BUDAPEST, Nov. 3 (JTA) — Hungary is the newest battlefield in a century-old war against a pamphlet that has incited anti-Semitic hatred the world over.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” first penned in the 1890s to expose a supposed Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, is viewed by most as a great hoax.
It has also been a deadly one, as it led directly to the killings of Jews.
Yet the notorious tract is still a popular weapon for anti-Semites, despite various attempts to prohibit its publication outright and to confront it head on, debunking it libel by libel.
In August an obscure publisher released the first Hungarian edition of the “Protocols” since the Holocaust. Jewish leaders here — usually reticent to make waves — sprang forth in protest. Describing it as a “disgusting pamphlet,” they accused the publisher of inciting hatred against Jews.
As a result of the publicity, book sales soared, reportedly from an initial press run of 3,000 into the tens of thousands.
Still, leaders of the 100,000-strong Jewish community felt compelled to speak out. Only two years ago Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” reappeared in kiosks.
Now, as the Hungarian government drifts farther to the right, there’s word that an even more venomous prewar rant, “The Jewish Question in Hungary,” is set for re-release.
The “Mein Kampf” and “Protocols” cases are under review by state prosecutors, as post-Communist Hungary dawdles in drawing the line between unfettered freedom of expression and blatant efforts to whip up anti-Jewish hatred.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community is trying to help draw that line: On Oct. 15 it forwarded to the Prime Minister’s Office a legislative proposal that would criminalize the act of fomenting intercommunal hatred. The proposal is based on German and Austrian models, said Jewish officials.
Why the “Protocols” has endured can be only partly attributed to anti-Semitism, says Hadassa Ben-Itto, a leading expert on the subject and the first woman appointed to the Israeli Supreme Court.
“It’s also a useful tool in the hands of politicians — not against Jews” specifically, “but to cover up for their own failures,” said the retired judge.
“Economic crisis, wars, disasters, famine. They say, ‘Everything can be explained by the Jewish conspiracy: Just read the “Protocols!” ’ All they have to do is point a finger and around the corner is the most available scapegoat — Jews.”
Ben-Itto was speaking at a news conference last week in Budapest to launch the Hungarian version of her book, “The Lie That Wouldn’t Die.”
She had two aims in writing the book: first, to inform Jews, who often dismiss the “Protocols” as too far-fetched to warrant serious debate; and second, as a rapid reaction to “Protocols” proliferation.
Open-minded, intelligent people must be armed with the facts, she says, and encouraged to speak out against it.
However, the onus to do so actually rests on non-Jews, said Ferenc Glatz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which hosted Ben-Itto’s news conference.
“I’m against censoring or abolishing certain books, but I am for raising your voice and speaking out against them,” said Glatz, a Lutheran widely regarded as philo-Semitic. “And it is not the obligation of Jews to speak up, but for non-Jews to say we don’t agree with these views.”
Regardless, the Hungarian comeback of the “Protocols” is a major concern for Jewish leaders. It reinforces the hand of those already obsessed with Jews.
The country’s leading far-right parliamentarian, Istvan Csurka, routinely makes veiled and not-so-veiled references to Jewish influence. He refers darkly to “global financial circles” tightening the noose around Hungary and “cosmopolitan” liberals who corrupt the national character.
Csurka also articulates what many ordinary Hungarians find uncanny: how a Jewish minority that constitutes just 1 percent of Hungarian society is overrepresented in the media, in the leading symphony orchestras and in the recent Hungarian delegation of authors to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
What worries Hungarian Jews more than the views of the masses is the official response. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Cabinet have made no public declarations to condemn or distance themselves from a rising tide of incidents.
“We are now approaching an era where there are hints of political anti-Semitism,” said Peter Tordai, president of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities.
“I don’t know if it depends on political interests, but government officials are either not hearing, or ignoring, these things. It would be a good idea for Mr. Orban to speak out against them.”
Some Hungarian Jews, joined by a few church leaders, instead called for certain books to be banned.
In response, one government official said the rapid growth of the Internet may render all censorship futile. On the other hand, she criticized Jewish leaders for drawing attention to the “Protocols” and boosting its sales.
“If someone in a book shop sees a title that begins with ‘Protocols,’ it will sound boring, so why would they buy it?” said Maria Schmidt, a historian and key advisor to Orban. “But if there’s a scandal over a book, they’ll run to buy it.
“I would have taken” money and “bought most of the copies in a very discreet way,” Schmidt said. “But I wouldn’t have gone on television and had a press conference to say it should be prohibited.”
As for Hitler’s writings, Schmidt said, “I think ‘Mein Kampf’ is an important book. It moved all of Germany. It moved the world. It was a fundamental work of the Nazi movement.
“It’s also not a good book, and is actually rather boring and difficult to read, but it’s important to read what Germans found in that book that moved them.”
The government, rather than speak out against “Mein Kampf” or the “Protocols,” made a token gesture through the Ministry of Cultural Heritage: It helped sponsor Ben-Itto’s trip to Budapest and contributed some funds to publish her book.
Yet, what impact the meticulously researched book will have remains unclear. After all, who will read it? Certainly not those vulnerable to conspiracy theories.
Among the cynical and anti-Semitic in Hungarian society, an Israeli-authored book might just be viewed as “more” Jewish propaganda, to be taken with a large grain of salt.
So it’s an uphill struggle. But the truth about the “Protocols” must prevail, said Ben-Itto, who is also president of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Judges.
“This book is in libraries, it’s on the Internet, it’s sold by Amazon. All you need to gain access to legitimate society — and into the minds of people — is to put your ideas in a book.
“There is no way we can stop it. The only way we can fight this libel is with the truth and with the facts.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.