Author Archives: Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion

About Brigitte Sion

Brigitte Sion is an expert on post-Holocaust memory, most notably memorials and monuments, commemorative practices, restitution and compensation. Her expertise also includes the history of Anti-Semitism. She is the former director of the Committee against Anti-Semitism (CICAD) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic pamphlet published in Russia at the end of the 19th century. It purports to be the minutes of meetings held secretly by Jewish wise men plotting to control the world. Exposed many times as a forgery, the Protocols has nevertheless continued to be translated, published, and distributed all over the world, from the United States to Japan, from the Arab world to Latin America. Its legacy is alive and well today in the Hamas Charter, among Holocaust deniers, and conspiracy theorists.


The Protocols consists of 24 "meetings" during which the chief of the Jewish wise men explains how to turn non-Jews into slaves and how to take hold of various global institutions. The text contains a critique of liberalism, an analysis of methods that can be used to gain control of the world, and a description of the universal State to come. The book does not give details about the identity of the wise men, the author of the "minutes," the time and place of the meetings, the intended audience, or the ways in which the manuscript was made public.

Different editions give different accounts of where the manuscript was "found." In some editions, it was discovered in the "chancellery of Zion," purportedly located in France. In others, it was obtained by "a woman who knew one of the top leaders of Free Masonry," another society typically associated with Jewish conspiracies. In other editions, the Protocols was presented by Theodore Herzl himself at the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

Writing the Protocols

The true origin is less colorful. At the end of the 19th century, as popular unrest was threatening the Czarist regime in Russia, the secret police of the Czar–known as the Okhrana (the forerunner to the KGB)–opened a branch in Paris with the hope of securing a Franco-Russian alliance. The head of this section, Pierre Ivanovitch Ratchkovsky, foiled bombing attempts that he had masterminded himself, had personal foes assassinated without scruples, wrote letters denouncing so-called revolutionaries, and published anonymous pamphlets that he would then use as proof of anti-Czarist activity that needed to be curbed. The Protocols gives a taste of his imagination. He was looking for a scapegoat in order to calm down Russian unrest against the Czar in the 1890s. The Jews came in handy, since anti-Semitism was widespread in Russia, and conspiracy theories involving Jews were blossoming at the time. Indeed, another paradigmatic claim of Jewish conspiracy occurred in France in 1894 with the Dreyfus Affair.

Conspiracy Theories & The Jews

Who had advance notice of the 9/11 attacks? Who benefited from the 1929 Wall Street crash? Who was responsible for the AIDS epidemic? If you believe some conspiracy theorists, a single party can be blamed for all of these tragedies: the Jews.


Conspiracy theories have been developed throughout history by individuals, religious communities, and political entities to explain negative events, find scapegoats, or fulfill paranoid fears and fantasies.

According to conspiracy theories, the world is divided into two camps: the manipulators and the manipulated, those who know (a secret minority) and those who do not (the vast majority). Conspiracy theories have a reassuring way of explaining world events in a simplistic fashion; they serve as a comfortable shortcut to justify the complexities of society. For many people who have suffered from recurrent crises–financial losses, lethal diseases, natural disasters–it is difficult not to understand the origins of such evil. The most terrifying explanation is preferable to uncertainty and mystery.

Conspiracy theories are dangerous because their simplicity resists all forms of dismantlement. Worse, those who dare question the seriousness of such theories are accused of being agents in the service of plotters. Conspiracists take on the heroic duty of infiltrating the "enemy" in order to interpret esoteric clues, unmask plotters, and denounce schemes.

An Old Story

Accusing Jews of being master conspirators is not new. Since early Christianity, Jews have been associated with plots to control the world and instate a Jewish tyranny. In the Middle Ages, whenever a Christian child disappeared or was found dead, Jews were held responsible. They were accused of using the blood of these children for their Passover matzot.

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories took a modern turn in the 19th century, with the publication of German author Hermann Goedsche’s 1868 novel Biarritz, which describes the Devil appearing before a mysterious rabbinical cabal to plan a "Jewish conspiracy." In the chapter called "In the Jewish Cemetery of Prague," Goedsche describes a midnight meeting of the "representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel" to discuss the takeover of the world. Biarritz was a commercial success and probably inspired the author of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a few years later. 

French Jews and Anti-Semitism

France is home to an estimated 500,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in Europe, and the third largest in the world, after the United States and Israel. In recent years, French Jewry has been widely featured in the international media after a surge of anti-Semitic attacks began in 2000. However, this complex and vibrant community may be standing at a new crossroad after the 2007 election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who proudly claims his Jewish ancestry and voices clear support for Israel. 

Violent Words and Acts

The Jewish community of France is one of the oldest in the Diaspora. It stands as a model of integration, with Jews serving in the highest positions of government, public administration, education, science, and culture. Consequently, the wave of anti-Semitism that followed the second Intifada came as a shock to French Jews. Jews became the target of public opinion: Israel was portrayed as a “Nazi state” in the media and in academic and political circles. French Jews were accused of having “too much memory of the Holocaust.” This blend of Israeli politics, Holocaust fatigue, and anti-Semitism crystallized in the shows of Dieudonné, a French-African comic performer who dressed up as a Hasidic Jew and did the Nazi salute while shouting “Heil Hitler!” He has since been convicted and fined for this and other anti-Semitic statements.

french jews and anti-semitismAnti-Semitic incidents were not limited to words. Violence against the Jewish community was carried out in assaults on children, the burning of synagogues, and attacks on school buses. Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Créteil synagogue; posters in the Arab neighborhoods of Marseilles called for a boycott of Jewish-owned stores; a teacher of the Maimonides school in Paris was mugged and her hair set on fire. On a regular basis, swastikas were painted on Jewish buildings and Jews were cursed on the street, in offices, and on playgrounds. These acts were committed primarily by French citizens of Arab immigrant background in the name of political events taking place in a region 2,000 miles away.

National Holocaust Memorials

The Holocaust poses new challenges for commemorative representations. How to remember the six million civilians murdered for who they were–and not for what was done to them? How to represent a tragedy that is characterized by absence, from the missing bodies to the destroyed gas chambers, the absence of names and archives? How to design a national Holocaust memorial in a country that participated in the deportation of Jews, or in a country that did not experience the Holocaust on its soil?

Among the countries that have a national Holocaust memorial, Israel, France, the United States, and Germany offer contrasting responses to Holocaust commemoration and representation.

yad vashem

Memorial at Yad Vashem



The first national Holocaust memorial was erected in Israel, the country that became home to the majority of Holocaust survivors. On August 19, 1953, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) passed the Yad Vashem Law, which established the authority to commemorate the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis; their destroyed communities; those who fought and struggled; and the Righteous among the Nations who risked their lives to save Jews.

Yad Vashem, located on Har Hazikaron (the Mount of Remembrance) in Jerusalem, first included a crypt with an eternal flame burning next to the names of major concentration camps. The original complex was also comprised of a sculpture garden, a museum, and an archive and research center. The permanent exhibition emphasized the role of Jewish heroes, martyrs, and survivors, in accordance with the early Zionist vision that honored the “new Jew” as a proud fighter rather than a helpless victim.

In 2005, the memorial reopened after a ten-year renovation and expansion designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, whose architecture itself carries meaning: the tilted walls forming a triangle represent the star of David, and visitors zigzag between dead-end rooms, artifacts that block hallways, and narrow spaces. The new historical museum is a multi-media exhibit about the Holocaust, ending with a breathtaking view of the Jerusalem hills–confirmation of the redemptive nature of the State of Israel after the Holocaust.

Postcards From the Dreyfus Affair

In January 1895, Alfred Dreyfus was demoted from his rank of Captain in the French army after he was accused of spying for Germany. The Dreyfus Affair, as it came to be known, unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism that spread through France thanks to mass-produced media, including posters, postcards, serialized novels, and newspapers.

A Paper Trail

The Dreyfus Affair was a story of paper, from the handwritten note (known as the "bordereau" in French) that "proved" Dreyfus’ guilt, to anti-Semitic pamphlets, to petitions in favor of Dreyfus. Indeed, the Affair’s defining moment occurred in January 1898 when writer Emile Zola published an open letter to the French president on the cover of a leading newspaper. The letter, entitled J’accuse (I Accuse), indicted the government for conspiring against Dreyfus.

Interestingly, the postcard was perhaps the most vibrant paper medium of the Dreyfus era. The emergence of modern production techniques, such as lithography (mass reproduction and color printing), and photography, along with advances in postal services and tourism around the time of the Affair facilitated this fascinating development.

The first picture postcards were published in the 1880’s, and became an immediate success. They were inexpensive to produce and buy, required less postage than letters, and were delivered three times a day. Dreyfus-related postcards were designed, printed, sent, and received regularly during the duration of the Affair, from 1894 to 1906, and even later. They broadcasted events of the day, thus contributing to the crystallization of opinions for or against the Jewish captain. At the same time, the massive circulation of postcards was instrumental in building public opinion, which was becoming a new political force at the end of the 19th century.

Anti-Semitic Imagery

Dreyfus was the object of hundreds of caricatures depicting him as a traitor, a hero, a Jew, and a victim. The numerous visual representations of the time show the shift from religion-based anti-Judaism to politically and racially-motivated anti-Semitism. The Dreyfus Affair became the symbol of modern anti-Semitism. A secular Jew who was so integrated as to reach the rank of Captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus was nevertheless considered disloyal and anti-patriotic. Dreyfus represented the Jew, "who is everywhere but belongs nowhere," as a slogan of the time opined. Or rather, he was German for the French, French for the Germans, and Jewish for all. At the end of the 19th century, Western Jews were in a no-win situation: they were either ghettoized for being too different, foreign, exotic and un-assimilable; or despised for blending into society too well, being difficult to identify as Jews and hence dangerous, suspicious, and unfaithful.