Hadassa Ben-Itto, The Lie That Wouldn’t Die – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Preface by Lord Wolf. Forward by Judge Edward R. Korman, pp 390+xxi, Vallentine Mitchell, London and Portland, OR, 2005.
The suggestion that Jews control the world by proxy – particularly by manipulating the media and by secretly directing the policies of other countries – is a widely held racist conspiracy theory. It is a belief that is not only still alive but appears to be growing in its traditional home on the far right but also in ‘left’ versions such as Mearsheimer and Walt’s that are very familiar to Engage readers. The alliance between Islamists and sections of the far left has given such ideas increased currency in the context of the politics of the Middle East and the ‘war on terror’. A paradigmatic version of this slur was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion published in 1905, allegedly being a transcript of a secret conference of Jewish leaders. This document was exposed a long time ago as a forgery fabricated by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, with assistance from French antisemites, but it has survived into the present day in millions of copies in most languages. It remains the basis for malevolent and cynical attempts to attribute blame to the Jews for disasters such as wars, revolutions, economic crises and epidemics. It further has particular resonance with ‘anti-Zionists’ for whom western and particularly US support for Israel is explicable only in terms of ‘a kosher conspiracy’ as the New Statesman put it, extending from Israel through to the mass media and governments. For many on the left, wealthy Jewish business leaders, acting in concert with the establishment and co-ordinated by the Israeli embassy, have supposedly nobbled policy makers, newspaper editors and proprietors. This paranoid worldview is expressed most explicitly in the Protocols.
Hadassa Ben-Itto’s book is a highly detailed and meticulously researched account of the forgery and its aftermath, especially the 1934 Berne trial of the Swiss publishers pursued under a 1916 law against ‘obscene literature’. This is the first publication in English of The Lie That Wouldn’t Die, which had previously been published in Hebrew, German, Russian, Dutch, Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Spanish. Why an English translation came so far down the line we are not told. Anyway, this is not just a history but also a personal account of Ben-Itto’s engagement with antisemitism and in particular the Protocols. She was a judge in Israel for 31 years and served twice as a member of Israel’s delegation to the UN, where in 1965, after being harangued by a Polish delegate on the evils of Zionism, a South American delegate suggested she read the Protocols and research the origins of antisemitism. But twenty years passed before she did read the Protocols after again being subjected to antisemitism at a UNESCO conference in Paris. There followed a succession of encounters with virulent antisemitism, for example attending a prosecution of Radio Islam in Stockholm in 1989. Although though closed as a radio station, it still operates as a website describing itself as ‘The Mother of all anti-Jew sites’. She began to feel that ‘an invisible hand’ was guiding her to probe into the history of the Protocols (p.15), and in 1991 Ben-Itto ended her career as a judge and began her ‘own private inquiry into the Protocols’ (p.19).
The structure of the book mirrors Ben-Itto’s own process of discovery, rather than simply presenting a historical narrative. The book begins with the origins of the Protocols in early twentieth century St. Petersburg amid political struggles and fanatical mysticism at the Royal Palace. Ben-Itto describes how the myth of Jewish conspiracy was published by a religious fanatic, Sergei Nilus, with the intention of promoting pogroms but also of discrediting the modernizing Minister of Finance, Sergei Iulievich Witte, who was attempting to secure French loans for Russia and initiate agrarian reform. Many of the ‘proposals’ in the Protocols were identical to his measures, and the association of Witte with the Jews resulted in his retirement and self-imposed exile from Russia. Ben-Itto’s account then moves to Bern in the early 1930s where, following a Nazi rally, leaders of the Jewish community asked a young lawyer, Geroges Brunschvig, to represent them in court proceedings against the publishers of the Protocols in Switzerland. Brunschvig’s investigation and preparations for the trial, and the trial itself, become the central theme of the book. Brunschvig’s exhaustive research, which Ben-Itto reconstructs, included the accumulation of transcripts of previous trials involving the Protocols, among which was a South African court ban that had pronounced the Protocols ‘a dangerous forgery’. In the process he also uncovered the story of Henry Ford’s dissemination of antisemitism through The International Jew, which was largely derived from the Protocols, and was the subject of a successful libel action in 1927, after which he was forced to issue an apology. Nevertheless a photo of ‘Heinrich Ford’ stayed on Hitler’s desk, and extracts from The International Jew were incorporated into Mein Kampf.
The story then backtracks to 1921 in New York, Paris and Istanbul. The Russian Princess Katerina Radziwill (in exile in New York) revealed that one of the forgers confessed to forgery and showed her the original handwritten manuscript of the Protocols. In Paris, Armand du Chayla, a French scholar who had spent years in Russia, had seen an identical manuscript in Nilus’ possession. In Istanbul Philip Graves – a correspondent for The Times (London) – was provided by a Russian émigré, Mikail Raslovlev, with the French book from which the Protocols were plagiarized. It transpires that much of the text in the Protocols was directly plagiarized from an 1864 pamphlet, Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu, written by the French satirist Maurice Joly. Joly’s work attacks Napoleon III using the device of diabolical plotters in Hell, where Machiavelli represents Napoleon’s views and Montesquieu a rational critique. Although Ben-Itto does not note this, Joly himself appears to have borrowed material from a popular novel by Eugène Sue, Les Mystères du peuple (1849), in which the plotters were Jesuits. Neither work is about the Jews but the forgers used Dialogue aux enfers to create the Protocols. The Protocols were written in a context of deeply rooted French intellectual antisemitism (coinciding with the Dreyfus Affair) combined with the violent Jew hatred of the Okhrana. There was probably a large number of people involved in concocting the document, organized by the head of the Okhrana in Paris, Piotr Ivanovich Rachkovskii.
Meanwhile the defendants at the Bern trial, Ubald von Roll and Boris Toedli, sought assistance from Hitler’s Munich HQ, which was provided clandestinely throughout the trial. Ben-Itto describes in detail the motives and tactics of the defence. Drawing from original court records, private archives, press reports, and interviews with the last survivors of the Bern trial, Ben-Itto describes the courtroom drama in detail, culminating with the judgement (of Judge Meyer) that the Protocols were ‘an obscene forgery’. But the legal victory was short-lived: in 1937 the Court of Appeal set aside Meyer’s judgement ruling that the law against obscenity had meant to refer only to ‘pornography’, which did not apply to the Protocols. Nonetheless Ben-Itto does not regard this as a defeat in that the Appeal judges concurred with Meyer’s view of the Protocols as ‘immoral’ and refused to award costs and damages to the appellants.
In a brief final chapter Ben-Itto describes the role the Protocols have continued to play in various parts of the world, largely told through subsequent judicial hearings. She notes the Protocols’ circulation in Japan, where they are widely held up as a model for admiration; describes the report of a subcommittee of the Judiciary committee of the US Senate; distribution of the Protocols on the Million Men March of African Americans in Washington DC in 1995; proceedings of the South African Board of publications in 1991 that had been petitioned to remove the ban on publication; and the circulation of the Protocols in the Middle East, in printed form and through an Egyptian and Syrian television series. She concludes that ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ and ‘Jewish Domination’ have become code-words used by diverse movements to explain the ‘evils that plague human society in every corner of the world’ (p.377).
This is a meticulously researched and engaging book that reconstructs Brunschvig and his team’s urgent process of discovery against the threatening background of the rise of Nazism. Sometimes though I felt that that Ben-Itto’s attention to detail and frequent digressions obscured the main narrative. Further, given the breadth of the title – the lie that wouldn’t die – there is rather too much focus on the Bern trial at the expense of the wider social and political context of antisemitic conspiracy theories. By comparison, the chapter on contemporary uses of the Protocols is too brief since it is surely the continued currency of these beliefs despite several conclusive proofs of their forgery that is the central issue. Ben-Itto does not ask the question why the Jew is an archetypical figure of malevolent world machination or what the relationship is between modernity and conspiracy theories. There is an implicit scapegoat theory of antisemitism but this does not address the questions of why the Jews are singled out for this role, nor whether the nature of antisemitism changes over time. As well as literal belief in the truth of the Protocols there is a wider conviction of the covert power of the ‘Zionist’ or ‘Israel’ lobbies that deserves further discussion in this context. Admittedly these questions would take Ben-Itto way from her primary interest in judicial process but the ambivalent outcome of the Berne trial and the fact that it really had no impact on the circulation of the Protocols draws us back to the importance of wider social, political and cultural struggles against antisemitism.
Larry Ray, University of Kent