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Arts & Culture History of a Lie: Museum Traces the Story of Infamous ‘protocols’

Arthur Berger remembers hosting a group of foreign clerics in New York in the mid-1990s when his then employer, the American Jewish Committee, had been asked by the State Department to help convey to the guests the American ethos of tolerance and mutual understanding. So it was a bit of a shock when one of the visitors, a Muslim cleric from the Middle East, mentioned over lunch that he had picked up an “incredible book about the Jews” at the Cairo Book Fair: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Berger now is director of communications at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is currently hosting “Anti-Semitism: Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an exhibition on one of the most notorious forgeries in history.

The modest exhibit includes copies of the book that Hitler looked to for inspiration and Henry Ford disseminated for general consumption.

Berger said that the book seems to have “a new life.”

“It confounds people,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

The Protocols outline a plan for world domination supposedly compiled by a gathering of Jewish leaders held during the First Zionist Conference in 1897. In the account, the characters lay out a step-by-step strategy to fool gentiles — referred to as “goyim” — into doing their bidding.

Plans range from the replacement of the pope to the establishment of a global Jewish government and the appointment of a “king of the Jews.”

The exhibit includes copies of the Protocols from Finland (1924), India (1974) and Japan (2004). The 20 covers are adorned by classic anti-Semitic images, including representations of globes trapped in the clutches of massive “Jewish” snakes, arachnids, tentacled, squid-like creatures and conniving, hook-nosed faces.

A German-language copy from 1920 Berlin looks remarkably like a Jewish prayer book or an early Zionist manual, complete with a blue-and-white Star of David flag and golden type reading, “All Israel are responsible for one another” in Hebrew.

The language that appears most prominently among the artifacts is Arabic, with numerous issues from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Last year, Wal-Mart was found to be selling an English-language edition of the Protocols on its Web site. The company made a “business decision” to remove the book from the site after widespread criticism.

According to Kenneth Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the persistence of the phenomenon is simple: The Protocols satisfy virtually every manifestation of contemporary anti-Semitism.

From Holocaust denial to conspiracy theories surrounding Sept. 11 and the Iraq war, the themes present in the Protocols permeate modern Jew hatred.

“The Protocols are representative of the pernicious and insidious nature of anti-Semitism,” he said. “They portray the Jews as secretive, conspiratorial, alien, all-powerful.”

Of particular note is the resurgence of those themes in bookstores and television screens around the Islamic world, Jacobson said.

“The Protocols never died,” Jacobson said. “They’ve never gone away. They’re at the core of historic anti-Semitism.”

Though the origins of the Protocols remain uncertain, scholars believe much of the work was plagiarized from an 1864 pamphlet written by French satirist Maurice Joly lampooning Napoleon III’s political ambitions, and had nothing to do with the Jews.

Hermann Goedsche, a German spy, swiped Joly’s pamphlet and excerpts from a novel by Alexandre Dumas in his book “Biarritz,” written under a pseudonym.

In a chapter entitled “The Jewish Cemetery in Prague and the Council of Representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel,” Goedsche depicted a secret rabbinical council which met in the cemetery at midnight every 100 years to plan the agenda for the Jewish conspiracy.

The book was translated into Russian in 1872. In 1891, the Czarist secret police were using it to incite popular ire against Russia’s Jewish population and divert public attention from the country’s political woes.

The work appeared in its final form and under the title “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” in 1897, apparently compiled by Mathieu Golovinski, an associate of Czar Nicholas II.

The Protocols first reached American shores in 1917 when Russian emigre Boris Brazil translated them into English.

In 1920, industrialist Henry Ford sponsored the printing of 500,000 copies of the work and included excerpts of the Protocols in his weekly Dearborn Independent through 1927. The Holocaust Museum exhibit includes a copy of Ford’s own diatribe, “The International Jew.”

British diplomat Lucien Wolf — who in 1917 had strongly supported the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the document pledging British support for a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel — traced the Protocols back to Goedsche’s writings, and published his findings in London in 1921.

Later that year, The Times of London ran a series of articles proving that the work was a forgery, and American Herman Bernstein authored a book documenting its history.

By 1924, however, the Protocols had been translated into German and found their way to Hitler’s prison cell. Taken by the book, Hitler referred to it in “Mein Kampf.”

“To what an extent the whole existence of this people is based on a continuous lie is shown incomparably by the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ so infinitely hated by the Jews,” he wrote. “Once this book has become the common property of a people the Jewish menace may be considered as broken.”

The Holocaust Museum collection contains a copy of the first edition of the Protocols published in Nazi Germany in 1933.

The collection is on display through the end of the year.

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