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Arts & Culture

Will Eisner's "The Plot"

The father of the graphic novel debunks history's most notorious anti-Semitic tract

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

In it, Eisner dissected the sordid history of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the most notorious hoax document in modern history. Purported minutes from a mythical meeting of late-19th-century Jewish leaders, this bilious book "exposes" their supposed international conspiracy to destroy civilization. First published in Russia in 1903, it has been translated into countless languages and embraced as gospel around the world – most notably by Adolf Hitler, who frequently cited the Protocols as justification for Nazi atrocities, and by Henry Ford, who promoted it as fact in the 1920s through his Dearborn Independent newspaper.

In reality, as Eisner illustrates, the tract was a forgery crafted by agents of Tsarist Russia's secret police to discredit Bolshevik revolutionaries. The bulk of the text was lifted from a French political satire starring Machiavelli, whose quips were recast as Jewish jabs; not only were the Protocols' assemblers malevolent anti-Semites, they were lazy plagiarists, too. The Protocols' notoriety persists despite repeated debunking in the courts and the press, dating back to a 1921 exposé in the London Times and a 1934 Swiss trial that declared them "laughable nonsense." Throughout Eisner's recounting, well-intentioned characters repeatedly claim to "put an end to the Protocols once and for all," but it continues to be distributed as nonfiction in the Middle East, Asia and delusional corners of the Internet.

The Plot exhibit, which was created by the Anti-Defamation League in cooperation with Eisner's estate, occupies the center's rear room, past the permanent exhibits near the entryway and central library. Four wall-sized panels walk visitors through the origins, effects and eventual exposure of the Protocols, using reproductions of Eisner's drawings juxtaposed with historical timelines and contextual information. There are no original pieces of Eisner's art on display, nor any examination of the psychological motives or creative techniques he employed in completing such a weighty project during his final months. The exhibit's focus instead is on the historical record, leaving the viewer to resignedly wonder, "What next?"

That same question concerned center chairwoman Tess Wise, a Polish Holocaust survivor who helped found the memorial center in 1985, and who hopes to answer that question: "Never again." Wise wants to accomplish the goal of eradicating anti-Semitism through "remembrance and education," according to the center's special projects director Susan Mitchell. Therefore, the center's focus isn't solely on the past, but also current issues like bullying. Mitchell hopes The Plot, like their 2000 exhibit on Art Spiegelman's Maus, will attract a contemporary audience to hear warnings against embracing divisive propaganda, especially in our age of online "information and misinformation."

"We talk about tolerance, which is such an uncomfortable word," Mitchell says, "[when] we really need to tolerate our own discomfort" with religions or cultures different from our own. "It's not our differences that make the world go 'round; it's our sameness."

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

through March 15
Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center
851 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland

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