Propaganda at a Capitol Checkpoint: A Faked Antisemitic Text Resurfaces
It was 7 p.m. on a Sunday in mid-March, and Zach Fisch was ready to go home. He walked down the marble halls of the Longworth House Office Building, where he worked as chief of staff to New York Rep. Mondaire Jones. As he headed to the big double doors of the exit, he passed a pair of Capitol Police officers guarding the entrance, running the X-ray machine and metal detector, and scrutinizing visitors’ bags and bodies for weapons that could be used to harm members of Congress or their staff. Fisch happened to glance over to a table near the officers’ workspace and was alarmed by what he saw: a dog-eared print-out of the world’s most notorious antisemitic text, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (hereafter The Protocols).
For more than a century, this text, created by the Russian secret police, has been used to advance a powerful and persistent antisemitic myth: that Jews are plotting to take over the world. From Adolf Hitler to Henry Ford, rabid antisemites have championed the fabricated text as a historical document and published it widely. So what is this nearly 120-year-old lie doing in the hands of a Capitol Police officer in 2021?
There are three qualities of the text that are key to its staying power throughout the ages. Its fragmentary composition, simulation of a primary document, and nature as a conspiracy text have helped The Protocols survive the decades and find purchase in disparate cultures and contexts. Echoes of The Protocols can be found in a number of popular conspiracy narratives in the United States today. One such narrative is of particular interest given its appearance in the possession of a Capitol Police officer. “Protocol 10” describes a Jewish plot to manipulate elections and install a puppet president — a narrative similar to the “stop the steal” conspiracy that fueled the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January. Given the nature of The Protocols — and the transcendence of its themes in the rhetoric and ideology of QAnon and the white supremacist movement more broadly — lawmakers and intelligence officials should take a closer look at The Protocols incident and the possibility of a deeper problem within the Capitol Police force.
What Is The Protocols and What Explains its Staying Power?
In 1903, the Russian secret service, the Okhrana, created The Protocols as black propaganda. It purports to be the original documentation of the minutes of a conference of elder Jewish statesmen, who, through a number of meetings, established 24 strategies, or “protocols,” upon which they would conspire to control the world’s governments; dominate and subjugate non-Jews, “the Goyim”; and ultimately create an international super-state.
From Russia and Germany to America, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, The Protocols has transcended continents and cultures, time periods, and contexts from 1903 to present. In Germany in the 1920s, Adolf Hitler incorporated The Protocols into his infamous antisemitic text, Mein Kampf, and later, in the 1930s, his National Socialist Party used The Protocols as propaganda to mobilize supporters, indoctrinate school children, and justify the Holocaust. Around this time, in America, the powerful industrialist and the carmaker Henry Ford spread the poison of The Protocols in a series of newspaper articles titled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” which he later published as a four-volume book. In Japan in the 1980s, public intellectuals lauded and studied The Protocols as a blueprint for world domination, while, in the 1990s in Egypt, the authoritarian government of Hosni Mubarak ran a 41-part documentary on the Jewish conspiracy on national television. A decade later in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei employed the themes of The Protocols in radio and television broadcasts.
The text has been translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and Farsi — at least 20 languages all told. It is not surprising then that Norman Cohen called The Protocols “probably the most widely distributed book in the world after the Bible.” What explains the black propaganda’s endurance across continents, timeframes, and cultures?
While there are several qualities that make The Protocols so pervasive, there are three in particular that, taken in the current political context, make the text so potent and render the revelation of its possession by a U.S. Capitol Police officer so troubling.
Fragments and Generalities
Part of the answer to why The Protocols has stuck around so long has to do with its composition. The Protocols was not the work of one author but of several. It is a plagiarized mash-up of different satirical and antisemitic tracts. Like the mad scientist and Frankenstein, its Okhrana creators stitched together parts of a political satire by the French lawyer and publicist Maurice Joly and an antisemitic novel — by the Prussian writer cum agent provocateur Hermann Goedsche — to create a uniquely horrifying and discordant new text, and a monster in its own right.
And it is this Frankenstein quality that is a key part of its staying power. Its readers and champions can pick and choose the conspiracy themes that speak to them and fit their culture and context. Without dates and names, the fabricated text can be used to “explain” both historic and contemporary events as well as predict future ones. Someone in South America could, for example, emphasize the part of The Protocols that talks about Jews infiltrating and taking over the great banks of the world, while someone in North America might focus on their alleged use of communist ideology to attack American liberties.
A “True” Lie
Another secret behind the durability of The Protocols has to do with its representation as a primary document. The reader believes he has in his hands the minutes of a secret meeting of the world’s leading Jews. He doesn’t, of course, since there was no such meeting or group. But, because it was crafted to look like the stolen documentation of a real event and because its contemporary champions peddle it as a historical artifact, the text appears to be incontrovertible evidence that the Jewish conspiracy exists. This quality also allows The Protocols’ many publishers and propagators to hide their antisemitic agendas under the pretense of “investigating” the authenticity of the document and explicating its meaning.
A Conspiracy Text
The Protocols is a conspiracy text. As such, it joins thousands of other conspiracy theories. But The Protocols is unique in that it is both an articulation of an alleged conspiracy — that of a secret international Jewish plot to control the world — and purported proof that such a conspiracy exists. As such, it is exceptionally difficult to disprove or discredit.
And yet, there have been numerous attempts to do just that. In 1921, the British newspaper The Times ran a series of articles debunking the text. In 1964, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee issued a report titled “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: A Fabricated ‘Historic’ Document.” Scholars such as Binjamin W. Segal, Steven L. Jacobs, Esther Webman, and Michael Hagemeister have written treatises on the subject. But, for its adherents, the very act of others trying to disprove The Protocols is proof that the conspiracy is real.
The Protocols Are Everywhere
As mentioned earlier, The Protocols is not a single super-conspiracy theory, but rather a discordant and sprawling compilation of 24 sub-conspiracies, each an independently themed “strategy” (loosely termed) for world domination. As such, it is a sort of Rosetta Stone of antisemitic conspiracy theories. We see parts of The Protocols in some of the most virulent conspiracy narratives in the United States today.
We see iterations of The Protocols in QAnon, which generally holds that an shadowy cabal of liberals in in the highest echelons of society and government (sometimes referred to as the “deep state”) seek to take over the U.S. government. As part of this project, so the baseless spin off “SaveTheChildren” conspiracy theory goes, they kidnap, imprison, molest, sell, and slaughter white children and drink their blood.
We see The Protocols in the 2016 Pizzagate scandal, which asserted that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child sex market and holding children in the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington D.C. pizzeria. We see it in some strands of anti-vax material, which describes COVID-19 as the “Jew flu” and the vaccine as part of the plot to wipe out the “goyim.” We see it in the “New World Order” conspiracy that holds that a “globalist,” socialist Jewish cabal is working to take control of all the governments of the world and create one international super-government. We see it in “false flag” conspiracy narratives, which allege that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, in which 20 children and six adults were murdered, and other mass casualty events never happened, and that the victims and witnesses were “crisis actors.”
And lastly, and perhaps most troublingly, we see it in the seditious “stop the steal” campaign behind the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “Protocol 10” describes a Jewish conspiracy to rig elections and install puppet heads of state. Calling voting “the instrument which will set us on the throne of the world,” the fictitious Jewish narrator boasts of the cabal’s power to “pick presidents” and describes how they would control their chosen president using “some dark undiscovered stain” in the politician’s past as blackmail.
The U.S. Capitol Police officer suspended for possession of The Protocols surely could not have missed the parallels. For duped readers and would-be propagators of the fabricated text, “Protocol 10” at once explains Trump’s re-election loss and justifies the Jan. 6 insurrection — that “stop the steal” was unsuccessful only proves the power of the alleged Jewish conspirators behind the curtain.
Soon after Fisch, the congressional staffer, sent photos of the antisemitic text to the Washington Post, acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman announced that the officer implicated had been suspended, pending investigation. This is not the first time in recent memory that U.S. security or intelligence services have been associated with The Protocols. Last summer, the FBI tweeted out a declassified version of The Protocols with no explanation or context. (It was later chalked up to poor oversight of an automated Twitter account.)
Nor is the officer the first member of the Capitol Police to be suspended for proximity to white supremacist ideology. 35 members of the U.S. Capitol Police force are currently suspended or under investigation for their ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection, which was populated by groups and individuals associated with Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement with known ties to violent white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers militia. The police initiated the suspensions after footage surfaced showing officers standing back or clearing the way for the mob, posing for photos with the attackers, and watching, some even helping, as men and women with zip ties, guns, and pepper spray flooded the halls of the U.S. Capitol building in a delusional effort to stop the certification of the election results and hunt down Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pence, and others. Recent news reports suggest there is a culture of racism within the U.S. Capitol Police force, with a number Black former U.S. Capitol Police officers speaking out about the topic in the aftermath of Jan. 6.
While members of Congress have called for investigations of police conduct on Jan. 6, historically, Congress has exercised little oversight of the U.S. Capitol Police. The 2,300-member force is not subject to the same accountability and transparency measures to which regular police departments are subject. And yet, such scrutiny and transparency are essential for the restoration of trust among members of Congress and their staffs in the wake of the insurrection, particularly those members and staff who are not white. “To these guys, me and my staff are persona non grata,” said Fisch, who is Jewish, in a phone conversation. “How can I tell my staff they’re safe when I don’t feel safe?”
While many questions remain about the incident and its implications, one thing is certain: The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is a potent and poisonous work of black propaganda that has captured the imagination of white nationalists and antisemites for nearly twelve decades. Its presence in the hands of a U.S. Capitol Police officer charged with protecting America’s elected representatives — including those who are black, brown, Jewish, and Muslim — is deeply troubling.
Emily Blout, Ph.D., is a historian and media scholar at Georgetown University, where she teaches a course called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Digital Edition: Propaganda, Conspiracy, and the Politics of Hate” for the Center for Jewish Civilization. She is co-author of “White Supremacist Terrorism in Charlottesville,” which was published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism in 2021, and author of Media and Power in Modern Iran: Mass Communication, Ideology and the State, which will be published in 2022. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @emilyblout.
Image: Tyler Merbler