Marc Levin talks about his provocative documentary Protocols of Zion, and the impact of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, in an unpublished article I wrote for The Independent newspaper in 2005. With antisemitism surging around the world, Ken Livingstone obscenely linking Hitler to Zionism, and recent news that Gibson is working on a sequel to his biblical blockbuster, the article feels more relevant than ever.
The New York filmmaker Marc Levin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The dust had barely settled over Ground Zero and conspiracy theorists were already blaming the September 11 outrage on the Jews. First there came the claim that there were no Jewish victims -- there were hundreds. Then the allegation that four thousand Jews had not turned up for work at the World Trade Centre on the day of the attack. In Brooklyn, a rumour circulated that rabbis had tipped off their congregants. Later, Levin, a humanist secular Jew, encountered an Egyptian immigrant taxi driver who put all the stories together, insisting they were true because it was written in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hundred years ago. “At that point I was like, ‘This is insane. What should I do?’”
Levin had good reason to be shocked. One of the most infamous examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion originated in Czarist Russia and purports to be a Jewish plan for world domination. Yet, despite being exposed as a hoax by The Times in 1921, the book became a crucial influence on Hitler, while one of the dictator’s most enthusiastic American supporters, Henry Ford, gave away a copy with every car. Disturbingly, it now appears that a new generation is turning to the Protocols for answers to their post-9/11 confusion.
“If somebody had told me in 1973, when I first read the Protocols, that this thing would be sold on the streets of New York, and would be sold out, I wouldn’t have believed it,” gasps Levin. “To me it was like a comic book from an age that had long gone.”
But, as his unsettling if at times funny documentary, Protocols of Zion, reveals, Levin could not have been more wrong. Whether he is talking to a bookseller in the Big Apple, the tie-wearing front man for a White Supremacist organisation in the mountains of West Virginia, or a jailed member of the Nation of Islam, the story is always the same: the Protocols are hot. Even Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, appeared to have read them when he gave his incredible “Jews are ruling by proxy” speech, a clip of which is included in Levin’s documentary, at the opening of a 57-nation Islamic summit in 2003.
Maybe we should not be surprised. What with Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a party for a wheeze, Ken Livingstone refusing to apologise for likening a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard, and the Labour Party depicting the Jewish Leader of the Opposition as a pig and Fagin on pre-election campaign posters, it is hard not to feel that there is something in the air.
Meanwhile, according to the League of Human Rights of B’nai Brith’s 2004 audit of anti-Semitic attacks in Canada, media coverage of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ led to an upsurge of attacks against the Canadian Jewish community. In America the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has expressed concern that the Easter release of the Passion Recut will lead to the film becoming “the definitive version of the Passion story for the holy season”. Given this backdrop, the issues raised by Levin’s film are worth considering now, a few months before its US release.
“There are people in their 70s and 80s, like my brother-in-law’s mother who grew up in Poland and escaped right before the Nazis, who can still remember what Easter and Good Friday meant – they would hide,” says Levin. “Even before Nazism, it was fair game to burn some temples, kill some Jews, whatever. People are still alive that lived through that, so to ignore that is crazy.”
Levin wrote to Gibson because he felt that there were questions the Hollywood star needed to address, but neither Gibson nor his production company, Icon, replied. For Levin, the issue was not so much the film’s alleged anti-Semitism as “the context": how the film was released and discussed.
“[Gibson] was very skilful at making it a war with the Jews out to get him. A number of people have written that the martyr complex and violence, the two things that are glorified and celebrated in the Passion story, are the animating imagery in Mel Gibson’s life. So he would rather see himself martyred than as a peacemaker, bridge builder, or interfaith interlocutor. It fits his own self-image maybe more to be a battler who the Jews and others are after.
“That’s what disappoints me about the re-release of The Passion,” continues Levin, whose work, including the acclaimed docudrama Slam, has always been about trying to understand people from different communities, classes, races. “The guy already made half a billion dollars. He proved his point. So now why not use the movie to build some bridges, even if it’s to the more Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities? Because, ironically, it is the most religious that have the most in common, because they’re all crazy. But I don’t see him doing that. And I can’t believe he’s not doing that.”
Maybe Gibson simply does not care, given the views of his Holocaust-denier father. There will no doubt be some who consider Levin’s inclusion of a recording of Hutton Gibson claiming that six million Jews were not killed by the Nazis but simply “upped and left” because they have to follow the money, a cheap shot. But, as the pugnacious filmmaker rightly argues, Hutton’s views form part of the background against which The Passion should be discussed.
“[Mel Gibson] thinks everyone’s trying to pit him against his old man. Hey, you could say you love your father and your father’s a great man but there are certain things you and he don’t agree on . . . but he’s never said that.”
The Passion section of Protocols of Zion, and a troubling journey through the world of perma-smiling evangelical Christians, takes us back to the historical roots of the deicide charge which led to the hatred underlying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Holocaust. “You can’t ignore the question: where does all this come from?” says Levin. “It goes back to the charge that the Jews killed Christ. The Jews are evil. The Jews conspired. They’re always conspiring. So, in that context, the Passion story is radioactive.”
Nonetheless, Levin ultimately views anti-Semitism as just a part of a bigger problem of religious fundamentalism, and, apparently, as a symptom of the human condition. The September 11 attack, he confesses, “rocked some of my humanist assumptions” and awakened in him the “kind of tribal instincts that can be so destructive. That may be one of the reasons I was able to make this film when I did,” he muses. “I don’t know if I would be able to make it now. But right then, in the post 9/11 world, I felt some of that ‘Fuck it, they just blew up part of my neighbourhood. This is personal. This is war. Who gives a shit about humanism anymore?’
“That’s something inside all of us that has been manipulated and exploited so successfully by the Bush administration in our country. But this religious fanatic impulse, and how it can use some of your own humanist, democratic, tolerant and open society against you to destroy you, how you wrestle with that and not fall into the trap of just becoming a crusader who blindly marches off and creates more Osama bin Ladens, that is a dilemma. I still don’t have an answer to it.”