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Protocols of the Elders of Zion

As a historical document it is an absolute fraud. As a conspiracy theory it is utterly spurious and without merit. Nevertheless, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion has insinuated itself into many latter-day conspiracy theories, perpetuating the myth that Jews control the world just as a virtuoso manipulates the strings of his violin.

That racist, anti-Semitic theory can be found in “New World Order” theories that posit that all-powerful Jewish bankers are the string pullers behind global events. As ridiculous as it sounds, this bogus scenario recently found its way into popular theories in Malaysia and Japan, stating that Jews had sabotaged the Asian economies, forcing them to collapse. (As usual, there was no evidence to back this theory.)

Exactly how the myth of the global Jewish conspiracy became so entrenched around the globe – even in the Far East, where Jews are indeed scarce – is a fascinating story. It also remains a popular theory among anti-Semites in Europe, America, and the Middle East. In fact, it’s rather ironic that the racist canard known as the “International Zionist Conspiracy” sprouted from a political tract having nothing at all to do with Jews. In its earliest form, that tract appeared shortly after the French Revolution.

The apocryphal document that has promoted the racist canard of the Jewish conspiracy for nearly a century is called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The origin of the Protocols myth is instructive: It is an amalgam of fictional documents, plagiarized political pamphlets, and innuendo that fermented in Europe during the nineteenth century. The earliest germ of the myth can be found in a 1797 book by the French Cleric Abbe Barruel on the revolutionary Jacobins. This book, which became a bestseller in Europe and America, posited that the secret societies known as the Illuminati and Freemasons were the gray eminence behind the French Revolution.

But Barruel made no mention of the Jews in the book. The Jews were folded into the myth in 1806, when Baruel received a letter from a retired army officer living in Florence, one J. B. Simonini. Simonini warned Barruel about a “Judaic sect” that was “the most formidable power, if one considers its great wealth and the protection it enjoys in almost all European countries.” Simonini claimed that he uncovered their nefarious plot by disguising himself as a Jew and infiltrating a conspiratorial gathering of Piedmontese Jews in northern Italy. According to Simonini, the Jewish plotters confessed to him that they had founded the Illuminati and Freemasons and also had infiltrated the ranks of Christian clergymen. What’s more, they were planning to install a Jew as pope.

The conspiratorial notion resurfaced seventy-five years after the Simonini letter in a novel written by an official in the Prussian postal service (Sir John Retcliffe, a pen name of Hermann Goedsche). This fictional work contained a chapter called “In the Jewish Cemetery in Prague” that described how every one hundred years, the elders of the twelve tribes of Israel gathered at the grave of the most senior rabbi to plot the enslavement of the Gentile world. This chapter was reprinted as a pamphlet in Russia and France, and over time it came to be accepted as fact.

The full-blown Protocols of the Elders of Zion appeared in Russia at the turn of the century. The book plagiarized from both Retcliffe’s novel and an 1965 pamphlet attacking Napoleon III called Dialogue aux Enfers entre Montesquieu et Machiavel, by Maurice Joly. In essence, the Protocols fused a French political tract to the fantasy of a Jewish plot to control the world. Spanning twenty-four chapters and twelve hundred pages, the Protocols consisted of a series of written lectures in which a member of the secret Jewish world government – the Elders of Zion – outlined the Jewish scheme for world domination. The Protocols claimed that because people are incapable of governing themselves, what the world needed was a Machiavellian despot.

Moreover, the Protocols claimed that the Jews, in preparation for a worldwide revolution, had been pitting Gentile citizens against their feckless leaders. After the revolution, the Jewish overlords would keep the Gentiles in line by imposing a social welfare state based on centralized government, full employment, taxation in proportion to wealth, public education, and support for small business. According to the Protocols, the Elders of Zion would dangle the carrot of liberty before their subjects but never deliver on its promise.

In Russia this counterfeit document helped fuel the anger and hysteria that led to the pogroms. (Another version was later used by the czar’s secret police just before the Russian Revolution to justify a crackdown on revolutionaries living outside Russia.) The Protocols soon circulated in Germany, finding an audience eager to believe its claims: The German defeat in World War I was already being blamed on the Jews. British newspapers reviewed and commented on the document, further advancing its renown. The Nazi party would later fold the Protocols into its twisted ideology.

During the 1920s in America, the Protocols found their biggest champion in automobile pioneer Henry Ford. According to historian Leo P. Ribuffo, the Protocols came to Ford via one of his representatives, who acquired the document from a Russian émigré who claimed to have information on Jewish plots throughout Europe. The Dearborn Independent began publishing a series of articles on the “International Jew.” As a scapegoating document, the Protocols have always reflected the concerns of the group that adopts them. As Rubuffo notes, the document in America came to represent concerns different from those it had in Russia. In Russian hands, the Protocols were used to justify the right-wing oligarchy’s attempts to retain power – by blaming that country’s turmoil on the Jews. In Ford’s hands, the Protocols were used to explain the widespread and daunting social changes that were under way in post-Civil War, rapidly industrializing America. The rise of workers’ unions, the influx of new immigrants, the growth of “big government” – all of these unsettling new developments were blamed on the Jews. Ford also emphasized the Protocols claim that Jews controlled the world’s financial institutions and spread political radicalism. The Dearborn Independent went so far as to claim that Christopher Columbus had been manipulated by Jews.

The Protocols found their way to Japan in 1917. According to David G. Goodman and Masanori Miyazawa, authors of Jews in the Japanese Mind, Japanese soldiers dispatched to the Russian Far East after the Bolshevik Revolution picked up copies of the document from counterrevolutionary White Russian troops and carried them home. Thus would the seeds of the myth of the international Jewish conspiracy sprout in Japanese soil, as always reflecting the fears and concerns of the host nation. According to Goodman and Miyazawa, the anti-Semitic myth in Japan has served to strengthen the Japanese sense of self, an image defined by “ethnic nationalist xenophobia.” Just as it did in America, the Protocols myth has fueled conspiracy theories that attempt to define outside threats by giving them a Jewish face.

Sadly, it is the flexibility of this myth, the way it can be twisted to appeal to the collective national fears of any country, that keeps it alive. As the trend toward economic nationalism, the spurious myth of the international Zionist conspiracy will undoubtedly continue to rear its ugly head time and again.