The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Will Eisner
For those of us who appreciate Art Spiegelman’s Maus for its popularization of Holocaust survivor accounts to address a popular audience or for its impact on debates over the “proper” style and content of Holocaust literature, we should also recognize that Spiegelman was not the first to use a comic book format to depict Jewish history. Will Eisner (1917-2005) is actually credited with penning the first “graphic novel,” A Contract With God, in 1978, consisting of four connected stories about Jews living on the mythical Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. Regardless of what we call these books – graphic history, visual-verbal narratives, sequential art, comics, or the more common graphic novel – they allow artist-writers to share their visions and passions with broad audiences in welcoming fashion. Above all, they must not be mistaken as frivolous or trivializing. These books make use of their authors’ artistic talents while telling important new Jewish tales and reenvisioning past texts. To name just a few recent titles, this work ranges from Tamar Deutch’s The Illustrated Pirkei Avot (an oft-cited section of the Mishnah) to Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, in which a cab driver and a soldier confront the challenges of the present and past in Israel.
But let’s return to Will Eisner. I want to champion the final book he created: The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. While his interest in the written and verbal weapons antisemites use to promote their messages of hate lasted throughout his long career, an internet search for frauds he conducted late in life led Eisner to an English translation of the Protocols, a document allegedly written by a cabal of Jewish leaders to declare plans to take over the world. Eisner was shocked to find that the document was still being shared as truth. Despite successful legal cases and hundreds of scholarly denouncements, new readers were (and are) being sold on its veracity daily in the twenty-first century. Could the real history of this antisemitic forgery be told with equal force, he wondered, reaching beyond academics and those already convinced of its falseness? This would be Eisner’s chosen task, a most unusual venture for an 80-something Jewish American comic book artist.
The result of his efforts is The Plot, a detailed, compelling history of The Protocols, rich with the details of its origin, fabrications, and distributions. We receive introductions to all the relevant historical figures, from Tsar Nicholas II to Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler. The illustrated chronology walks the reader through each step of the text’s creation, including the context under which its original Russian author wrote and the twists and turns of adaptation and forgery that led to a truly devastating hoax that continues to this day.
A particular highlight of the book is its pairing of The Protocols text with Maurice Joly’s 1864 document, The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. Situated in The Plot via a 1921 discussion between a London Times correspondent and Russian émigré Mikhail Raslovlev, we read along with 17 pages of excerpts to reach the same conclusion as the Times: “Historic Fake.” Denouncements of the document continue in chapters related to Berne, Switzerland in 1937, Washington DC in 1964, and multiple additional contexts through 2003. The book concludes with a powerful full-page image of floating leaflets around a burning synagogue, featuring headlines about antisemitic acts across the United States just before its publication.
In the book’s Afterword, author Stephen Eric Bronner reminds us, “There is not an antisemitic movement that the pamphlet did not influence,” even as “the authenticity of the work does not seem to matter.” Given the ease of finding The Protocols online in dozens of languages today and the prominence of antisemitism in the world right now – from the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s claim that the 2018 California wildfires were ignited by a space laser controlled by a (Jewish) corporate cabal – we must face the fact that The Protocols continues to poison minds more than 100 years after its first publication. I know no better antidote to antisemitism than education, and Eisner provides it in his final book, in engaging fashion. To my mind, The Plot makes the perfect Hannukah gift to arm friends and family with the power of truth.
Elyce Rae Helford, PhD, is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.