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Protocols of the Youths of Zion

Isaac Brosilow
February 13, 2018

A new and forceful Jewish magazine debuts

by Isaac Brosilow

 

THE EVENTS OF THE LAST YEAR have brought many Jewish people into a new proximity not only with their Jewish identity, but with antisemitism. Perhaps strangely, the routine attacks on immigrants, destructions of Jewish cemeteries, and mainstreaming of ultra-nationalist politicians have added new dimensions to life for some Jewish Americans. Our anxiety stretches into our own community, as some prominent Jewish people involve themselves in the Trump campaign, the rightist surge and even the alt-right movement. In Israel, a bounty has been placed on African asylum-seekers, and Netanyahu’s son Yair tweets alt-right memes while his father has banned Jewish leftist groups from entry and labeled them enemies.

Our resistance brings forth an exciting energy. In the United States, galvanized American Jews on the left protested the repeal of DACA, and demonstrated in solidarity with Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian teen jailed by the Israeli state. In the grassroots, young Jewish Americans are exploring their heritage, both politically and spiritually. This heightened struggle under the Trump administration brings with it energizing and powerful expressions of our culture.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the arrival of new journal called Protocols might harbinger new antisemitic materials from the resurgent right. But in fact, Protocols is a provocatively titled quarterly of leftist Jewish thought that hopes to offer critical insight for Jewish Americans in this time of volatility and resistance.

Shortly after hearing of the project, I visited their site. I reflexively recalled antisemitic slurs said to me in middle school, but when I saw the logo, written in faux Soviet font, I got it. The word Protocols stamped in red above a rich blackness, surrounding a loaf of challah, it’s silk cover stained almost imperceptibly with wine. A cleft formed in the braided bread seals completes the imagery in the photograph by Berlin based artist Benjamin Reich. The traditional bread for shabbat, bound together with the image of circumcision. The cover, its foreskin, the stain, blood. A kind of productive discomfort prevailed over the shock I felt upon hearing the publication’s name. Devilishly, I imagined what it would mean if people thought of this, a bold, longform, and art-filled online publication, instead of an antisemitic conspiracy when they heard the word “protocols” in relation to Jews.

Protocols is formed out of this tension. Though the “about” page says it is a publication for Jewish people, it is not, so much as it is a space to wrestle with being labeled “The Jew.” The shame, trauma, history and the present danger of being targeted as an existential threat to the social order, of being scapegoated; these are topics which we as Jewish people do not usually treat with intellectual subversion and sassiness longer than it takes to tell a joke, at least not outside of the academy. Given the rise of antisemitism in the US, Protocols editor Ben Ratskoff’s vision may be perceived by some as a hindrance and even self-hatred. But Protocols, beginning with its title, hopes to force its readers to confront the reality of antisemitism. Maybe there is something to this kind of fearless approach, that invites shock and suspicion, as if to say, “so what?”

 

WHEN WE SPOKE, Ratskoff, a 26 year old doctoral student in comparative literature, didn’t shy away nor apologize for the name choice, explaining his influence in the literary movements of the 1930’s. He pointed especially to négritiude, meaning “blackness,” a genre developed by francophone writers of African descent, which combined anti-colonialism with elements of surrealism and Marxism into a provocative vision of liberated thought from historically oppressed peoples. I gathered that the name was a conscious one, meant to subvert antisemitic fantasy, rather than reject it. Trump’s election was the catalyst for Protocols, which hopes to be a critical companion for young Jewish leftists in groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as other Jewish people on the left who are grappling with the implications of being Jewish in the age of Trump’s presidency. “The Protocols of Elders of Zion is a conspiracy of global domination. I wanted to subvert that and provide a space for Jews to come together and discuss global liberation,” Ratskoff told me.

Much of the writing bore that vision out. The productive discomfort I felt by Reich’s photography was given voice by the tight dialogue in a one act play by Arielle Angel in which a Jewish woman, described as “Jewy Jew,” with big hair and olive skin, argued with her half Jewish partner in bed. I identified with her protectiveness, yet felt a familiarity with her partners thought process, which patientently, but coldly, deconstructed Jewish ethnic belonging.

For Hannah Roodman, a video artist and MFA student, Protocols was a chance to revisit a video she made in 2012, which used a point of view perspective to explore the Chasidic and Afro-Caribbean communities living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Protocols gave her a platform for a new companion essay to the video, in which she explored the new challenges of coexistence, for example betrayal Black people felt by their Chasidic neighbors, many of whom voted for Trump. In her essay, she expressed regret that the film only engaged with English speaking Caribbean immigrants and Rastafarians, and interestingly stated that if it was remade she would not end it harmoniously, showing young Afro-Caribbean and Chassidic children playing together, but would rather ruminate on difference.

Protocols also provided a critical space for Tom Haviv to reflect on his artistic practice in Hamsa Flag, where he detailed working through his Sephardic and Israeli heritage and involvement in the American Jewish Left, creating a project titled "Flag of No Nation." Like Roodman, his reflection spanned the space of several years.  

Jared Kushner’s smirk and hollow stare multiplied over a background of flames in an untitled digital collage by Caroline Goldfarb, who runs a viral instagram account, compounded my unease, but like Reich’s photography, I felt like I had to stare at it, at this prominent Jew, the subject of both conspiracy theory and justifiable suspicion. Like in many other places in Protocols, I felt forced to confront my fears as a Jewish person living in Trump’s America.

"Becoming Disco," by Daniel Spielberger tells the story of Israeli folk dance in America. Historical interviews and critical insight is woven through this touching portrait of his life at a Jewish summer camp in California. I felt like the vision of Protocols was clearest at the end of his essay, in the description of the "chain dance." Linking arms with the rest of the campers on Shabbat, kicking up the desert dust, sullying their white clothing. Israeli Dance, with its imaginary belongings and utopian aspirations of the Kibbutz movement, figuratively and literally dirty the purity of these young Jewish campers. But they are also undeniably connected, by history and arm-in-arm. I was moved by this complex metaphor of what it means to be Jewish in America.

With its very title, Protocols stakes an interesting place in an important conversation. Antisemitism is an incendiary substance; it is dangerous if not dealt with carefully. In “Fear and Isolation in American Zion,” Mark Tseng-Putterman reasons that the way Jewish people understand their own oppression is itself oppressive. Clearly our fear can be dangerous to others; anyone familiar with the plight of the Palestinians will understand that. But to Tseng-Putterman, that fear is our responsibility, and Jewish peoples’ “tropes of Jewish exceptionalism” prevent us from countering it. This argument disturbed me. Our fear is not the product of our “exceptionalism.” We are afraid because terrible things have recently occurred to us, and growing (if still marginal) fascist organizations are promising to do it again. This can be true even as the specter of antisemitism is abused by rightist elements in our community to justify their politics and avoid conversations about race.

Tseng-Putterman goes on to argue that antisemitism is not “exceptional” but rather, “part of larger forces of racism, nativism, and Christian hegemony.” I didn’t quite understand this idea; antisemitism surely relates to these forces, but is itself both urgent and distinct (if not “exceptional”). What is “larger” about racism, nativism and Christian hegemony?  I don’t understand how they are somehow more or less important than antisemitism. Even from a narrow white Jewish perspective, these forces threaten us too. Is it necessary to theoretically eclipse antisemitism in order for us to act in solidarity? I take all these arguments in good faith, and Tseng-Putterman later assures the reader that the threat of antisemitism is “very real.” But I did not know how to square this point with the rest of this provocative article, which seemed to say that Jewish fear today is illegitimate, that antisemitism may be reducible to other more important oppressions, and that white Jews wield our experience to oppress minorities in a distinctly Jewish fashion. I am used to encountering these ideas, though not on the left.

At times captivating, at other times confusing, the inaugural issue of Protocols works with and against the discomfort it causes for its reader. Protocols is a unique space, crafted for American Jews to confront a world where they well may have to fight, as Hannah Arendt says, “as a Jew.” In his introduction, Ratskoff quotes Jesus’ apostle Paul, who warns of Jewish law, “these words kill.” Ratskoff riffs on this statement, saying that he certainly hopes they do, referring to the words and art contained in his publication, at the same time the Jewish textual tradition. When I asked what it was he was hoping these words would ‘kill’ he responded “capitalism, colonialism, racism, and  heteropatriarchy.”

I share his hope. And what Ratskoff is doing is fascinating, merging Paul’s statement about how the letter of the law kills the spirit of Jesus Christ with a criticism of historical oppression, and in this way subverting anti-Judaism by associating it with critical and political dissidence. It’s as if he is responding to conspirators and bigots who believe Jews are a cabal plotting the destruction of Western society, “yes, and I hope we do,” because that would mean destroying capitalism, racism, and much more.

One of the greatest strengths in the first issue of Protocols is that the contributors come from a wide variety of Jewish contexts and cultures. My conversations with Hannah Roodman, for example, ranged from Trump’s presidency to Bar Kokhba in a way that felt politically necessary. Some on the Jewish left may be upset by Ratskoff’s discursive political vision, which invokes Paul and the Messiah in the same paragraph as material systems of oppression, but I do not read this as a weakness. Nonetheless I feel some caution regarding the position of the publication itself, which lives in the life of letters, deep in the discourse of the Jewish subject.

A real obstacle remains in the language used in the publication, like “Jewish Imperialism,” in Ratskoff’s introduction and “American Zion,” in Tseng-Putterman’s essay, and of course, the name. At times while reading Protocols I felt as though I was watching a mad scientist mix explosive chemicals in a lab, unsure whether it would lead to a miracle serum or if we would all combust. But days later I kept going back to the emotions, insights, and histories that were packed into this first issue, and not just because I felt provoked and afraid. Our times demand the bravery that Protocols represents. Regardless of what we are called, we will defend ourselves not only “as Jews” but as we have always been, as people. We will defend ourselves with solidarity, with critical insight, and by arms, if necessary. The introduction of Protocols is an exciting step forward in this conversation. 

Isaac Brosilow is a contributing writer for Jewish Currents and an independent researcher from Chicago, currently based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Protocols and Graylit.