This is Dave Rich’s introduction to the forthcoming second edition of The Lie That Wouldn’t Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published on 31 July 2020. It is republished here with the kind permission of Vallentine Mitchell Publishers. Readers can purchase the book here with a 20 per cent off discount code, THELIE20 (not including post and packing). The code is valid now and runs till September 1s
Any researcher of anti-Semitism will, over time, accumulate a collection of strange books, pamphlets and other writings generated by obsessives and conspiracy theorists from around the world, all of which claim to reveal that Jews – in various guises and under various titles – pull the strings of politicians, manipulate public opinion via control of the media and, in general, dictate the course of major world events. Most of this literature, if we can call it that, derives, either directly or indirectly, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and the variety of editions and versions of this malicious piece of fakery gives some idea of the universal appeal and political utility of the tale The Protocols tells.
A review of the limited collection of copies on the CST bookshelves illustrates this point. This begins with a standard edition of The Protocols that uses Victor Marsden’s original 1920 English translation and was published by Bloomfield Books, a nationalist publisher based in Suffolk. This version, sold at far- right meetings in Britain in the 1970s, sits easily within the traditional model of European anti-Semitism. Then there is Jewish Conspiracy and the Muslim World, published in Malaysia in 1991, which includes the complete text of the Protocols alongside new conspiracy-minded copy that was authored and edited by a local writer called Misbahul Islam Faruqi. In this edition Faruqi tells his readers that the Protocols explain why the Muslim world faces dire threats from Israel, India and various world powers. Next on the bookshelf is Zionism and Internal Security, written by a certain Dr Ghulam Farid Bhatti and published in Lahore, Pakistan, by Islamic Publications Ltd. in 1984. This quotes liberally from The Protocols in order to demonstrate that ‘Zionism is the real threat to peace and tranquillity of the World in general and the most subtle enemy of Islam and the Muslims in particular’, and to ‘expose the mind of International Jewry and to warn all concerned against the nefarious designs of Zionism’. Then comes Henry Ford’s Protocols-inspired The International Jew, of which CST owns copies published in the United States, Iran and Malaysia. Ford was an energetic promoter of the Protocols and won the admiration and gratitude of Hitler as a result. Bringing the collection up to date is Britain’s leading conspiracy theorist, David Icke, who cites the Protocols in several of his books. Icke quotes them extensively but renames them the ‘Illuminati Protocols’ in an attempt to distance himself from their explicit anti-Semitism; despite knowing their anti-Jewish purpose and usage over the past century, he cannot resist their lure.
The range and breadth of these different versions and derivatives of the Protocols, published in different decades and continents, with the original text manipulated and interpreted to fit the local political and social contexts, makes a profound point not just about the Protocols itself, but about anti- Semitism as a phenomenon. Most of these editions were published in countries where there were hardly any Jews living, and certainly not in places where Jews exerted any significant political or social influence. There was no Jewish presence of any consequence in 1980s Pakistan or 1990s Malaysia, both of which were, in any event, entirely different societies from Tsarist Russia. India and Israel did not even exist as countries when the Protocols was written, despite Faruqi’s claim that it is the key to understanding the supposed threat they pose to his readers. Instead, the versions and variants produced in Pakistan, Malaysia and Iran included Introductions or Forewords written several decades after the Protocols themselves, to explain why this conspiracy theory was relevant for its new readership. And the reason why it has remained relevant is because the power of the Protocols does not lie in the detail of any secret information it claims to reveal about Jews, because that information is completely bogus anyway; its longevity and global appeal relies on the fact that it provides a framework for people to interpret their own world, whether that world has Jews in it or not.
Even in the time and place that the Protocols was written, its authors had no interest in the actual activities, behaviour, thoughts and dreams of the Jews they were writing about. The original drafts of the Protocols were probably written in France in the 1890s, a period when French Jews were still a relatively small community. Conspiracy theories about Judeo-Masonic plots did exist in France at the time, but they were more commonly found in those French provinces where fewest Jews lived. At the time the Protocols was published and popularised in Russia, Jews were fleeing the Tsar in their hundreds of thousands to escape murderous pogroms and growing discrimination. They were hardly in a position to manipulate or control the country they were trying to leave. Purveyors of the Protocols have claimed that the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897 was the location for the fictitious meeting of which the Protocols is supposed to be the record; but this Zionist Congress was a gathering of desperate Jews looking for a solution, however improbable, to the persecution faced by Jews across Europe. They were the very opposite of the omnipotent puppeteers depicted in this bizarre hoax.
It might seem odd that the ridiculous suggestion that this tiny religion was the true hidden force behind world events fooled anybody. The fact that it did is a valuable reminder that anti- Semitism has always told us much more about anti-Semites themselves than about the Jews they claim to expose. The Jew of the Protocols is a phantasm conjured up by the anti-Semitic imagination, a filter through which anti-Semites explain their own failings and a screen onto which they project their own hatreds. It is anti-Semites who try to subvert moral norms in their societies, not the Jews they blame for feminism, liberalism and atheism. It is anti-Semites who try to incite conflict, not the Jews who they accuse of plotting war, revolution and terrorism. It is anti-Semites who harbour genocidal impulses, not the Jews who they call racists and Nazis. And because anti-Semitic agitators do not need to pay any heed to how Jews actually think, feel and behave, they don’t even need any Jews to be present in their society in order to mobilise anti-Semitism as a political tool. This leads us to the unavoidable and essential conclusion that, however dangerous anti-Semites are to Jews, it is not usually Jews who are their ultimate target. Unscrupulous political leaders and popular demagogues use the perpetual cultural motif of the disloyal, treacherous, cunning Jew to discredit political opponents, motivate their own supporters, energise the mob and direct popular anger away from themselves. They do not even need to believe what they are saying (or, more commonly, implying) about the Jews, if it produces the political outcomes they seek.
The Protocols are over a century old and the world can be in no doubt of the danger such conspiracy theories pose when they catch fire. And yet, today, conspiracy theories of all types, and the way of thinking that lies behind them, have made a comeback, spreading from beyond their natural home on the cranky fringes of society to take their place in mainstream politics. The President of the United States – the holder of the most powerful office on earth – appeared on conspiracy talk shows, suggested his predecessor President Obama lied about his place of birth, and has in the past promoted the baseless theory that autism is caused by vaccines. Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn MP illustrated the bridge that conspiracy theories provide between old-fashioned anti-Semitism and modern hatred of Israel when he suggested ‘the hand of Israel’ might be secretly responsible for jihadist terrorism in Egypt, and justified his allegation by recourse to the conspiracy theorist’s favourite question: cui bono? The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, has conducted a campaign against the Jewish liberal philanthropist George Soros in unmistakably anti-Semitic and conspiratorial terms: ‘we must fight against an opponent who is different from us. Their faces are not visible, but are hidden from view. They do not fight directly, but by stealth. They are not honourable, but unprincipled. They are not national, but international. They do not believe in work, but speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.’ Measles cases have risen by 300 per cent in Europe due to unfounded fears that the measles vaccine is harmful, while in Pakistan government workers delivering polio vaccines are murdered for the same reason. 47 per cent of British people who voted to leave the European Union believe the government is deliberately hiding the true number of immigrants in the United Kingdom, while 31 per cent of people who voted Leave think that immigration is part of a secret plot to make Muslims a majority in the UK. In the United States, 23 per cent of Trump voters believe that ‘regardless of who is officially in charge of governments and other organisations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together’. In the UK, Google searches looking for conspiracy theories about the alleged power and influence of the Rothschild family increased by 39 per cent from 2016 to 2019. In this atmosphere it should be no surprise that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have climbed once more towards the light; and as they do so, the Protocols are revived along with them.
This new edition of Hadassa Ben-Itto’s wonderful book is, then, extremely timely. In this book Ben-Itto carefully separates truth from falsehood, making the crucial point that there is a difference between ideas that are wrong, and lies that are intended to deceive. As she explained in her Author’s Note to the original 2005 edition, democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas; but to permit the Protocols an equal airing so it can be defeated in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ misjudges its character and its danger. ‘A deliberate lie is not an “idea’”, she wrote, and therefore does not belong in this marketplace at all. It is a weapon that ‘is never used in self-defense’, but is designed and deployed to attack Jews and, increasingly, Israel. Ben-Itto first encountered the Protocols in the anti-Israel fora of the United Nations: the Protocols survived the downfall of the Tsar only to inspire Soviet anti-Semitic anti-Zionism targeted not at powerless diaspora Jews, but at the new sovereign Jewish state. It was even quoted by name in the charter of Hamas, the Islamist movement founded in 1988 with a pledge to destroy Israel once and for all. As the status and condition of Jews changes in the world, so the language and focus of anti-Semitism changes with it, but the thought processes, explanatory framework and political values remain the same. The Protocols is the ultimate expression of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that is not merely a bad idea or a nasty prejudice: it is an organising principle for extremist, violent politics.
Ben-Itto devoted her life to the law and, more broadly, to the pursuit of truth and justice. This book details the efforts of many others to discredit and debunk the Protocols using those tools. The enduring appeal of the gross lie of the Protocols was a challenge to her fundamental values that she could not ignore. In these times, when truth is under assault and there is seemingly no shame or cost for political leaders who reject the fundamental value of truth over falsehood, we must not ignore it either.