MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS-The Global Impact of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

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The Global Impact of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, ed. by Esther Webman. New York and London: Routledge, 2011. 317 pages. Index to p. 317. £80.

In fin de siècle Europe, there appeared a remarkable text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russian in 1903. Purporting to reveal the secret record of a meeting of Jewish Elders in a cemetery in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, the Protocols were translated into English in 1920, the standard text being the translation by Victor Marsden (and available from Amazon books). The Protocols detail a fantastic, barely coherent conspiracy of gargantuan proportions by Jews to take over the world. Each of the Protocols - there are 24 of them - cover some aspect of the plan for world domination, using Jewish money and influence to subvert Christian institutions (The Freemasons are also involved, suggestive of a racist version of a Dan Brown novel, but without the Catholics as the bad guys). The Protocols were a blatant forgery, exposed as such in a trial in Switzerland in the 1930s, a composite of several anti-Semitic texts from the 19th century and assembled, it seems, by the Tsarist secret police in the 1890s. Reading the Marsden translation, the reader is struck by the absurdity of the Protocols, until, that is, s/he notices that throughout the text the unnamed editor (of Filiquarian Press of the US, publisher of copyright-free material) has inserted parenthetic references to later events that relate to the discussion in the Protocols and their authenticity. The subjects listed are the material of (often far Right) conspiracy fantasies, blamed on the Jews: Waco, Janet Reno, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Social Security, the United Nations, the London School of Economics, the Maastricht Treaty, liberal humanitarian interventions, F.D. Roosevelt, Randy Weaver, the Oklahoma bombing, and so on. The Protocols appeal to those who have worked out their argument before examining the evidence, everyone from the Nazis to White survivalist supremacists to Islamic religious extremists. In this sense, the Protocols are not remarkable - people who want something to be true ignore contrary facts - but the anti-Semitism that has sustained and extended belief in the Protocols is remarkable, and examined elsewhere by scholars such as Michael Barkun, Daniel Pipes, Chip Berlet, and Stephen Bronner. Precisely because the claims in the protocols are so sweeping, "they ultimately defeat any attempt at challenging them" (p. 13).

Janet Webman places the Protocols in the wider history of conspiracies in her introduction to the volume under review, one that presents case studies of how the Protocols have been received, sustained, and extended in different settings, from the Islamic Middle East, to Christian America, to South America to Nazi Germany. There are two useful chapters examining the prehistory of the Protocols within pre-revolutionary Russia, setting this within Russian thinking on the Jews - "the enemy of humanity." Remarkably, there is even a study of the reception and manipulation of the Protocols in Japan. While Webman's discussion of myth and conspiracy is derivate, it neatly sets up the essays in the volume, arguing that "conspiracy theories serve an important social function and fill various psychological needs. Conspiracy theories, including the Protocols, provide their believers with a prism with which to understand complex local and global events. They make intricate historical patterns comprehensible by oversimplification, and claim to identify the underlying or hidden source of human misery" (p. 9). (One might make the same claim about some political ideologues, of the Leftand Right. …

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