A Rumor About the Jews

Conspiracy, Anti-Semitism, and the Protocols of Zion, 2nd Ed.

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Stephen Eric Bronner
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , August
     2018.
     162 pages.
     $74.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319953953.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The second edition of A Rumor About the Jews: Conspiracy, Anti-Semitism, and the Protocols of Zion allows author Stephen Eric Bronner to revisit this important text. This new edition provides updates, a new preface for the second edition, a preface from a 2003 paperback version, a new chapter, and an additional appendix. Bronner’s text, first published in 2000 by St. Martin’s Press, provides a relatively brief survey and discussion of anti-Semitism in the West. Bronner’s focus on the infamous document Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion–first published in Russia in 1902–allows him to rehearse the history and use of this noted forgery as well as its continuing influence in the world today. Bronner emphasizes the notion of “responsibility” as he discusses anti-Semitism and the responses of various state and religious actors, both in the early part of the 20th century and today. Donald Trump’s presidency, coupled with rising extreme right political movements in the West and the global South, make this text a timely and important document for such a time as this.

Bronner’s work is focused on the political with a strong interest in the historical, the cultural, and the religious. After an introduction in chapter 1, Bronner devotes chapter 2 to selected quotations of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion from a version translated and published by Victor Marsden in England in 1923. Versions of the text were also published in Russian, and German, among other languages, with its being disseminated by both political leaders and religious communities in Russia and Germany. This text has also been introduced and circulated in the Middle East. In chapter 3, Bronner describes the context within which the Protocols were first published.  Chapter 4 includes details about the sources and early versions of the Protocols, while chapter 5 describes their promulgation and widespread distribution in interwar Europe. Chapter 6 is a new addition to the book and is titled “American Populism and the Jews.” Here,  Bronner discusses the use of the text in more recent anti-Semitic movements both online and in print. He closes the text with a chapter on the future of anti-Semitism. The appendix is a response Bronner wrote to a review of A Rumor about the Jews by Dean Ian Markham in 2004.  

In an analysis of the anti-Semite, which brings to mind the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Bronner emphasizes the issue of responsibility in this text and discussion. As he notes in the Preface for the Second Edition, “prejudice has always been a way to avoid taking responsibility for events” (xii). Bronner continues this discussion in the first chapter, stating that the anti-Semite reflects a bias which assumes that the “Jew is responsible because his enemy is not. Anti-Semitism presupposes belief in the overwhelming power of an evil Jew … the omnipotence of the Jew reflects the impotence of the anti-Semite” (7). The anti-Semite, as Bronner argues, is the one who perceives themself as the one without power or the ability to take responsibility for their life: the “Jew” alone is responsible, and powerful, in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  Bronner suggests that responsibility is still available to the anti-Semite, and that it can be embraced.  In fact, anti-Semitism and related populist movements do represent a certain way of taking one’s responsibility back, even as it undermines the social, cultural, and political institutions that guarantee freedom. In addition to the anti-Semite, Bronner argues that both religious communities and political organizations need to embrace their responsibility in terms of the flourishing or floundering of anti-Semitism. Bronner also suggests that orthodox Jews and nationalist Jews in Israel need to embrace their responsibility for the actions of the nation-state of Israel, both in the current moment and in the future. In a carefully argued section of the text, Bronner offers a distinction between earnest and honest criticism of the nation-state of Israel and a broad-based dismissal of the nation-state of Israel by current anti-Semites.

Bronner suggests that the surge in anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries represented a particular moment in history as modernity was emerging. He writes about this threat as an ongoing concern as both the religious and the political are challenged: "Modernity is a threat. Secularism, technology, science, individualism and multiculturalism, bureaucracy, and the commodity form tend to undermine the mythical, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious traditions that bind members of a community together and give them existential sustenance. Right-wing resistance, in particular, is fueled by resentment; it retreats into the parochial, the intuitive, the anti-intellectual, and the religious or racial or ethnic understanding of the community" (112-113). 

Bronner takes note of an unholy alliance between older political institutions and the church in Europe which served to exacerbate anti-Semitism as the Jew became the easy target of political, religious, and social unrest and tension. As Bronner asserts, this dynamic is also at play today.

From a Religious Studies perspective, Bronner’s analysis of the future of organized religion is important to consider. As he notes, Enlightenment values embraced both religious freedom for the individual and a privatization of religious expression. Tolerance of various religious traditions implies a certain approach to religion. Bronner suggests that religious traditions with universal truth claims do not, and will not, function well in a time of growing cosmopolitanism and globalism. The temptation to retreat to religious fundamentalism and tribalism is a real one and religious leaders, including rabbi, priest, and imam, will need to consider how best to lead their communities in these fraught times. While this question is especially pertinent to the leaders of religious communities, it is also an important question for the theologian of various religious traditions and the Religious Studies scholar.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Gillingham is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR), and on Executive Committee of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

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