The most pernicious and enduring source of modern anti-Semitism is a book. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (often shortened to The Protocols of Zion or just The Protocols) claims to be a written record of a meeting of Jewish elders, held sometime in the late 1800s. During the course of this meeting these Jewish elders outline and discuss their intention to take over the world. They provide a step by step explanation of how this will be achieved. The statements attributed to the elders also show disdain for non-Jewish peoples. There is clear and definitive historical evidence that The Protocols of Zion is bogus, a dishonest forgery invented to discredit the Jewish people and incite racial hatred. Despite this, the content of The Protocols has been accepted as fact and repeated by thousands of people. In many respects The Protocols of Zion has become the handbook or bible of modern anti-Semitism.
The Protocols of Zion first appeared in Russia in the first years of the 20th century. At the time, the Russian Empire was the most fertile source of anti-Semitism in Europe. In 1900 Russia was home to five million Jews (around four per cent of the total population). Most Russians lived in rural villages, where life, culture and religious beliefs had not changed markedly since the Middle Ages. Russian Jews were periodically targeted as scapegoats for any adverse event: from droughts to crop failures, from increased taxes to outbreaks of disease. The ‘blood libel’ – the myth that Jews kidnapped and sacrificed children – also endured in early 20th century Russia. One notable example was the 1913 trial of Menahem Beilis, a Jewish factory foreman who was falsely accused of murdering a teenage boy. Beilis was eventually acquitted but his trial exposed the intensity and irrationality of Russian anti-Semitism and superstition.
Russian Jew-hating was not confined to the peasantry either. The tsar himself, Nicholas II, was an avowed anti-Semite who occasionally lurched into long racist diatribes. His anti-Semitism was shared by members of the Russian Orthodox Church and reactionary political groups like the ‘Black Hundred’. In 1903, agents of the ‘Black Hundred’ and other pro-tsarist groups whipped up a series of pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Between 2,000 and 2,500 Russian Jews were murdered by their own countrymen, incited by rumours of Jewish plots. Jewish communities were disbanded or driven out of certain areas, their property destroyed or confiscated. The pogroms generated international outrage and led to thousands of Russian Jews fleeing abroad.
It was in this poisonous environment that The Protocols of Zion were born. Most historians now believe it was created by agents of the tsar’s secret police force (the Okhrana) using plagiarised text from an 1864 French satire. The Protocols first appeared in print in 1903, in serialised form in a right-wing Russian newspaper. For the next four years the full text, or extracts from it, were re-published and circulated around the Russian Empire. The Protocols was used to suggest or imply that Russia’s domestic problems were caused by malevolent Jewish forces or influences. Again, the Jews became a ready-made scapegoat for the tsar’s own mismanagement and political failings.
The suggestion that Jews were hell-bent on world domination was not a new idea in 1903; it had been propagated by French and German authors for at least three decades. The idea of a ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ was strengthened by the First Zionist Congress, an 1897 conference in Switzerland that was attended by European Jewish leaders. The main focus of the congress was discussion about a potential homeland for Jewish people – but extremists claimed it as evidence of a more sinister objectives. The appearance of the Protocols not only reinforced this conspiracy theory, it also provided detail about how the Jews intended to achieve ‘world domination’. Among the methods outlined in the Protocols:
- Jews would gradually gain control of financial cornerstones, such as banks, gold and credit. This control would allow them to manipulate and control the economy.
- By acquiring ownership and control of the press and other media, Jews would be able to shape public opinion.
- Jewish academics would also rise to prominent positions in universities, allowing them to control education, ideology, thought and culture.
- Once their economic control was established, Jews would deliberately initiate economic recessions and depressions, creating unemployment and undermining public confidence in the government.
- Jews would also increase and expand their own power by sparking meaningless but brutal wars, which would weaken public morale and make people more susceptible to suggestion and propaganda.
- Jewish-owned corporations would produce and sell cheap alcohol and pornography. The ready availability of these dangerous and morally questionable commodities would also weaken and undermine society.
The Protocols of Zion was widely circulated and published after World War I. Many attributed the Russian Revolution (1917) and the rise of communism to Jewish conspiracies. Arguably the most high-profile publisher of the Protocols was American automobile magnate Henry Ford, who had his private printing presses run off a half-million copies for distribution. Ford also bought and operated a small newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which between 1920 and 1922 published dozens of articles that drew on the content of the Protocols. Ford was later forced to apologise, though he remained a fervent anti-Semite. In the 1930s he became a strong supporter of the German Nazi Party and corresponded frequently with Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself had read The Protocols of Zion. In his biography, Mein Kampf, he proclaimed that “they reveal the nature and activity of the Jewish people and expose their inner contexts as well as their ultimate final aims”.
The Protocols of Zion was also published in Britain, under the title The Jewish Peril. In 1920-21 a journalist from a London newspaper, The Times, conducted an investigation into The Protocols, its content and origin. It was traced back to Sergei Nilus, a bureaucrat in tsarist Russia, who claimed to have been handed the manuscript by an unnamed associate. According to The Times‘ expose, The Protocols of Zion was concocted to convince other Russians that political unrest in the country was being caused by Jews – not the repressive policies of the tsarist government. The Times went on to add:
[The Protocols] have done harm not so much, in the writer’s opinion, by arousing anti-Jewish feeling, which is older than the Protocols and will persist in all countries where there is a Jewish problem until that problem is solved. Rather, they have done harm by persuading all sorts of mostly well-to-do people that every recent manifestation of discontent on the part of the poor is an unnatural phenomenon, a factitious agitation caused by a secret society of Jews.
1. The Protocols of Zion is the title of a book summarising an alleged Jewish plot to take over the world.
2. It was probably created around 1903, most likely by agents of the tsarist government’s secret police.
3. It purports to be the minutes of a coven of Jewish elders, who discuss ways in which they will achieve world control.
4. Among the methods they outline are control of banking, finance, the media, education and government.
5. The Protocols underpins most modern anti-Semitism and baseless theories about a Jewish conspiracy.