A Brief History of an Enduring Forgery

By Jerome Chanes

Published April 22, 2005, issue of April 22, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘Lies have short legs” is a proverb invoked by historian Richard Levy in discussing historical frauds and forgeries. Clearly, in the case of a slew of antisemitic libels — most infamously “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — such folk wisdom is just plain wrong. “Protocols” may well be the longest-legged lie of modern times, and no amount of light shed on the “hoax of the 20th century” has been able to kill it.

“Protocols” purports to reveal the minutes of a secret meeting held by world Jewish leaders, the “Elders of Zion,” who are conspiring to take over the world. The 24 “protocols” profess to be the confidential minutes of a Jewish conclave, convened in secret in the last years of the 19th century, who are bent on a host of incredible plans, a number of which derive from libels well known from the High Middle Ages, such as the “blood libel.” For example, “Protocols” charges the Jews with secretly subverting the morals of the non-Jewish world; it describes Jewish control of the world’s economies and of the wealth of nations by Jewish bankers; it tells of Jewish control of the press; it describes, ultimately, Jewish plans for the destruction of civilization.

A creation of the Paris branch of the Russian secret police, “Protocols” was first circulated during the late 19th century. It is most likely that the source of the document was a volume written by a French lawyer, Maurice Joly, in 1864, titled “Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu” or “The Politics of Machiavelli in the Nineteenth Century.” Joly’s book, which cast Machiavelli as the conspirator bent on world conquest, had a political purpose and was not antisemitic on its face. The author of “Protocols,” however, made use of large portions of Joly’s book, simply attributing to Jewish “Elders of Zion” the aims of world conquest that Joly had attributed to Machiavelli. The book’s original intent probably was not to incite the masses against the Jews, but to frighten the tsar into complying with the demands of the reactionary right wing in Russia by throwing suspicion on the relatively moderate prime minister, Count Witte, as being an agent of international Jewry.

It was apparent soon after the book appeared that “Protocols” was a crude forgery and a hoax. But in the context of the war, starvation, revolution and economic chaos that characterized the first decades of the 20th century, “protocols” found a home. In such a context, as Levy and others have noted, antisemitism ceased to be merely a cynical political tool but became lethal for Jews: pogroms, legal anti-Jewish discrimination, ultimately the destruction of European Jewry.

But most significant about “Protocols” is that it is the single document that has had the greatest influence on antisemitic activity in the 20th century; antisemites of every conceivable stripe — in every country, of every political persuasion — have kept it close at hand. The use of “Protocols” as a fundamental tool of antisemitism soon spread: by émigré tsarists after the Bolshevik Revolution; in Great Britain in the 1920s; in inter-war Poland, where the Catholic bishops invoked “Protocols,” and, of course, in Nazi Germany, where the myth of “Protocols” fit in well with the strains of German “Volkist” nationalism and European racist antisemitism. In our own day, “Protocols” continues as a staple of radical Muslim reading and as a justification for anti-Zionist activity. “Protocols” is yet with us, as are those who succumb to the myth of the Jewish world conspiracy.

Jerome Chanes is the author, most recently of “Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook” (ABC-CLIO, 2004). He teaches at Barnard and Stern Colleges.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.