The following article was first published in the 'Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs', a publication of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which operates under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — what are they?
Whoever begins to explore the phenomenon of anti-Semitism soon encounters this most influential anti-Semitic fabrication of the last century. Anyone concerned about the big lie of a so-called Jewish global conspiracy knows about this pamphlet, which is said to be proof of the intrigues of “the Jews,” allegedly penned by the Jews themselves. But if one leaves the circle of the informed public, one does not have to go far afield to find people who have never heard of the Protocols — or who assess them in a totally different way.
Seventy years ago the Protocols were a bestseller in Germany. Today they are hardly remembered.
Section 130 of the German Criminal Code deems these writings inflammatory, so people abide by the rules, do not read the Protocols, and do not care. The booklet is not well known in political circles, churches, or universities.
Seemingly, the only ones who are familiar with it are a handful of anti-German left-wing activists, whose ideas a non-Marxist might not understand, but whose penetrating and profound statements concerning Israel are made loud and clear, even if they are often disregarded.
There is another place you can find the Protocols: at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, delivered by the Iranians in English, or inside several mosques in Turkish or Arabic translation, as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution confirms.
The situation is similar in other parts of Europe. An Arabic edition of the Protocols (one of many), published in Egypt in 2002 by the large publishing house Akhbar al-Youm, contains a list of thirty-seven countries to which it is exported, including Germany, Great Britain, France, and the United States.
In Germany, prosecution for the dissemination of the inflammatory booklet proves to be less frequent if it is in Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi. This special dispensation for incitement is not without consequences. In the face of an unending series of violent attacks on Jewish citizens, often committed by youth with a Muslim background, Europe should at least demonstrate some interest in what lies behind this phenomenon.
Instead of approaching the subject as earnestly as possible, there has been much effort expended on the denial of the problem. For the last three years, confronted with the release of some relevant studies and even more violent incidents, Muslim anti-Semitism has garnered more attention. But too often it is interpreted as a reaction to the discrimination Muslims suffer.
Most Germans and probably most Europeans do not know (and do not want to know) that Mein Kampf is a bestseller in the Arab world today. They regard the friendly salute of a taxi driver in Egypt and the words “Heil Hitler” as meaningless exceptions. What, then, should be made of the proliferation of Arabic-language editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
The Protocols in the Arab world
The popularity of the Protocols in the Arab world is not at all limited to Islamist circles. The belief in a Jewish world conspiracy characterizes the general historical and political consciousness in much of the Middle East. However, the main reason for this is not the reference to the Protocols in Section 32 of the Hamas Charter or other extremist propaganda.
The Jews’ responsibility for every evil on earth is, rather, a very common, academic, and centrist world view in Arab nations.
The Protocols are translated, commented upon, published, and promoted by famous Arab intellectuals, politicians, and professors. They introduce the Protocols as an authentic document and as absolutely essential in explaining world affairs.
The Lebanese politician Ajjaj Nuwayhid (1897–1982) published an Arabic translation of the Protocols that is still among the most famous editions. In the foreword to the fourth edition, he quoted Said Aql, one of Lebanon’s most important modern poets: “Before the publishing [of the Protocols] Israel could be seen as a mere military danger, but now it has become a cultural and metaphysical danger.”
Whether the Protocols were authentic or not was a question of little or no significance: “In this period of history in the Middle East no one who has not read your [Nuwayhid’s] book should be entrusted with politics.”
Nuwayhid’s translation has been reprinted by many publishing houses in different Arab countries. Most editions of the Protocols include the following blurb:
- Oh, you may not stop halfway, my dear Arab, as it is your duty to know most certainly what and who is “International Jewry,” working toward the devastation of Christianity, Islam, and all of civilization.
- If you stop halfway you are harming yourself, your Umma, your history and your present and future descendants.
- Do not be deceived by what you have known until now about 'Zionism' and 'Israel'. It is important for you to know the 'international Jewry' that is behind the scenes and that has performed its criminal deeds for twenty centuries.
- 'Zionism' and 'Israel' are nothing but its facade. Read these Protocols!
This invitation is often combined with a warning to the reader to exercise caution in dealing with the Protocols; purportedly, no translator or publisher of this tome has ever died of natural causes: To the reader: Take care of this copy, as the Jews fought this book wherever it appeared and in every language.
They appear, no matter what the cost, in order to collect and burn the copies, because they do not want the world to know about the hellish plots they have made against it. In this book they [the plots] are revealed.
One often reads that the real object of the Arabs’ struggle did not appear for the first time in 1948 (i.e. with the creation of the State of Israel) or in the late nineteenth century with the emergence of Zionism, but rather that “International Jewry” has been a threat to mankind throughout the ages.
The first Arabic translation of the Protocols to gain mainstream fame was the one by Muhammad Khalifa at-Tunisi, first published in 1951. It is still reprinted today and is also available on the internet.
At-Tunisi explained why he translated the Protocols: I do not warn against the [Jewish] danger because they are fighting against my people; and not because they carved Israel out of Palestine and in so doing, became a neighboring enemy; and not because they are situated right in the midst of our own countries. But I warn against their danger to mankind, too. Even if all of that belongs to my motives for paying attention to this danger, I still warn against their danger to mankind. Even if they were expelled from our countries to any spot of land—wherever they were, they were enemies to mankind.
At-Tunisi’s translation is supplemented with a benevolent foreword by the great Egyptian liberal writer Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad. The foreword to the English translation by Victor Marsden is also reprinted there in Arabic, as well as that of Sergej Nilus, the Orthodox mystic who first published the Protocols in Russia in 1905. This creates the impression that people all over the world are all aware of the “Jewish peril.”
Most Arabic editions of the Protocols contain much more than just the text of the fabrication. The above-mentioned 1996 edition of Nuwayhid’s translation has about 600 pages, of which the Protocols themselves account for less than 100.
The rest is pseudoscientific material, forewords of older Arabic or foreign editions, and articles by other so-called “scholars and experts.” But the fact is that they are mostly well-educated people. It is frightening to observe that blatant anti-Semitism and progressive, higher education are not mutually exclusive.
Nuwayhid adds to his translation an analysis of the Old Testament. It is not unusual for the Protocols to be placed in the context of Jewish sacred writings.
The content of the Protocols — the call to conspire against the world — is said to be binding for every Jew.
According to Nuwayhid, one of his goals was “the disclosure of the sources of these [the Jewish] drives—the sources to which the Talmud always belonged, like the deeds of Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel, and Ezekiel during the Babylonian captivity and afterwards.”
Arab scholars are quite familiar with the true history of the fabrication and they usually do not refrain from recounting it. Some retell that history in detail, but still manage to use the Protocols as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy. In the Arabic Wikipedia article on the Protocols, for example, the idea that the booklet is a fabrication is presented as the “opinion of some historians” while others are said to take it seriously.
The writers clearly favor the latter interpretation. The article has been changed often since 2008, but its impact is still the same. Most people are so convinced of the existence of a global Jewish conspiracy that they might see the Protocols as a confirmation of their world view; however, they do not need proof, as al-Aqqad wrote: “It is a fact free of doubt …that the secret government exists with or without these Protocols.”
Later in the same edition at-Tunisi adds: “The forger — assuming that it is a forgery — was undoubtedly an excellent forger, and he was undoubtedly Jewish. For no forger who is not [Jewish] would be able to forge these prophecies.”
At-Tunisi follows a similar kind of logic in many other passages of his introduction. If the person about whom he writes is not undoubtedly Jewish, he or she might be a Jew pretending not to be Jewish, or a non-Jew influenced by “the Jews.” He alleges, for example, that the copies of a 1917 Russian edition of the Protocols were confiscated by the Bolsheviks, who were, either officially or secretly, for the most part Jewish, or at least “henchmen” of the Jews.
He maintains the same view regarding the British parliament,American congressmen, and various UN delegations.
Even today, the Protocols, treated as a factual book, are circulating in the more educated classes in the Arab world. But propaganda and the pervading belief in a Jewish world conspiracy infiltrate all sectors of society.
The production of the Ramadan soap opera ‘Knight without a Horse’ was a high point in the process of 'dumbing-down' the Protocols for the benefit of the often less-educated masses in the Arab world. Over the course of forty-one episodes, this Egyptian soap opera brought the myth into the living rooms of the Arab world in a “prime time” slot after the evening news.
Some argue that this series, which was released in 2002, was already dated. But like the oldest Arabic editions of the Protocols, this drama did not disappear after the first broadcast. It continues to be aired on TV, spreading the messages of the Protocols in probably the most “successful” way.
References to the Protocols can be found in Arab textbooks as well as in academic curricula. Prof. Ahmad Hijazi as-Saqa of the Azhar University in Cairo published two anti-Semitic books on the Protocols in 2003.
Fath Allah of the University of Aleppo wrote the film script of the 2003 Lebanese Ramadan series ‘Diaspora’ which also propagates the notion of a Jewish world conspiracy.
There are thousands of examples that indicate that the belief in a Jewish world conspiracy is a mass phenomenon in the Arab world. The Protocols are only a single example drawn from a vast literature of hate. The study of the popularity of Mein Kampf in the Arab world and widespread Holocaust denial leads to similar findings.
Functions of the Protocols
Conspiracy theories in general fulfill certain functions for societies, individuals, and governments. By creating a world view of black and white, good and evil, in-group and out-group, they have an identity-establishing effect.
This is also the case in the Arab world with the myth of a Jewish world conspiracy. Wars between different Muslim groups or nations, economical backwardness, and even natural disasters are often said to be caused by sinister Jewish forces. For example, it was hard to explain to the Arab world why Fatah and Hamas, two Sunni Muslim Palestinian groups of so-called “freedom fighters,” were not able to form a common government in Gaza after the elections in 2006.
A cartoon in the Qatari newspaper 'al-Watan' from 13 November 2006 portrayed an Orthodox Jew as responsible for the bloodshed between the two. Fatah and Hamas are seen peacefully sitting at the negotiating table, while the Jew secretly places a grenade under it.
In religious contexts, the Jews are often seen as “satanic antagonists” who conveniently serve as an explanation if promised heavenly blessings seem to be denied to Islamic theocracies or groups. In that same context, anti-Semitic out-group discrimination has a strong anti-modern component.
All of these and other “functions” of the Protocols must not be confused with “reasons”. Anti-Semitism is systematically used as an instrument, and Arab- Muslim societies are fertile ground for conspiracy theories. But it must never be accepted as a law of nature that suppression and poverty lead to anti-Semitism.
The very rational, often officially subsidized, use of the Protocols for spreading anti-Jewish propaganda should be seen as the instrumental use of that document.
Disseminating that fabrication does not, however, bring any real relief to the Arab world. On the contrary, it prevents Arabs from looking for solutions to many homemade problems.
Dealing with anti-Semitism among Muslims in Western societies
Anti-Semitic attitudes in Western societies have hardly disappeared; if anything they are on the ascent. However, by only focusing on right-wing extremism we run the risk of ignoring the very real threat of Muslim anti-Semitism.
People in the West have mostly forgotten about the Protocols. Despite their revival in the Arab and Muslim world, they are not garnering much attention.
Yet, as the dangerous lie is still alive and kicking, action must be taken to identify and combat it. A first step of Western governments and societies would be to recognize the facts: This bastion of anti-Semitism in the Arab world is not a collection of exceptions pointed to by those who want to defame Arabs or Muslims, but has become an ideology with deep roots and a strong impact on individuals, societies, and world affairs.
Carmen Matussek is a scholar specializing in Islamic studies in Tübingen, Germany. She is the author of Der Glaube an eine ‘jüdische Weltverschwörung - Die Rezeption der ‘Protokolle der Weisen von Zion’ in der arabischen Welt (2012), a book on how the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are received in the Arab world. Since 2009 she has worked as a freelance journalist and editor, cooperating with the Political Education Authority of the German state of Baden-Württemberg.