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A Rumor About the Jews: Reflections on Antisemitism and “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” (2000)

What is antisemitism? How did the persecution of the Jews under the Roman Empire differ from the persecution of the Jews under the Nazis? What part did the widely disseminated literary hoax The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion play in the Holocaust? Even though A Rumor About the Jews: Reflections on Antisemitism and “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a short book by Rutgers Political Science Professor Stephen Eric Bronner, was written before 9/11 and the Second Intifada, it remains a useful introduction to the history of antisemitism and the paranoid conspiracy theory.

After a brief introduction, Bronner reprints selections of the Protocols themselves, then goes onto explain how the anti-Jewish bigotry of of the Roman Empire and Medieval Europe were fundamentally different from the antisemitism of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. For the Romans, who were both uniquely tolerant of religious differences and uniquely intolerant of political dissent, the problem with the Jews wasn’t their race. It was their monotheism. With their “jealous,” all powerful God, and their history of theocratic monarchy, the Jews refused to acknowledge either the Roman, pagan gods, or the political supremacy of the Emperor. That made them a troublesome ethnic and religious minority who needed to be put down hard to keep the peace in Egypt and Palestine. It did not make them uniquely evil or inferior. While Medieval hostility towards Jews did include accusations that would resurface in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries – ritual murder, Christ killing, sorcery – it was only when the feudal, Roman Catholic worldview started to break down during the Enlightenment that religious religious hostility towards Judaism became antisemitism.

According to Stephen Bronner, antisemitism, and “scientific” racism, began as an elite reaction against the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. Feudal hierarchies would be reconstructed as racial and religious hierarchies. The division of France into three estates, a division that privileged the aristocracy and the clergy over the common people, would become the division of the world into superior and inferior races in Arthur comte de Gobineau’s An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. The British proto-Nazi Houston Stewart Chamberlain would continue Gobineau’s work, adding a particular hostility towards the Jews, in his book The Myth of the Twentieth Century. Even as Western Europe and the United States became increasingly democratic and republican, monarchies like the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Hanovers, and above all the Romanovs persisted right into the age of European and American imperialism, the mass industrial army and the dreadnought, the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light. All of it, taken together, set the stage for what be called the classical period of antisemitism that ran from the 1890s roughly through the 1940s.

It was Czarist Russia, the most backward and reactionary state in Europe, that gave birth The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and to modern antisemitism. I spend time on social media debunking conspiracy theories and fraudulent quotes from well-known figures, but it’s always been more out of an irritation over cultural historical illiteracy than out of any sense that they could do any genuine harm. If a gun nut wants to fabricate quotes by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, I’ve always been willing to correct him, and put up with the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth when I direct him to the “Soros funded” Snopes.com, but I’ve never really believed that these kinds of fabrications could lead to gas ovens and mass graves. Stephen Bronner, however, makes it clear just how much damage a literary hoax can do, pointing out not only that the Protocols influence Adolf Hitler, but even the western intervention against the reds in the Russian Civil War.

The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which were fabricated by Czarist secret police in 1901 or 1902, and first distributed by a religious crackpot named Sergei Nilus, have two basic sources, the French leftist Maurice Joly’s Dialogue in Hell, a fictional conspiracy theory written to attack Napoleon III, and Biarritz, an anti-Semitic novel written by the obscure German writer Hermann Goedsche. For any American familiar with New World Order or 9/11 conspiracy theories, the basic outline of the Protocols will be familiar. A group of 12 rabbis – each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel – meet in the Jewish cemetery in Prague to plot a takeover of the press and the government, to destroy faith in the church and to debase the culture, all in the service of world domination.

Poorly written and easily debunked though they are – the author apparently didn’t know that only 2 tribes of Israel survived the Babylonian Captivity – That The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion became a becoming a runaway best seller, eventually published and distributed by Czar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Henry Ford and the Catholic Church. Rational argument seemed to have no more effect than the official websites of Monticello and Mount Vernon has had publishing a list of spurious Washington and Jefferson quotes. You can debunk fake Washington and Jefferson quotes all you want, but you will not stop them from being ever more widely circulated on Tumblr and Facebook. The Protocols served an emotional, not an intellectual need. They allowed religious and political reactionaries, racists, monarchists, and proto-fascists to give an easy explanation for the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, the great Russian Revolution of 1917, the First World War and the crumbling of the old order without blaming the Russian, German, or Austrian ruling classes. You didn’t have to go through the painful process of studying history and economics. This little pamphlet gave you the answer: The Jews did it. After the catastrophe of the First World War, which destroyed an entire generation of young men in Europe, Hitler would go onto to construct a secular, and pseudo-scientific myth of the Jew as the devil, of the Jewish religion as a satanic conspiracy against the “Aryan race” that ended in genocide and mass murder. Not even a Second World War could snap most antisemites to their senses. Even as Soviet and American troops closed in on Berlin from either side, the Nazis continued to divert resources from the front to the “Final Solution” of murdering as many Jews as they could before the Third Reich crumbled into dust.

For Stephen Eric Bronner, classical antisemitism is a historical phenomenon that began in the aftermath of the French Revolution and ended when evidence of the Holocaust filtered out of Central and Eastern Europe in 1945. It had become all too clear that it the antisemite, not the Jew, was a satanic figure who had been engaged in a conspiracy of world domination and mass murder. Bronner, who is a democratic socialist and a critic of the state of Israel, as well as the son of secular Jews who left Germany to escape Hitler, is probably not very popular among Zionists and religious conservatives. While he would agree that the remnants of the antisemitic worldview persist in End the Fed and 9/11 conspiracy theories, in parts of the Middle East and on the far-right, and left, in the United States and Western Europe, his solution is liberalism and democracy, not Zionism and Jewish nationalism. The more democratic a country is, he argues, the less of a history of antisemitism it has. The United States, for example, which has the idea of religious freedom written into its founding documents, has always had little or no history of antisemitism. In autocratic states like Czarist Russia or Saudi Arabia, by contrast, the paranoid and conspiratorial worldview The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is often part of the mainstream, widely distributed and promoted by the government itself. There is a negative correlation between democracy and antisemitism. The more democracy you have, the less antisemitism you have. The more antisemitism you have, the less democracy you have. Jewish nationalism and conservatism, Bronner argues, tends to follow the same pattern as Christian or Islamic nationalism and conservatism. Far from being a safeguard against antisemitism, the more extreme forms of Zionism – although not the democratic liberal Zionism of Yitzhak Rabin – will only serve to promote the antisemitic worldview in other forms. Although he doesn’t mention it directly, the Clarion Project’s wildly Islamophobic video The Third Jihad, which has been used to train New York City police officers, and which might easily be called The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Mecca, might be a good example.

Indeed, while A Rumor About the Jews is a worthwhile read, it’s badly in need of a second edition that addresses the historical developments over the last 16 years, not only 9/11 and the Second Intifada, but the drastic erosion of democracy and the growth of oligarchy and plutocracy in the United States.