When Hadassa Ben-Itto told her colleagues she was giving up her career as one of Israel’s most senior judges to expose the deadliest forgery of the 20th century, they thought she was crazy. The forgery — perhaps more accurately a plagiarism — was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it had been used to justify the murders of millions of Jews in Russia and Nazi Germany. But, they said, it was nonsense. It was a fairy story. Surely, no one believed this rubbish any more . . . did they?
That was in 1991. Ben-Itto subsequently embarked, at the age of 64, on an odyssey that took her thousands of miles from home and more than 100 years back in time to pre-revolutionary Russia and a Europe in anti-Semitic ferment. And, by the time she had completed her epic journey, no one thought she was crazy any more.
Next week Ben-Itto publishes the findings of her work in the UK as The Lie That Wouldn’t Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is a forensic deconstruction of a vicious piece of propaganda that paved the way for the Holocaust and which continues to poison minds against worldwide Jewry to this day. The book combines meticulous research with a previously forgotten — but immensely important — courtroom drama to trace the history of the lie to the hand that penned it.
But first, what are The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? They first appeared in 1905 as an appendix to The Great and the Small by the Russian writer Sergei Nilus. Purporting to be the minutes of a great meeting of Jewish leaders, they chronicle the devious methods by which Jews will cause global economic and political collapse to facilitate their complete domination of the world.
The reasoning behind the Protocols was first used as a means of justifying the massacres — or pogroms — that left thousands of Jews dead in Russia, the message being: “If we don’t kill them, they will kill us.” It was a similar message to that used by Hitler 30 years later.
Divided into 24 tracts on such subjects as Ruthless Suppression, Despotism and Modern Progress and Assault on Religion, its use of language is chillingly matter-of-fact. For example, in Instilling Obedience, Protocol XXIII reads: “Subjects . . . give blind obedience only to the strong hand which is absolutely independent of them, for in it they feel the sword of defence and support against social scourges . . .
“What do they want with an angelic spirit in a king? What they have to see in him is the personification of force and power.”
And so on.
Like many Jews, Ben-Itto had heard of the Protocols but had neither read them nor taken them seriously. Her parents, David, a labourer, and Deborah, fled to Palestine before the war and despaired as news came of the Holocaust in their homeland. When it was over, she had lost two grandparents, six aunts, an uncle and several cousins to the Nazis.
After graduating in law, she was admitted to the Israeli Bar in 1955 and practised for five years before being appointed a judge. In the intervening years she enjoyed a remarkable career, serving twice as a member of Israel’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly and holding the temporary rank of ambassador. By the time she took early retirement to investigate the Protocols, she was an Acting Justice of the Supreme Court.
She had had five encounters with the Protocols — once when she was warned about them by a delegate at the UN in 1965; twice when she attended trials tackling racism in Paris in 1972 and Stockholm in 1989; in 1985 when a Filipino judge spoke of them as if they were a given truth; and in a 1988 newspaper article — before she actually sat down to read them.
“As I read on,” she writes, “phrases and paragraphs leapt to the eye, totally devoid of reason, absolutely opposed to any Jewish tradition and teaching.” It was time, she decided, to do something about it.
We meet at the Hilton London Metropole. Ben-Itto, wearing a smart green jacket, is now 78 but she is a bundle of energy who looks ten years younger. She has flown in from Tel Aviv as she wants The Times to carry the first news of her book in the UK (it has already been published in Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Romania, Russia and Bulgaria) because this newspaper had a special role in first exposing the Protocols as a fake in 1921.
“I was horrified when I read them — particularly when I found out they were still being published around the world as if they were true,” she says.
“Everyone had heard of them, but no one was taking them seriously. I decided to have a series of ten dinner parties for ten or so people, senior lawyers, academics, politicians and journalists, at which I would ask the guests about the Protocols. Everyone had heard of them but not one had read them.
“When I told my guests what they said and what I had found out about their history, they were appalled. I then thought that if so many influential Jews were living in ignorance, it was time for me to unmask the Protocols for what they were. The Jewish people have a history of not standing up when they are being attacked — and we have seen the results of that. I believe in standing up at the first sign of danger.” Armed only with a laptop and helped by a Russian researcher, Ben-Itto set off on her voyage of discovery like a modern-day Miss Marple.
Along the way, she learnt that the Protocols had long ago been exposed as a myth in The Times and in several books. But these books had generally been written by academics for academics and had not enjoyed a wide circulation. She also learnt of a landmark court case in Berne, Switzerland, in 1934 when the Jewish community hired a young and inexperienced lawyer to fight an action against a group of fascists which was distributing the Protocols.
That lawyer, Georges Brunschvig, was long since dead, but Ben-Itto discovered that his wife, Odette, was still alive. She began searching for her without success, until one day, while delivering a lecture to a women’s conference in Switzerland, she asked a delegate if she had heard of Odette Brunschvig. “Yes,” said the delegate. “She’s over there.”
“When I approached Odette and told her what I was doing, she burst into tears,” Ben-Itto recalls. “It was as if Georges’s memory and the work he did had passed into history but was being re-ignited. She invited me home and we became great friends.”
The meeting resulted in the judge being given access to the Berne case records, bundled up and gathering dust for 70 years. She also managed to interview Brunschvig’s law partner twice before he died. Those discoveries, coupled with what had already been written about the Protocols enabled her to piece together their remarkable and sinister history.
What she has established is this: the Protocols were written on the instructions of Piotr Ivanovich Rachkovskii, a Russian secret service agent, in Paris around 1895 as a means of reinforcing the anti-Jewish policies of the Romanov dynasty. They gained wide circulation after the publication of Nilus’s book in 1905 and were accepted as the truth by much of the European intelligentsia. Then, in 1921, the distinguished Times correspondent Philip Graves was tipped off by a Russian exile in Istanbul, known as Mr X, that the Protocols were based on a banned — and later burnt — book by the French satirist Maurice Joly (a gentile) entitled Dialogues in Hell.
Joly had meant well. Dialogues in Hell comprised an imaginary conversation between Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian exponent of ruthless political cunning, and Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, the French advocate of enlightened government. It was intended as a criticism of the harsh rule of Napoleon III and it earned Joly a jail sentence.
Graves was given a rare copy of the book and found that large passages of the Protocols had been lifted wholesale from Joly’s Dialogues — the Protocols, therefore, could not possibly have come from a meeting of Jewish elders. Furthermore, the proponents of the Protocols argue that that meeting was the First Conference on Zionism, held in Basel in 1897. But Joly wrote the Dialogues in 1864. “The Berne lawyers won their case but the Protocols were still widely used by Hitler to advocate the extermination of the Jews,” Ben-Itto says.
“I would argue that the Berne case was one of the most important of the 20th century, but it was forgotten in the events that followed.
“The real tragedy is that despite Georges Brunschvig’s great victory, the Protocols are still being published in new editions all round the world.
“You can even buy them on Amazon. They represent the most dangerous libel on an entire race and give support to the belief in what is more widely known as the Jewish Conspiracy — that the Jews are responsible for everything.
“For 9/11, for Iraq, for the spread of Aids, for all political unrest. They are so clever, you see, because any kind of social, economic or political problem fits in with the grand plan for creating the kind of disorder necessary for world domination.
“The Protocols have now left me with a moral dilemma. I am against banning and burning books — that is the kind of behaviour we associate with the Nazis. But when something has been proven to be a fake and when it is specifically designed to incite racial hatred, then I think there is a case for banning it. That is now impossible with the rise of the internet, so the best I can do is expose it as widely as possible for what it is.”
In Eastern European countries, where her book has been published, it has been welcomed and has stimulated sensible debate where before there was only rumour and ignorance. Yet the Protocols are still being used in other countries, primarily Arab states, to foment anti-Semitism.
For example, as recently as February 20, Ikrima Sabri, Mufti of Jerusalem, appeared on Al-Majd satellite TV to comment on the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, and said: “Anyone who studies The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and specifically the Talmud will discover that one of the goals of these Protocols is to cause confusion in the world and to undermine security throughout the world.”
So, it must have been the Jews.
Ben-Itto is now free to enjoy her retirement, yet the Protocols still dog her every footstep. She wants to promote her book as widely as possible (and, in most countries where it has been published she donates the royalties to causes that fight anti-Semitism). It will be published in Spain next and then Latin America, to be followed by a 100-minute documentary, which should be aired in the UK before the end of the year.
“There is no room for complacency,” she argues. “When I took this on, I had no idea what a huge undertaking it would be. I have been fortunate to have enjoyed a long and successful career but to see my book out there exposing this lie is very satisfying. I like to think of it as my legacy to the Jewish people and to the all victims who died because of the hatred incited by the Protocols.”
[UK:] The Lie That Wouldn’t Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Hadassa Ben-Itto, is published on March 7 by Vallentine Mitchell, £39.50p (cloth), £19.95p (paper). To order call 020-8952 9526
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