"If the Jews control the media, why don't we give ourselves better press?" Jon Stewart quipped recently on The Daily Show. If Jewish conspiracy theory is central to modern anti-Semitism, jokes about Jewish power are increasingly a staple of Jewish irreverence. The latest example is Marc Levin's documentary Protocols of Zion, produced by HBO and opening today in New York, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities. (The film will also air on HBO in the spring.) A Swiftian satire, the documentary takes as its modest proposal the premise that Jews conspired to bring about 9/11.
Jews who think that humor and anti-Semitism are as unkosher a mix as milk and meat need not fear: Protocols of Zion is no Life Is Beautiful. Unlike director Roberto Benigni, Levin carefully sets his story in a historical context rather than in a land of make-believe. He links the resurgence of anti-Semitism after 9/11 to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious forgery purporting to be the Jewish master plan to rule the world that the Russian secret police composed 100 years ago. Long ago exposed as a fake, The Protocols has been translated into countless languages. Along with Mein Kampf, it's the acme of Western anti-Semitic literature. Levin uses excerpts of The Protocols to make sense of an improbable journey that takes him, as narrator, to West Palm Beach, Fla., where senior citizens struggle with voting machines and lament voting for Pat Buchanan for president in 2000, and to a tête-à-tête with Larry David, who manages to steal the scene through the other end of a telephone without being heard.
For all its shtick, Protocols isn't slapstick. Among its more trenchant moments is a meeting with Walid Rabah, publisher of the Arab Voice Newsletter of Patterson, N.J., who after 9/11 cut and pasted (with a glue stick) excerpts of The Protocols into his publication to suggest that the Jews were somehow responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center. Levin also interviews Pastor Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who calls Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ"the Michelangelo portrait of this generation." And he visits neo-Nazi leader Shaun Walker, who shows off SS bolted boots that he pulls out of a box labeled "Aryan Wear: the Sole of Our People."
None of this is revelatory—most of us know that subcultures like these are out there. But typically, Jews try to erase smears rather than air them. Recently, for example, the Anti-Defamation League got TheProtocols removed from Wal Mart's online catalogue, and the Jewish Web log jewschool.com successfully campaigned to remove the anti-Semitic Web site jewwatch.com from Google's search engine.
Yet as Lenny Bruce teaches (along with First Amendment scholars), ideas and speech gain strength when they're driven underground. Mockery, on the other hand, zaps them. Think of Bruce's routine about finding a note in his basement that takes full responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—"Signed, Morty." Sure, Levin is handing a mike to a racist skinhead when he puts Shaun Walker on camera. But in prompting Walker to describe his preference for tan boots instead of the traditional black, he is also pricking the bigot's balloon.
Levin has company among Jewish satirists in going after conspiracy theorists at the moment. In literature, music, film, and television, examples abound that would make Lenny Bruce plotz. Check out this Jewish apparel Web site, jewishfashionconspiracy.com, which puts the "racy" back into "conspiracy," by selling "Jews for Jeter" and "Happy Madonnakah" T-shirts. I'm part of the movement: Co-author and conspirator David Deutsch and I recently published The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies. In the book, we posed as historians purporting to divulge the secret history of the world, toured the greatest hits of Jew hatred—Jesus-killing, blood libel, well-poisoning—and fetched up at a meeting with the contemporary Elders of Zion. Their names are Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, and Soupy Sales, and they can't decide whether to start a "Museum of Conspiratorial Intolerance" or a reality TV show called When Anti-Semites Attack!
The new wave of satire coincides with the general resurgence of global anti-Semitism, which includes the myth that 4,000 Jews employed at the World Trade Center somehow knew to stay home from work on 9/11. So, are the satirists making the classic Jewish move of striking a blow against intolerance by playing disaster for laughs? I don't think so. At the release party for my book, Jewish waitresses served Bloody Libels ("a Bloody Mary with more screaming"), DJs played klezmer break beats, and a German television crew chased after the queen of Jewish conspiracy theory herself, Monica Lewinsky. Satire seemed to be about revelry, not politics.
Or maybe Levin's film is less about saving Jews from the Mel Gibsons of the world than about spinning out a fantasy—the fantasy that today's American Jewish community could ever act in accordance with one master plan. Back in the day, Jews spoke Yiddish, married within the tribe, and lived close together. And still the old joke was: Two Jews, three opinions. Nowadays, with intermarriage rates rising and synagogue affiliation falling, Jewish conspiracy satire gives us the illusion of a shared cosmic mission. Imagine 4,000 Jews acting in unison to do anything! To do so—even in the most darkly ironic way—is to hearken back to a world in which we were still outsiders together.
A toast, then: Let's lift a bloody libel—not "to life," but "to Morty."