Elders of Zion, Protocols of the Learned

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ELDERS OF ZION, PROTOCOLS OF THE LEARNED , antisemitic forgery aimed at showing the existence of international Jewish aspirations bent on world power. The specter of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy aiming at reducing the gentiles to slavery or exterminating them loomed up in the Christian imagination during the Middle Ages, growing out of legends about well-poisoning and plague-spreading. Some such stories claimed that a secret rabbinical conference had been held to work out a detailed plan for ritual genocide of the Christians. From the time of the Renaissance, at first in Spain, these legends turned on a political plot rather than a religious one; similar notions circulated in France and Germany, after Napoleon's convocation of the Great Sanhedrin (see French *Sanhedrin) in 1807. They did not gain widespread popular credence, nor at first did the versions launched during the second half of the century by French Catholic authors like *Barruel and Bailly, who associated *Freemasons and Jews in an anti-Christian plot. In its latest version, the legend of the "Elders of Zion" was concocted in Paris in the last decade of the 19th century by an unknown author working for the Russian secret police (Okhrana); in all probability, it was intended to influence the policy of Czar *Nicholas ii toward the interests of the secret police. For his purposes, the anonymous forger adapted an old French political pamphlet by Maurice Joly attributing ambitions of world domination to Napoleon iii, Dialogue aux Enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu, ou la politique au xixe siècle (1864), which does not contain the slightest allusion to Jews or to Judaism. This "dialogue" was transformed into the "protocols" of an alleged conference of the leaders of world Jewry, who stated in summing up that, under the cloak of modern democracy, they already controlled the policies of numerous European states and were therefore very close to their objective. However the calculations of the Russian police misfired on that occasion: Nicholas ii, impressionable and antisemitic though he was, detected the fraud, writing "One does not defend a worthy cause by vile means" in the margin of the manuscript submitted to him. The first Russian public edition of the Protocols, which appeared in 1905, did not attract much attention and was taken seriously in a few mystic and sectarian circles only.

The worldwide success of the Protocols dates from 1919 to 1921; after the widespread slaughter in World War i, the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the risings in Germany, many people felt impelled to discover a "hidden cause" for such tragic and momentous events. The text was widely circulated during the Russian civil war by propagandists seeking to incite the masses against the "Jewish Revolution," and undoubtedly contributed to the extensive pogroms perpetrated in southern Russia between 1918 and 1920. After the defeat of the White armies, Russian émigrés publicized the Protocols in the West. Translations followed, but most reputable European newspapers, such as the Times of London, questioned their authenticity. In 1921 the English journalist Philip Graves pointed out the close similarity between the text of the Protocols and Joly's pamphlet; from then on, balanced and responsible circles refused to take them seriously. This was no bar to an enormous circulation of the text, which was translated into all the main world languages. In the United States it was even sponsored (until 1927) by the influential and popular Henry Ford i.

However, well before the Nazi rise to power, the Protocols found the largest number of adherents in Germany. The theory of the occult power of the Jews' sworn enemies of German-Christian culture, perfectly suited those reactionary propagandists who attributed Germany's defeat to "a stab in the back." Right from the start the Nazi Party propagated this theme. The Weltdienst organization of Erfurt was specially formed to diffuse it and to strengthen ties with antisemites in other countries. In Berne in 1934 the Jewish community of Switzerland brought the distributors of the Protocols to trial, establishing in court that the work was a forgery, but this did nothing to diminish the zeal of its propagators. During World War ii, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion became an implicit justification for the genocide of the Jews; and Nazi propaganda relied on them until the last days of the Third Reich. Although from 1945 no more than bibliographical curiosity in the majority of civilized countries, the Protocols were reissued in numerous Arab states and President Nasser of Egypt publicly vouched for their authenticity, as did the Jordanian delegate to the United Nations in 1980. The Arab states continued to disseminate the Protocols in places as diverse as Sweden and the United States, joined in the latter by black Muslim groups and the Ku Klux Klan. A Spanish edition, published in 1963, was probably an attempt to prevent the revision of the Catholic Church's traditional attitude toward the Jews at the Ecumenical Council Vatican ii. The Protocols were also circulated in Japan, Latin America, and the Soviet Union.

Research by Colin Holmes, a lecturer in economic history of Sheffield University, has revealed the source which enabled Philip Graves to expose the Protocols as a forgery. They were given to Graves by a Russian émigré, Michael Raslovleff, who fled to Constantinople after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Raslovleff, a self-confessed antisemite, gave the information to Graves because he was unwilling to "give a weapon of any kind to the Jews, whose friend I have never been."


N. Cohn, Warrant for Genocide … (1967), a bibliographical note dealing with numerous early works can be found in this work; L. Poliakov, Histoire de l'antisémitisme, 3 vols. (1956–68), passim; Y. Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel (1971); "Patterns of Prejudice," Institute of Jewish Affairs (London, 1977).

[Leon Poliakov]