If filmmaker Marc Levin had taken the bus one morning, we wouldn't have his new documentary The Protocols of Zion. It was in a New York City taxicab that Levin had an eye-opening encounter with an Egyptian cabbie who mentioned a theory which states that no Jews perished in the September 11 attacks because they were warned, and because they might have been responsible, because an early 1900s propaganda pamphlet also titled The Protocols of Zion leads to this conclusion.
Of course it isn't true. Levin knew Jews who were killed in the attacks, and certainly as a Jew himself, he was never warned to stay away. Levin was stunned. "I just kind of lost it at that point," he says in an interview with Boise Weekly. "I thought, 'this is so weird. He's a victim of fundamentalism.'"
Levin likens the fundamentalism and the clash of cultures to a virus in the system, something invisible but destructive, and he wanted to better understand.
So Levin hit the streets with his camera to talk to regular people about the theory, the upswing of anti-Semitism and the connection to the Protocols. "I didn't want to talk to academics or theologians. I wanted to take it to the streets because that's where I heard it," he says. "Why can't we talk about it the way we talk about sports or fashion or music? Anyone could have access to it; you didn't have to have access to the Old Testament or the New Testament or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
In the film, Levin talks to a variety of extremists, like the leader of the National Alliance, the publisher of an Arab-American newspaper and a posse of Palestinian-American youths in Jersey. People are passionate and they are angry and it is clear that everyone thinks his or her own beliefs are right, even if their information is refutable or flat-out wrong.
One thing wrong is The Protocols itself. It is fiction, and it was concocted by a Russian émigré at a time of growing unrest in czarist Russia. After reading a pamphlet written by French satirist Maurice Joly making fun of Napoleon III, the crafter of The Protocols took the pamphlet's text and changed the names, putting Jews in the story. It made its way to the czar's court sometime between 1903 and 1905.
Henry Ford popularized The Protocols by circulating it in a newspaper he owned. Then Hitler got hold of it, but as early as 1920 the London Times had already traced its history and said it was hooey.
When Levin read The Protocols as a teenager, he thought it was silly like a cartoon, and he was struck by three things that discredited it immediately. One: "If you know anything about Jewish culture, you get elders together and they argue. It isn't going down like it is in the pamphlet. Two: The idea of the Jews secretly running the world goes way back, even before The Protocols ... it runs the history of anti-Semitism. Three: Where this is kind of like a comic book, Nazis looked at Jews as vermin, subhuman pollutants. If you read this book, they are superhuman, they control everything. In other words, they are the super race and that's how they are secretly running the world. In many ways, you can say Hitler borrowed from The Protocols and flipped it, made himself, the Aryans, the master race."
So now, in the 21st century in the great American melting pot, how did this fundament return even though it was long ago discredited?
"I think it came back because you had an earth shattering event that changed the world and people were looking for something," Levin says. "The rise of Muslim fundamentalism and taking this European poison and adopting it because of the conflict with Israel in the Muslim world. And then with new technology like the Web and television spreading it in new ways. All of a sudden, The Protocols are back."
The film illuminates questions that beg discussion. It doesn't delve into that discussion much, however. Though the film seems a bit all over the map with one issue leading to another to another and down the line without making hard points, Levin raises a bigger concern about war and peace and hate and intolerance.
"How do you combat this kind of hate when people believe this hate can be holy and violence is sacred?" he asks. Levin took a personal angle on the exploration and appeared in dialogue throughout the film, but the larger question is something we will surely wrestle with in the coming decades.
The Flicks hosts a special screening of The Protocols of Zion on April 2. Director Marc Levin will attend the screening and host a question and answer session after the viewing. The film was originally made for HBO but it will air on Cinemax on April 11. See Boise Weekly's movie times for daily screenings at The Flicks.
Questions? Comments? E-mail Screen@boiseweekly.com.