Old Jews Telling Jokes: Meet The Elders of Zion

To see how the memes of conspiracy migrate, let us turn to conspiracy theory’s original sin:  The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.  The peculiar lineage of the Protocols is all the more Russian for its European roots:  plagiarized from a decades-old French satire, the Protocols became the foundational text for both Russian and global conspiracy theories. Simultaneously cosmopolitan and parochial, the  Protocols cannot be accepted by their Russian proponents as either Russian (i.e, the creation of the tsarist secret police) or French (the product of shameful literary theft that recapitulates a centuries-long inferiority complex in relation to European high culture). 

The story of the Protocols is well-known, though that has not stopped their circulation as revelatory texts over a century later.  Originally published in Russian in 1903, the Protocols purport to be the minutes of a meeting of a secret cabal of Jews who are responsible for nearly every aspect of world affairs.  Though it was not the first tract to make such an argument, it became one of the most successful; in America, Henry Ford sponsored a large print run of the English translation, while in Germany, Hitler citations of the Protocols in Mein Kampf heralded their prominence in Nazi propaganda.  Over the past few decades, their truth has been widely proclaimed by several leaders in the Arab world, while in the West, the understanding of the Protocols as a forgery has inspired a brilliant postmodernist short story (Danilo Kis’s "The Book of Kings and Fools”), a best-selling novel (Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery) and a nonfiction graphic novel (Will Eisner’s The Plot).   


Readers who are not die-hard anti-Semites or committed conspiracy theorists are likely to have difficulty taking the Protocols seriously as a text.  Starting with the book’s very premise (the leaders of a top-secret global conspiracy take meticulous notes for their records),  the author of the Protocols make little effort to render them plausible.  

In fact, if the Protocols are bad nonfiction, they are much worse when read as the author’s fantasy:  on top of everything else, the Protocols are a crime against fiction.  The conspirators prove to be laughably cartoonish villains, with no attempt to give them even a hint of moral complexity.   The author simply can’t help but make sure that the villains’ own words reflect an awareness of their own evil as well as an indication of the “good” that they abhor:

  1. "The people, under our guidance, have annihilated the aristocracy, who were their one and only defense and foster- mother for the sake of their own advantage which is inseparably bound up with the well-being of the people.”

 Sentences like this are more than just explanations of an imagined evil; they are propaganda for the moral and society framework that is implicitly the only bulwark against the Jews.

The bulk of the book describes the Elders’ use of both capitalism and communism to destroy traditional institutions and consolidate power through money.  Unsurprisingly, the Jews here are a stand-in for a modernity that the authors of the Protocols could only see as disastrous.  The Protocols did not invent the idea of a secret society’s responsibility’s for all the world’s ills (a century of European panics over Freemasons deserves at least some of the credit).  But, perhaps inadvertently, the Protocols adds a key word to the lexicon of right-wing conspiracy, a word that in other contexts could seem, if not innocent, at least unthreatening:  the goyim.

The goyim (or GOYIM, as it is always written in the text) is a Hebrew term whose literal meaning is “the nations,” but which functions simply as “gentiles,” even if its deployment is something of a slur. But the goyim of the Protocols are not your embarrassing,  xenophobic Jewish grandfather’s goyim: they are the hapless dupes of the Jews who control the world.  

Like the “new world order” discussed in the previous entry, “goyim” travels a circuitous memetic path.  More often than not, its utterance by non-Jews (particularly on the Internet) marks the speaker as surely as an swastika tattoo marks a member of the Aryan Nations (a hate group whose name, ironically enough, could be freely translated back into Hebrew as “goyim”). The term appears frequently in Internet comment sections about the issues that animate conspiracists in America.  To the uninitiated, the word seems strangely out of context.  In actuality, the “goyim” meme travels with its own portable context, placing the rest of the commenter’s utterance within the framework of neofascist conspiracies. 

On Monday: What Conspiracy Means to Me