Why The FBI Tweeted About The Elders of Zion
And the remarkable things we can learn from the archive they released
In the beginning, there was a tweet:
Unsurprisingly, the internet promptly lost its mind over this unexplained link to one of history’s most infamous anti-Semitic tracts. On Twitter, users were alternatively bemused, amused, confused, and alarmed. One Jewish organization even darkly suggested that the tweet was an FBI dog whistle to Trump-backing white supremacists.
What really happened? Nothing so nefarious, as I and other reporters explained. @FBIRecordsVault is an automated account that exists to alert the public to any records newly released by the Bureau. In this case, as my Tablet colleague Armin Rosen observed, it appeared that someone had put in a Freedom of Information Act request for any mentions of the Protocols in the FBI’s records. On Wednesday, the Bureau released those files in accordance with the law, and the account dutifully announced the disclosure.
Of course, this anodyne explanation did not stop Twitter from collectively melting down over the tweet, which certainly could have used more context to avoid this outcome (but which the automated FBI account was not staffed to provide). Hours later, the FBI confirmed what reporters had explained:
This morning, they deleted the original tweet, putting an end to this sorry saga of overblown internet outrage.
Which is a shame, because there’s actually a lot of fascinating material in the 139-page archive of Protocols-related content that the FBI released! Taken together, the documents offer a valuable window into American anti-Semitism over the decades, and how it has and hasn’t changed.
CSI: Goy Division
A significant chunk of the material consists of copies of the Protocols that were sent to the FBI by concerned citizens. Some were just confused and wondering if the pamphlet’s claims of Jewish conspiracy were true, while others were already quite certain that the Deep Shtetl was real and were asking the FBI to intervene.
Typically, the agency replied with a form letter thanking the respondent without offering any substantive agreement or disagreement. In one case, they sent a reference to booklets debunking the Protocols.
In this vein, the file contains a collection of letters sent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover requesting that he look into the Jewish conspiracy controlling world affairs:
“There’s a Jew—er, I mean ‘Zionist’—under my bed”
The missives to Hoover are replete with anti-Semitic buzzwords and claims that remain in popular circulation to this day. For example, there’s this letter from someone affiliated with the Church of Christ, who notes that members of their faith community take the Protocols as fact:
And then there’s this far-right fellow, who’s convinced that the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves, and then covered it up:
Note the repeated invocation in these letters of “international Zionism” and “Zionist Jews” as euphemistic stand-ins for Jews in general, which lends a thin political veneer to what is simply classical anti-Semitism. Today, this substitution remains a common rhetorical tactic, used to provide plausible deniability to anti-Semitic assertions and thereby smuggle them into legitimate discourse as mere “criticism of Israel.” Such sleight-of-hand is not just the province of hard-right anti-Communists in the 1960s. In 2016, the same trick was on public display at a Bernie Sanders rally in New York, where an attendee wearing a Black Lives Matter pin accused the Jewish senator of being in league with “the Zionist Jews” who “run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign.”
As it turns out, Bernie is not the only senator who’s had to put up with this stuff.
The U.S. Senate Would Like the Anti-Semites to Get Off Their Lawn
The FBI archive contains other interesting content separate from Hoover’s correspondence. In 1964, well after the Holocaust, the Protocols were a sufficiently live issue that the Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee published an official study debunking the work. In their introduction, Senators Thomas Dodd and Kenneth Keating—the bipartisan heads of the subcommittee—explained why they felt the need to address the age-old anti-Semitic pamphlet:
Although the “Protocols” have been repeatedly and authoritatively exposed as a vicious hoax, they continue to be circulated by the unscrupulous and accepted by the unthinking. The Subcommittee on Internal Security not only receives inquiries from time to time about the “Protocols” from sincere but misguided people, but on occasion is even exhorted to advert to this “document” as a source of information concerning Communist machinations…
The undersigned Senators have, therefore, recommended the publication of the following analysis by the subcommittee in order to lay to rest any honest question concerning the nature, origin, and significance of this ancient canard.
The full study is also included in the FBI’s release.
The accompanying press release for the publication notes how “documents that bear a remarkable resemblance to the ‘Protocols’ have been printed in the Soviet Union as part of the unrelenting campaign against the Jewish minority in the Soviet Union. The one difference is that the documents circulated in the Soviet Union tend to equate ‘international Jewry’ with ‘international capitalism.’” One need only glance across the bay to the United Kingdom and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to see how anti-capitalist expressions of anti-Semitism remain alive and well today.
Currently, despite the Senate’s efforts in 1964, the Protocols remain in circulation around the globe, particularly in the Middle East, having been translated into numerous languages. An Egyptian TV station even turned the work into a popular dramatic miniseries.
Another classic anti-Semitic canard that makes an appearance in the archive is insinuations about the anti-Christian nature of the Talmud. Because the ancient Jewish compendium of law and lore is written largely in Aramaic, it remained inaccessible to gentiles for many centuries, making it easy fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. One letter to the Senate subcommittee and FBI offers a list of allegedly offending Talmudic citations, and asks the them to investigate, presumably drawing on the American intelligence community’s vast array of Aramaic and Judaic scholars.
Obviously, this letter is both anti-Semitic and a fantastic premise for a new series of Law & Order. The history of such anti-Talmud attacks is less amusing, however. In the Middle Ages, conspiracy theories about the Talmud led to mass burnings of Jewish books at the direction of the Church. Later, they were employed by the Third Reich as part of its anti-Jewish propaganda. And today, they are promulgated by anti-Semitic regimes like Iran’s—which blamed the Talmud for the international drug trade at a U.N. conference—and in the dark recesses of the internet, including by noted author Alice Walker.
All of this is to say: it’s unfortunate that the contents of this FBI release got drowned out by the social media upset over a single tweet. Because however disquieting the substance, the archive still has much to teach us.
In other news, I’ve been live-blogging the Democratic National Convention along with my colleagues at Tablet. If you’re interested in a 50-second moment that encapsulates the entire election, or my assessment of the Biden campaign’s shrewd strategy for flipping swing voters, feel free to take a look.
I also joined my friend Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept on Glenn Greenwald’s podcast System Update, which he guest-hosted last week. We covered everything from cancel culture to coronavirus, and it was definitely the first time the Talmud was quoted on the show—though Glenn has since disputed this.
Finally, as a reward for reading this far, I give you the best (and to be fair, probably the only) song ever recorded about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which you are now fully equipped to appreciate:
Until next time, fellow conspirators.
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