Anti-Semitic "Protocols of Zion" Endure, Despite Debunking

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 11, 2006
Five years after 9/11, lingering conspiracy theories hold that Jews
planned the attacks. The charges' staying power, though, is nothing
compared to that of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The century-old text has been discredited many times over its hundred-plus-year history. Yet even today the tale finds willing believers among those who oppose Zionism—the idea that Jews should have a homeland in Palestine, an idea that was fulfilled in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

How can one piece of propaganda endure for so long?

(Related feature: The Lost Gospel of Judas.)

The Protocols tell the tale of a secret plot in which a shadowy and powerful cabal of Jewish leaders and Freemasons sets out to dominate the world. The text purports to be the minutes of secret meetings held in Switzerland at the time of the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

The book outlines the group's endeavors to conquer the globe by manipulating the media and the global economy, promoting religious conflicts, and supporting socialism.

A Web search reveals thousands of Web sites with Protocols-related content. Most refute the texts and offer ample evidence of their fraudulent nature. But plenty of others exist to propagate the myth.

Russian Fraud

Daniel Greene is the curator of an exhibition on The Protocols currently at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

"The Protocols is a piece of propaganda that was useful before the Nazis, useful to the Nazis, and is still useful today, unfortunately, in spreading hatred of Jews," Greene said.

"It's interesting, because The Protocols have been exposed as a fraud so many times, and yet it doesn't matter, because it still works as propaganda. It doesn't matter to some people if propaganda is true or false—as long as it's useful."

The infamous writings first appeared in 1903 in the Russian newspaper Znamia (Banner). They are generally believed to have been the work of Tsar Nicholas II's secret police, though other theories exist.

Since 1903 The Protocols have been published in many countries and enjoyed some prominent support.

In 1920 U.S. industrialist Henry Ford published excerpts of The Protocols in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, and wrote a book that was heavily influenced by the text—The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem.

Hoax Exposed

Despite their wide distribution, The Protocols have been exposed repeatedly as a hoax.

In 1921 the Times of London published convincing proof that The Protocols were largely plagiarized from books published decades earlier—primarily The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, by Maurice Joly (1864) and Biarritz by Hermann Goedsche (1868).

In subsequent years similar exposés appeared in Germany and the United States. A U.S. Senate committee declared that The Protocols were bogus. And in 1993 they were officially declared fraudulent by a court in the country of their origin—Russia.

Even Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels believed The Protocols were a fraud, though this did not stop Goebbels and the Nazi regime from employing the writings for their own ends.

"I believe that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a forgery … [However,] I believe in the intrinsic, but not in the factual, truth of The Protocols," the future Nazi powerbroker wrote in his diary in 1924.

Greene, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum curator, suggests that an anti-Semitic belief in the intrinsic truth of The Protocols has allowed them to survive and fan the flames of hatred, even among those who know the writings are a forgery.

"That's what is so dangerous today," he said. "Even though The Protocols have been exposed as a fraud, it stands now as a code for those who believe in a Jewish world conspiracy."

Modern supporters include various hate groups and racial supremacists around the world.

The Protocols also have a distinct history of popularity in the Middle East. They appeared in the controversial Egyptian state television miniseries Horseman Without a Horse in 2003 and are referenced in the 1988 charter of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic Palestinian state.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's exhibit maintains that The Protocols remain a "mainstream text" in the Arab and Islamic world, and includes new editions published as recently as last year, in addition to the proliferation of Web pages.

But a renowned scholar of the Arab media argues that, while the screed has its supporters, most people today recognize that the book is bogus.

"There is great exaggeration about the spread, popularity, or belief of this book in the Arab countries," said Khaled Hroub, director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project at the University of Cambridge, England.

"Going back a couple of decades ago, the book was more visible and quoted. But now I hardly come across any half-credible writer or speaker who refers to it."

(Learn more about Judaism and Islam.)

Problematic Propaganda

Some ascribe part of the text's lingering popularity to simple prejudice. But according to the Holocaust museum's Greene, some of its appeal lies in its ability to explain a complicated world in a relatively simple way.

He says The Protocols became popular in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria.

"People were asking the question, How did this little state win the war so decisively? The answer: There must be a conspiracy."

Hroub, the Cambridge scholar, also believes that some still use the book to rationalize their own beliefs.

"If there is a reference to the book, it is just a metaphor to point at the powerful Jewish lobby in the U.S. and in parts of Europe," he said.

"Many Arabs and Palestinians think that the bias and irrationality of Western foreigners [regarding] the Middle East are inexplicable [except] by acknowledging the existence of strong influence and lobbying of Israel and its Jewish supporters in main Western capitals."

Greene, meanwhile, hopes that the Protocols exhibit will cast light on the larger issue of effective propaganda.

"If a visitor comes out thinking about how propaganda that relies on conspiracy theory works, it would be a great outcome," he said.

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