Crisis seems to bring out the best and the worst in people. For every act of valor and giving, there are acts of cruelty and profiteering. The documentary Protocols of Zion begins with just such a decisive moment. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 saw an outpouring of kindness and national solidarity.
But according to Protocols of Zion, the attacks also set off a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Rumors spread that Jews knew about the impending terrorist attacks and avoided going to work that day. For director Marc Levin, that kind of virulent anti-Semitism has emerged at pivotal moments in history, from the Russian pogroms to the Holocaust.
The 9/11 rumor was not some isolated conspiracy theory, but part of a continued strain of anti-Semitism, much of it fueled, says Levin, by a little known book published in 1905 called The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Called "the mother of all conspiracy theories," the book has been attributed to Czarist secret police who created the book to find a Jewish scapegoat for the Russian monarchy's troubles. It has since been invoked as evidence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.
Levin crisscrosses the country and circumnavigates the globe where he finds many voicing the book's hypothesis that the Jews have designs on world domination. Egyptian TV runs an incendiary miniseries depicting the inflammatory ideas contained in the book. A clean-cut, corporate-styled spokesman for the right-wing National Alliance has sold out of the book (though Mein Kampf is still in stock). News clips of Arab clerics demanding the death of the Jews make his point nicely.
Levin's is a persuasive case that conspiracy nuts and garden variety anti-Semites dwell among us even in the enlightened 21st century. But he does himself -- and his premise -- no favor by turning himself into a crackpot-magnet and continually interviewing an array of fruitcakes. His favorite demographic is sidewalk trash talkers, like the group of thuggish Arab youths killing time in Patterson, N.J., who Levin feels compelled to debate. Not exactly surprising, they buy the no-Jews-died-on-9/11 theory. Even a well-dressed Arab businessman passing by chides Levin for measuring the Arab community by these thugs. In another heated exchange, Levin questions African-American soapbox wackos on the streets of New York, who see slavery as a Jewish conspiracy and dispute Levin's claim that the former mayor of New York isn't Jewish with the counter, "Jew-liani."
Protocols of Zion could benefit from some focus and a willingness to go after subjects other than the fringe hate-junkies like Jew Watch and the kind of jobless conspiracy freaks who hang around on city sidewalks.
Levin has a bit of a fetish for putting himself, like a chicken with a death wish, in the middle of the fox den. The effect is dramatic but not especially responsible and suggests anti-Semitism is more of a fringe phenomenon than Levin contends.
Taking the now well-trod Michael Moore path, Levin specializes in carefully orchestrated confrontations to make his point that Sept. 11 and the growing violence in the Middle East has provided a fertile environment for anti-Semitism to grow.
But like Moore, Levin relies too much on his own voice, image and personal history. In his picaresque journey through global hate-mongering, he enlists his father to show that anti-Semitism is not some recent invention, but flourished in the Flatbush neighborhood of Levin Sr.'s boyhood. Dad, not incidentally, also lends an attentive ear so that Levin Jr. can discuss his own theories and ideas on the resurgence of hate. The inclusion of the too-much-information effect tends to further muddy already cloudy waters and gives what should have been a sobering documentary a scattershot, at times flaky tone.