By HERB KEINON
(June 3, 1998) - Judge Hadassah Ben-Itto hung up her judicial robes and embarked on a mission to set the record straight about the most pernicious piece of antisemetic propaganda ever created.In terms of history, 1894 was not a particularly exceptional year. Japanand Korea declared war on Russia. Czar Alexander III died. Captain Alfred Dreyfuswas tried. In the literary realm, Anthony Hope authored The Prisoner of Zenda,and Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book.
It was also the year many scholars believe a Russian secret agent living in Paris, a certain Pytor Ivanovich Rachkovsky, plagiarized an old French satirical pamphlet that attacked Napoleon III, and called the new pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of
The Jungle Book spawned dozens of movies and cartoons and books and stuffed animals and
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion begat death.
"Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Jews have died
because of this infamous forgery," Joseph Telushkin wrote in his book Jewish Literacy. "Hitler used this book as a manual," wrote Nora Levin in The Holocaust.
Yet, says retired Tel Aviv District Judge Hadassah Ben-Itto, author of the newly published book on the Protocols called Hasheker Mesarev Lamoot ("The Lie that Wouldn't Die," Dvir Publishing), the Jews themselves know painfully little about the pamphlet that
has so influenced their history. Most Jews have never read the
Protocols, few know its history, and still fewer know of the courageous attempts to refute it in
court. We hear "Protocols" and roll our eyes, or snicker, or think: "Who is going to believe that a group of Jews got together and drew up a blueprint for world domination?"
But people do believe it, Ben-Itto says - boy, do they ever believe
The Malaysian president speaks of a Jewish conspiracy to devalue
his country's currency. Palestinian suicide bombers are found with the Protocols in their pockets. The text of the Protocols, and explanations on how the booklet explains today's news, can be found easily on the Internet. The Protocols has not
gone away. It is, indeed, the lie that refuses to die.
On October 31, 1991, Ben-Itto, a respected Tel Aviv District Court
Judge who served for a short stint on the Supreme Court, presided over her last hearing. A few months earlier she had shocked the country's legal community by announcing her early retirement. Her stated reason: to write a book about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - a subject, she says, that had become an obsession. If the
Jews were painfully uneducated about the nefarious document, she was hell-bent on educating them.
Ben-Itto's journey to the Protocols is an intensely personal
one. She immigrated to Israel with her parents from Poland in 1935, at the
nine, leaving her extended family abroad. The dedication in her book
simply, "To the memory of all my relatives who were killed in the
Holocaust, and whose burial place is unknown."
But it was not until she served as a representative in Israel's delegation to the UN in 1965, and again 10 years later
in 1975, that she began to feel the power of the Protocols. While she was part of foreign minister Golda Meir's delegation to the UN in 1965, a Russian delegate quoted from the Protocols during a routine verbal assault on Israel. A Latin American diplomat, surprised that Ben-Itto did not object, told her: "You Jews
must learn from the past. At the time you ignored what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. It is forbidden for you to ignore antisemitic libels, and more importantly, don't make light of libel about a Jewish criminal conspiracy to take over the world."
Ten years later Ben-Itto was back at the UN, this time as part
of the Israeli delegation during the debate on the "Zionism is racism"
"For 10 years we didn't do anything about that, we said 'Oom [UN]
schmom,' who really cares, what does it matter," Ben-Itto recalls. Then, in 1985, president Chaim Herzog, who was Israel's ambassador at the UN during the 1975 debate, held a reunion for some key people who were involved in that debate.
"At that time I had a very difficult conversation with [former US
ambassador to the UN] Jeane Kirkpatrick," she says, "She told me: 'I can't believe that the same thing is happening to the same people twice in one generation - you did not read Mein Kampf carefully. Had you read it carefully, you would have known what was
Kirpatrick's message - one that had a profound impact on Ben-Itto - was that antisemitic documents, as easy as they are to dismiss, must not be taken lightly.
As an activist in the International Association of Jewish Lawyers
and Jurists (an organization she heads today), Ben-Itto began working hard for the repeal of the UN resolution, and soon after she began researching the Protocols. "The Protocols was important in order to incite the mobs," she says. "Not
everyone would be willing to go kill their neighbors, but when it was
explained to them that their neighbors were part of a plot to take over the world..."
Although antisemitism existed long before the Protocols,
Ben-Itto says it undoubtedly helps contemporary antisemites by making their job easier. "Otherwise they would not use the Protocols. The fact that it was used to stir up pogroms,
that Hitler used it - this shows that it is an effective tool. It helps
to explain that by killing Jews you are actually doing a good thing,
because they are plotting to take over the world."
Habits accrued by long years on the bench
die hard for Ben-Itto, and this is clear in the way she conducts an
interview, focusing only on the matter at hand. Her legal background is also felt throughout the book.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, based on antisemitic
canards that flourished in the Middle Ages, is a booklet that claims to expose a secret Jewish conspiracy for world domination.
"Today I can assure you that we are only within a few
strides of our goal," the Protocols reads. "There remains only a
short distance and the cycle of the Symbolic Serpent - that badge of our people - will be complete. When this circle is locked, all the States of Europe will be enclosed in it, as it were, by unbreakable chains."
There is a major difference, Ben-Itto
says, between the Protocols and other antisemitic calumnies, such as the blood libels. "The Protocols is first and foremost a political document - it is not something said about Jews - that we kill kids for their blood - but it presents itself as an authentic document of the secret government of the Jews. 'Don't ask us about the Jews,' the antisemite says while referring to the Protocols, 'see
what they say themselves.' This document is a recipe for control of the world."
It is a recipe that did not come out of nowhere. One of the
precursors of the Protocols was a treatise at the end of the 18th century that blamed the French
revolution on a secret conspiracy of Freemasons. It did not take long
before that treatise was altered to implicate the Jews as well. The
Protocols, as we know it today - and which can be downloaded from Internet sites entitled "Antizion" and"Radio Islam" - was based on a pamphlet written by French satirist Maurice Joly in 1864, entitled "Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu."
This pamphlet was an attack on Napoleon III, and made no mention of the Jews. Thirty years later it was plagiarized by a officer of the Russian secret police, apparently to help out the French right, which wanted Dreyfus to look bad, and as an attempt to strengthen the new Czar Nicholas III and discredit liberal voices in Russia that were expressing some sympathy to Jews.
The Protocols was first published in Russia in 1905, during the failed revolution of that year. An organization called the Black Hundreds wanted to incite against the Jews, whom they blamed for the Revolution. The Protocols was published by a mystic priest,
Sergius Nilus, and formed part of the propaganda that accompanied the pogroms that year inspired by the Russian secret police.
After the 1917 Revolution, Russian emigres brought the Protocols to Europe, where it fell on attentive ears, particularly - but not solely - in Germany, where in 1920 it sold 120,000 copies.
The Protocols also found its way to England and the US, where
auto mogul Henry Ford promulgated its ideas through his antisemitic newspaper The Dearborn Independent. Hitler read theProtocols and praised it in Mein Kampf: "What many
Jews may do unconsciously is here consciously exposed," he wrote. "It is completely indifferent from what Jewish brain these disclosures originate; the important thing is that with positively terrifying certainty they reveal the nature and activity of the Jewish people and expose their inner contexts as well as their ultimate final aims... Once this book has become the common
property of a people, the Jewish menace may be considered as broken."
In the Thirties there were attempts by Jews to discredit the
Protocols in court, with the two notable cases being in Bern, Switzerland, and Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Ben-Itto managed to obtain the transcripts of both trials. Much
of her book centers around the court drama in Bern, covered widely by the world press, where in 1934 the Jewish community took the local Nazi party to court for publishing the Protocols. The lower court judge in Bern ruled that the Protocolswas indeed
plagiarized from Joley's book, and constituted indecent literature,
and fined the defendants. He said he considered the Protocols "ridiculous nonsense."
The defendants appealed, however, and won the appeal on the basis that the pornographic clause used to bring the issue to court was not applicable. But the judges in the appeal also wrote that the Protocols was "trash" and "absolutely unjustified and
outrageous insults and defamation."
Over the years there have been various courts and official bodies, including a US Senate subcommittee, that have declared the
Protocols to be a forgery. As late as 1993 a Russian court ruled that the Protocols was an antisemitic forgery, after the
antisemitic Pamyat organization sued a Jewish newspaper for libel when the paper said Pamyat was fostering anti-Jewish sentiment by publishing the book.
Yet regardless of how many times, and in what forum, the booklet
has been discredited, the Protocols always finds fertile ground - if not in Europe or the US, then in Arab states, where it is often sold and even more often quoted. Ben-Itto says that some copies in Egypt of Shimon Peres's book The New Middle East were distributed with an insert that read: "When The Protocols of the Elders
of Zion was revealed 200 [sic] years ago and translated into many
languages, including Arabic, the Zionist movement tried to deny the existence of a conspiracy, and said the document was a forgery. The Zionists even tried to purchase all the copies of the book to prevent its distribution. Now Shimon Peres is providing eternal proof that the Protocols was correct and what was said inside them was accurate. His book serves as a step in carrying out the dangerous
Ben-Itto, who lives in Tel Aviv and has one daughter and two
grandchildren, made her way to Jerusalem last month for a reception in honor of the book's publication held at the Israel Bar Association. The guests constituted the country's legal elite: from Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who spoke briefly about the Protocols and admitted he had never read them; to former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar; to most of the current Supreme
Court and many past justices; to State's Attorney Edna Arbel and Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein. The judges approached Ben-Itto, congratulated her, and - at least in the case of retired judge Zvi Tal - asked her to sign copies of the book.
The Jews, Ben-Itto says, do not take the written doctrines of
antisemitism seriously, and do not try to refute them. This stems, she says, from an attitude that considers antisemitism almost as something that descended from heaven; something that was, is and always will be. As such, this attitude holds, there is nothing that can be done to combat it.
"In my opinion," Ben-Itto says, "we have been so
hurt by antisemitism for so long that we have given up, raised our
hands, and said the world will always be antisemitic.
"This book is not intended to fight
antisemitism," Ben-Itto continues. "Antisemitism is another story. The purpose of this book is to compete with a lie. Let's say that someone in the world is saying terrible things about you, that you are a murderer and a thief. Would you say it doesn't matter? Of course not."
The Protocols, Ben-Itto points out, is available
in almost all the world's languages, save one - Hebrew. "Don't we care
what people write about us?" she asks.
The history of the Protocols has everything. Forgery,
passion, lies, deceit, fascinating characters, secret agents, court tension, drama. Were the history of
the Protocols made up, it would make riveting paperback writing. Tragically, it's history is all too true.
Nevertheless, Ben-Itto writes her book in a way that
brings the drama behind the Protocols to life; concentrating on
what she understands best - courtroom drama, particularly the landmark trial in Bern.
"You have to give people the tools to refute a lie," Ben-Itto says,
hoping her book provides people with a tool needed to refute one that has stuck to the Jews, with awful consequences, for more than a century.
"Millions of copies of the Protocols
have been distributed. Don't we have a responsibility to place the facts on the table?
"Don't we have a responsibility," asks Ben-Itto "to set the record
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