NEW YORK, March 30 (JTA) — The war against hate on the Internet is heating up.
Two major online booksellers agreed this week to post disclaimers about a 19th-century forgery that claims there is an international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world.
But an online civil liberties group is questioning the moves by Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com regarding “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” calling them an infringement on free speech. The moves come amid increasing controversy about how to deal with hate speech on the Internet.
Earlier this year, the Internet portal Yahoo! vowed to remove racist and anti-Semitic clubs that it is hosting online, and eBay banned the sale of hate material on its online auction site after pressure from groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The note on Amazon.com read: “Please note that Amazon.com does not endorse the views expressed in this book or those in the publisher’s book description below.”
“The book is considered a forgery,” barnesandnoble.com spokesman Gus Carlson was quoted as saying. “In a situation where there is concern over the legitimacy of the book, it is our job to make certain facts clear.”
In addition to their own disclaimers, the two companies are posting a rebuttal to the book provided by the Anti-Defamation League: “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, circulated by the Czarist secret police at the turn of the 20th century, is plainly and simply a plagiarized forgery. The Protocols has been a major weapon in the arsenals of anti-Semites around the world, republished and circulated by individuals, hate groups and governments to convince the gullible as well as the bigoted that Jews have schemed and plotted to take over the world.”
The ADL’s negative reviews of dozens of other “objectionable” books are also included on Amazon.com.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADLeague, emphasized that his group just wants potential customers to know what the book really is.
“We are not in the business of banning books, no matter how reprehensible or indefensible they are,” he said.
But Deborah Pierce, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the move “raises some flags.” She worries what would happen with situations that are not as clear-cut, referring to a hypothetical case involving a how-to abortion book.
“This is the beginning of a slippery slope,” she said.
Marc Stern, the co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, said that what distinguishes this case from other works that many would find objectionable is that by purporting to be written by Jews, the “Protocols” is not honest about its origins. “It really is a case of truth in advertising,” he said.
At least one American Jewish organization is calling on Barnes and Noble not to sell the book, calling the disclaimers “an insufficient half-measure.”
“If Osama bin Laden tomorrow publishes a book to bomb an embassy and kill Americans, is that, too, fair game for reputable booksellers?” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, using a different “slippery slope” argument.
Harris says the bookseller has not been receptive to the AJCommittee’s calls, responding by saying that it is not in the business of censoring books.
“That’s too easy. That’s not an answer,” said Harris.”Without any doubt, there’s a gray area. There are some tricky books. But there are certain issues and certain books that are so beyond the pale that it ought to be a no- brainer.”
As a private bookseller, neither company is responsible to sell any particular monograph under the First Amendment.
Contrary to popular belief, the origins of the “Protocols” can be traced to France, not Russia. It was a collaborative effort of French intellectual anti-Semites and Russian anti-Semites within the czarist secret police. But the “Protocols” was never published in France. Its debut actually came in Russia, around 1903.
In America, perhaps the prime purveyor of the “Protocols” was auto magnate Henry Ford. Hitler cited it prominently in his “Mein Kampf” and made it a centerpiece of Nazi propaganda. In recent decades, the “Protocols” spread beyond Europe and America, popping up in Japan, South America and the Arab world.
The case also points to another significant phenomenon: the spread of information along the Internet. Foxman of the ADL said the controversy began after someone wrote on the World Wide Web that they had found a copy of the “Protocols” in the Judaica section of their local Barnes and Noble.
This problem was quickly resolved — the bookstore moved the “Protocols” to its world history section — but the online note spurred others to check to see how the book could be ordered online. When they found it available, they wrote in to the ADL — an “e-mail frenzy,” Foxman termed it.
“What normally would be a complaint that you would deal with one on one now comes from 80 or 100 people,” he said.