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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2006
Number 65
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Revisiting Old Themes Through a Contemporary Lens

A Rumor about the Jews: Antisemitism, Conspiracy, and the Protocols of Zion by Stephen Eric Bronner. New York: Oxford University Press.

And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank by Steve Oney. New York: Pantheon Books

A Review Essay by Steven Windmueller

At a time of increased anti-Semitism, it seems appropriate to examine one of the principal documents associated with Jewish hatred, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and one of the central events in shaping 20th century violence directed against Jews, the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank. Bronner provides some historical insights into the creation and uses of the Protocols as a tool employed by the enemies of the Jewish people. Oney reconstructs in detail the events surrounding the Leo Frank story, focusing on the mob mentality that ultimately undermined the Georgia legal system and created an environment of anti-Semitism.

In the Bronner book, we are not only introduced to the text of the Protocols but are provided with the historical context associated with this material as well as the contemporary uses of these anti-Semitic notions. Bronner's cumbersome writing style makes this a far more difficult read than it need be. Unfortunately, the author is not content to simply describe the impact of the Protocols on the well-being of the Jewish people but seems driven to describe the crisis of Jewish continuity and identity as well. In a unit entitled "The Vanishing Jew," Bronner seeks to confront the new challenges to Jewish life, driven by assimilation and the internal, fractious nature of the modern Jewish experience.

Having offered these concerns, the materials incorporated into this short volume are essential in any study on 20th century anti-Semitism. The book, in my opinion, fulfills four primary goals. First, it provides a context associated with the construction of the document. Secondly, it introduces and analyzes the core elements associated with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Third, this text focuses attention on the immediate uses of these ideas in the Czarist regime. Finally, this text provides some historical context in describing how the Protocols were incorporated into Nazi propaganda and beyond by other states and dissident elements.

If Bonner's work provides a general overview to the theme of anti-Semitism, then Steve Oney's book must be described as an investigative inquiry into the Leo Frank case. Formerly a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oney examines all aspects of this complex story. Written in a style reminiscent of a 19th century novel, the author reconstructs the events surrounding the murder of Mary Phagan and the trial and lynching of Leo Frank. The book is in part constructed around four key players: Jim Conley, the state's primary witness against Frank; William Smith, who prosecuted the case but later would have a change of heart regarding the outcome; Lucille Frank, the widow of Leo Frank; and Tom Watson, the principal player in arousing the populace to take justice into their own hands.

In some measure the Leo Frank case will never be formally or legally resolved, as Oney notes in his concluding pages. He suggests that “the underlying tensions are too great.” The case has a kind of historic life that will not allow it to disappear. “The hosts still clamor to be heard and the trial refuses to end and the sons re-fight their father’s battles and like a transfiguring scar, the events that made up this saga have grown ever more vivid.”

Likewise the Protocols will seemingly never disappear. Bronner offers the following assessment: “The Protocols provides a mirror image of history: the powerless become all powerful and the all powerful become powerless. The pamphlet turns truth on its head. But the truth doesn’t disappear.”

Today, we encounter global anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israelism. Those who promote such ideas seek to introduce many of the core themes found in the Protocols. Similarly, we are faced with reckless charges directed against “unnamed spies for Israel” working within the government, reminding us of the Leo Frank case. Clearly, anti-Semitic notions remain embedded within the social norms and political practices of particular societies and groups.

Less than a century after these original ideas and events unfolded, we find ourselves once again responding to such destructive notions and dangerous behaviors.

Steven Windmueller directs the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. His most recent publication, You Shall Not Stand Idly By, a Jewish Community Relations Workbook, is being published by the American Jewish Committee. He also is a contributing editor.

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