A joke that circulated in various forms during the Second World War imagined a confrontation between a Nazi and a Jew. “The Jews are the cause of all of the problems of the world ” says the Nazi. The Jew nods sagely and replies: “Yes, the Jews and the bicycle riders.” “Why the bicycle riders?” asks the incredulous Nazi. “Why the Jews?” his interlocutor replies.
The joke, and its unspoken background of the Holocaust, illustrates the dangers of hate propaganda. It can put wild and dangerous ideas into the minds of otherwise rational people.
Rick Salutin’s recent article about the infamous hate tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, claims that it’s an example of a new anti-Semitism; one that arises in response to the existence of Israel. He sees irony in the fact that Israel was formed in response to this new hatred. However, The Protocols deserves to be taken more seriously than that. It is far from new, either in style or substance, and its importance does not lie in benign irony. Rather, it has proven to be one of the most dangerous books ever written. Even now, more than 100 years since it was written, The Protocols has the power to prevent peace in the Middle East.
The Protocols was not born fully grown. It was incubated by a millennium of lethal propaganda and distrust, becoming the apotheosis of every calumny hurled against the Jews. The book was likely invented on behalf of the Russian czar’s secret police in the 1890’s. It purports to be the minutes of a secret plot by the world’s Jewish leaders to rule the world.
Not only was the work a forgery (no such meeting took place), it was plagiarism as well. The work was largely lifted from a French political satire that never mentioned Jews. The Protocols came to Germany in 1918, where it was introduced to Hitler, who made the the book’s claims a central theme in Nazi thought. They became, as Norman Cohen, the pre-eminent scholar of The Protocols described them, a “warrant for genocide.”
One would have thought the popularity of this book would have died with the liberation of Auschwitz. But after the war, it became the preserve of Klansmen and Hitler apologists alike. Recently, it has taken on a new life on the Internet. A web search on The Protocols producesclose to 14,000 references. By my rough estimate, almost half of those sites support the veracity of the book. Even more frightening, many of the sites claim to represent Islamic or Arabic points of view. Perhaps the most virulently anti-Semitic website on the net is called Radio Islam. The site not only offers The Protocols in 11 languages, but overtly incites Muslims to hate Jews and destroy Israel.
The theories of The Protocols now represent a mainstream view in the Middle East. There, The Protocols are regularly cited as authority for the proposition that the Jews are a criminal people that must be stopped. Last Ramadan, Egyptian television broadcast a 30-part dramatization of the book. This Ramadan, a Hezbollah television station in Lebanon broadcast a similar series. It presented the creation of Israel as part of a 2,000-year-old Jewish conspiracy to conquer the world through torture and ritual murder. The official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, has regularly written about Jewish world conspiracies and the alleged truth of The Protocols.
This is important to all of us. Hate propaganda has shown itself to be a widely distorting force. The slavery of Africans could not been possible without centuries of their depiction as subhuman. The Rwandan genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the last decade was clearly spurred by their representation in Hutu media as “cockroaches” to be squashed.
In the Middle East, the hate represented by The Protocols stands as one of the major, albeit unspoken, obstacles to peace. The implacable terror group, Hamas, cites The Protocols in its own covenant as a justification for mass murder and the destruction of the Jewish state.
Recent informal peace initiatives show how desperate some people are for peace. For their part, Israelis will have to make painful compromises in a spirit of mutual acceptance. However, the ubiquity of The Protocols and similar anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the Middle East shows that the right combination of compromises is not enough. One side cannot define the other through a hateful and historically genocidal lens. Unless Israel’s interlocutors in the Mideast are willing to ascribe the same amount of blame to the Jews as, say, the bicycle riders, there will never be peace in the Middle East.