Torah! Torah! Torah!
You'd think anyone possessed of the notion that "the Jews" collectively think and act alike need only look at, say, wrestler Bill Goldberg, Hollywood hottie Natalie Portman, shock jock Howard Stern, and nebbishy right-wing scold Michael Medved to have that idea instantly dispelled. Yet conspiracy theories persist; you've probably heard the one that no Jews died in the World Trade Center attack because they all knew about it in advance. Documentarian Marc Levin (Slam) was inspired to make a movie about the subject after hearing an articulate Egyptian cab driver endorse that very theory. Protocols of Zion takes its name from the notorious tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purportedly the transcript of a nineteenth-century meeting in which Jewish leaders detailed a plan to take over the world.
In fact Protocols was the work of agents of the Russian czar, and was first debunked by the Times of London in 1921. But Henry Ford (who claimed jazz was a Jewish creation) and Adolf Hitler believed it, as do many militant Muslims today; Levin shows footage from an Egyptian TV miniseries made not long ago, in which a Christian boy has his throat slit by Jews to make blood for the matzo.
A rabbi warns Levin that Jews should not take on the powers that be, for fear of backlash against the entire community, but the filmmaker is determined and unafraid of dialogue. His absolute commitment to free speech shocks some potential allies who fear that even mentioning the Protocols will create unwanted interest in them and throws potential enemies off balance, for they're so used to not being heard that they reflexively expect Levin to censor them and are amazed when he does not.
Levin has obtained an audio-book version as a framing device, which is amusing in that it's clearly read by a rather stereotypical (but real) racist redneck, speaking as if he's an evil Jew. The fact that such narration makes the text seem even less credible has apparently not occurred to the white supremacists who pimp it. In segments reminiscent of Michael Moore's old TV Nation show, Levin hangs out with white separatists and appears to get full access from them, letting them hang themselves with their own words. When he asks National Alliance leader Shawn Walker about the theory that Hitler might have been part-Jewish and had some self-loathing, Walker insists such a question could come from only a "Jewish mindset," for such self-dislike would cause Hitler to want to exterminate himself, and "I don't see him as suicidal in the slightest."
"He committed suicide," responds Levin, who goes on to wonder how, if they secretly run the world, Jews could possibly have messed up their butterfly ballots in 2000 and voted for Pat Buchanan.
But white supremacists are not the only ones on display here. Black supremacists notably members of the Nation of Islam are captured on camera saying that at least in the Holocaust, Jews were put out of their misery quickly, whereas black slaves had to suffer for many years. One prison inmate suggests that the agenda of the neocons in the current administration seems to dovetail nicely with the Protocols agenda. In response to this, Levin offers a clip of Richard Perle bemoaning the fact that hawkish Jews are "badly outnumbered" in the community.
And what documentary about anti-Semitism would be complete without mentioning Mel Gibson and his Jesus movie? Levin tries to gather some notable Jewish entertainers to discuss The Passion of the Christ the eve of its opening, but ends up merely playing phone tag with Rob Reiner, Norman Lear, and Larry David. "I sometimes feel the Jews are hiding ... and the Christians are all waiting with open arms!" says the director, who proceeds to visit a few evangelical groups that promise to pray for him to find Christ, as well as one pastor who says he regrets not being Jewish because "all my heroes are Jews."
The point of Protocols of Zion is not so much to debunk outlandish conspiracy theories but to keep a dialogue alive so that prejudices can come out and be challenged. Levin has invited radicals of all stripes to attend screenings, and has even persuaded Malik Zulu Shabazz, chairman of the New Black Panther Party, to go from embracing the 9/11 theory to admitting he isn't sure, which seems like a baby step but cannot be discounted. And though the movie doesn't give equal focus to other prejudices, it does go a little bit toward criticizing the argument that blacks and Palestinians are justified in horrendous anti-Jewish bigotry because they've been subjected to discrimination themselves.
None of this is as painfully didactic as it might sound. Levin's on-camera presence is warm, wry, and even-tempered, and he never feels the need to rub anything in. The dialogue he chronicles speaks for itself, and he hopes it will continue to speak.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.