Orthodox Jews hobnobbing with members of the Nation of Islam? Palestinian activists breaking bread with Israelis? Could these be images straight out of Eden? Far from it. The scene instead was a wine-and-cheese reception held last week at HBO’s New York headquarters in connection the upcoming documentary “Protocols of Zion.”
The cheese went over well, and the film, an idiosyncratic study of the famed “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — and its role in fanning antisemitism in the wake of the September 11 attacks — was a hit, too. The most intriguing part of the evening, though, was the panel discussion that followed the film. The panel included the film’s director, Marc Levin; Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Time magazine religion editor David Van Biema, and interfaith community activist Mehdi Elieffi. Critic David D’Arcy moderated the discussion.
Levin talked about his inspiration for the film, which was a ride he took with an Egyptian cabdriver who was convinced that a real group of Zion’s Elders secretly ran the world. But ironically enough, the driver is himself the victim of a brand of fanatical paranoia. As a hip-hop fan, he faces a beating every time he buys a new rap CD. The director drew the night’s biggest laughs on admitting that he might have gotten a little carried away during his conversation, boasting of how his great-grandfather had been present at the Elders’ inaugural meeting.
The chat strained to maintain a basic level of decorum and tolerance. The panelists, clearly experienced at this sort of thing, ed admirably. The question-and-answer session was more contentious, with the “questions” running more toward rambling rants. One questioner went on at great length about how Jews are not the only Semites and how Arabs and Africans are excluded by the term “antisemitism”; another was incensed by the presence of Kahanist extremists in the film, and a third, a member of the Nation of Islam smelling a new conspiracy in HBO’s promotion of the film, demanded to know how much the cable channel had paid for “Protocols.” Images of a “Jerry Springer”-esque chair-throwing brawl may have danced through some onlookers’ minds, but cooler heads prevailed. And the forces of peace, triumphant for the day, then moved on to the coffee and cake.