wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Bernard Lewis

Semites and Anti-Semites

Any rational modern reader of the Protocols cannot but wonder at the crudity of the inventors of this text, and the credulity of those who believed it. Among the many strange 'secrets' revealed in the book is that the Jews make the sons of the nobility study Latin and Greek as the best way of undermining their morale, and that the Jews ordered the building of underground railways in the major cities of Europe so that when the time comes they can blow up any capital which resists their rule. Nor do those who believe in the Protocols find it odd that the Jews, in their own secret writings, should cast themselves in the role of agents of evil, and should moreover do so in the specific terminology of Christian anti-Semitism. Yet despite these and many other similar absurdities, the book has gone through countless editions, been distributed in millions of copies, and must rank very near to the Bible in the number of languages into which it has been translated.

The text has a curious history. In its earliest extant form, it has nothing whatever to do with either Jews or anti-Semites, but consisted of a pamphlet written in the 1860s against Napoleon III. The forgers took this pamphlet, substituted world Jewry for the French emperor, and added a number of picturesque details borrowed from an obscure German novel. The Protocols first appeared in about 1895, and were almost certainly the work of a group of members of the czarist Russian secret police stationed in Paris. For some time, the book was used only in Russia. It had little influence even there and none at all outside. Its worldwide fame began with the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the course of the bitter civil wars that raged across Russia in the years 1918-1921, the leaders of the White Russians used the Protocols extensively to persuade the Russian people that the so-called revolution was no more than a Jewish plot to impose a Jewish government on Russia, as a step toward the ultimate aim of Jewish world domination.

The Protocols and the doctrines which it was used to propagate had their effect in the brutal massacres of Jews during the Russian Civil War. At the same time, White Russian agents carried the Protocols to all the countries of Europe and the Americas, as evidence of their interpretation of the significance of the Revolution and the nature of the new government in Moscow. In this they achieved quite extraordinary success. In Britain, both the Times and the Morning Post gave the Protocols extensive treatment, and the Spectator even demanded a royal commission to decide whether British Jews were in fact 'subjects of a secret government.' In America, the Protocols were widely circulated under the title The Jewish Peril and were in particular publicized and distributed by the automobile magnate Henry Ford, an obsessive anti-Semite who wrote a series of articles on 'The International Jew,' which he later reprinted as a separate booklet.

In 1921, the Times newspaper of London published some articles by its Istanbul correspondent, who had discovered a copy of the original French pamphlet and thus exposed the Protocols as a forgery; in 1927 even Henry Ford admitted that his accusations were unfounded. From this time onward, in the English-speaking world, the Protocols were confined to the lunatic fringe. But in Hitler's Germany, they provided a major theme in Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, and like the White Russian agents before them, Nazi peddlers of anti-Semitism were instrumental in distributing the Protocols all over the world.

The Protocols, though by far the most successful, were not the only anti-Semitic fabrication. Another, specially designed for an American audience, is a speech by Benjamin Franklin urging the Founding Fathers not to admit Jews to the new republic, and warning them of the dire consequences if they disregarded his words. The speech is a total fabrication, but was not without its effect. A less troublesome and widely used method was simply to assign a Jewish origin to anyone whom it was desired to discredit, and then to use that person to discredit the Jews.

The advent of capitalism found the Jews well placed to take advantage of the new opportunities which it offered them, and in consequence exposed them to both revised and new accusations. As a community that possessed neither state nor church, neither government nor army, the whole existence of Jews, their very identity, was determined by a book; even the poorest and most backward Jewish communities had a level of literacy higher than that of most of their neighbors. This skill, at the disposal of minds sharpened by centuries of Talmudic study, stood them in good stead in the new era. As outcasts on the fringes of society, strugglmg precariously for survival, they were better prepared for the rough-and-tumble of early capitalism than were the pampered upper class and cowed lower class of the old social hierarchy. As the moneylenders of the old order, some of them had a skill in the handling of money which enabled them to compete with their less experienced Christian competitors. Finally, possessing neither princes nor prelates in their own ranks, they were unhampered, as were many Christians, by powerful vested interests in the old order.

Significant numbers of Jews began to make money, sometimes very much money, by trade and finance. With that money, they were able to buy a better education for their sons and also—to a greater extent than among the Christians—for their daughters, and to enter the learned profossions as for as these were open to them. The political process, at virtually all levels, was still closed to Jews in most countries. But a rising bourgeoisie will seek political expression. Though the Jews could not hold power, their money could sometimes bring them near enough to those who held it to exercise influence. For some Christians, any improvement in the previously humble and despised position of the Jews was an outrage against their Savior. For others, the increasing role of Jewish capitalists was at least a force for corruption, at worst an attempt to take over and dominate the world.

The age of capitalism brought two major accusations against the Jews—one, that they had created and were maintaining it, and two, that they were trying to undermine and destroy it. The first of these accusations came in two variants, from those whose domination was threatened and ultimately ended by capitalism, and from those who themselves hoped to overthrow and replace the capitalist order. The church and the nobility were well aware of the declining power of their orders. Rightly, they ascribed this unwanted change to capitalism; mistaking symptom for cause, they attributed the rise of capitalism to the Jews. A whole literature, much of it written by churchmen and noblemen, developed this theme.

At the same time, another brand of anticapitalist anti-Semitism was beginning among the socialist movements that first rose to prominence in the early nineteenth century. While anti-Semitism was in general a minority view among articulate socialists, it was by no means unimportant. August Bebel, who founded the German Social Democratic Party in 1869, is quoted as saying that 'Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.' If so, there were many such fools, including famous pioneers like Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Alphonse Toussenel (1803-1885), Pierre LeRoux (1797-1871), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and, in some of their writings, both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For Fourier, the Jews were 'parasites, merchants, and usurers,' who devote themselves entirely to 'mercantile depravities.' Fourier was strongly opposed to Jewish emancipation. 'To grant the Jews citizenship was the most shameful...of all the recent vices' of contemporary society. Lepers should be segregated and kept away, and 'are not the Jews the leprosy and the ruin of the body politic?' Toussenel, a pioneer of both socialism and anti-Semitism in France, gave his retrospective blessing to all the anti-Semites of the past: 'I understand the persecutions to which the Romans, the Christians, and the Mohammadans subjected the Jews. The universal repulsion inspired by the Jew for so long was nothing but Just punishment for his implacable pride, and our contempt the legitimate reprisal for the hate which he seems to bear for the rest of mankind.' Proudhon, in a book published in 1883, gives a classical formulation of the anti-Semitism of left-wing economists:
The Jew is by temperament an anti-producer, neither a farmer nor an industrialist nor even a true merchant. He is an intermediary, always fraudulent and parasitic, who operates, in trade as in philosophy, by means of falsification, counterfeiting, and horse-trading. He knows but the rise and fall of prices, the risks of transportation, the incertitude of crops, the hazards of demand and supply. His policy in economics has always been entirely negative, entirely usurious; it is the evil principle, Satan, Ahriman, incarnated in the race of Shem.
Proudhon, it will be noted, in his modern socialist exposition, has adopted the medieval charge of satanism, and has indeed developed it, by adding the evil spirit of the old Indo-Aryan pantheon, Ahriman.