in the United States. He evidently had a change of heart in his final years, but by then the damage had been done. The uneducated masses believed, or at least chose to believe, in the conspiracy. Propagandists, including Hitler, probably knew it was a forgery, but realized its value for their agenda.

One can discern its influence today. Editions of The Protocols (and Mein Kampf) abound in the Middle East. According to a 2004 poll, 40% of Poles believe the Jews control their country, where most of the Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The actor Mel Gibson’s alleged comments upon his arrest for DUI—“The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”—reflects the spirit of The Protocols, as do the words of the President of Malaysia: “[T]oday the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” Columnist and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, addressing the influence of the “neocons,” told Chris Matthews on MSNBC: “What they want, Chris, is a wider war, especially in the Middle East. They want the United States to fight Israel's war against Hezbollah, Syria and especially Iran. And the Israelis want us to fight Iran as well. But it's not in the interest of the United States.” It comes through also in The Turner Diaries, an underground right-wing novel of apocalyptic destruction and conspiracy that motivated homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

As Walter Laqueur writes, the closed season on open antisemitism is ending. Heretofore, antisemites had to temper their remarks in the decades after a horrific mass murder of Jews. So they have used, and continue to use, circumlocutions to refer to Jews: the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, New York, Wall Street, the Zionists, or the Neocons. Today, many Americans believe that Jews control our government and military and direct United States diplomacy. Antisemitic conspiracy buffs have alleged that Jews plotted and carried out the destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on 11 September 2001. It didn’t matter that Jews also died in the attack. The blood libel is also alive and well in the Middle East and Europe. A popular film in Turkey, Valley of the Wolves (2006), depicts a Jewish doctor, played by the American actor Gary Busey, who, backed by the U.S. military, harvests the organs of hapless (Muslim) victims in Iraq. More recently, a Swedish tabloid (August 2009) claims that Israeli soldiers stole organs from their Palestinian victims. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.