If hate literature had a magnum opus, it would probably be The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion. Concocted in 1890s Russia by the Czar's personal police, the Okhrana, The Protocols is a fake account of Jews meeting to plan for world domination. If the plot sounds familiar, it should: among its most devoted readers was Adolph Hitler.
Commenting on the book, Hitler once said, "It simply appalled me. The stealthiness of the enemy, and his ubiquity! I saw at once that we must copy it – in our own way of course…it is in truth the critical battle for the fate of the world." He was such an admirer of the book that he made it required reading for the Hitler Youth.
Though The Protocols still has its adherents, particularly in the Arab world, it never gained much of a following in the United States. Despite the early efforts of industrialist Henry Ford and other anti-Semites, The Protocols' American fans were generally confined to the malarial swamp of the extreme right.
Enter Wal-Mart. Like many booksellers with a brisk Internet trade, the world's biggest retailer offered The Protocols for those who wanted it. However, its competitors usually point out the book's outrageous premise. For example, Amazon, in a lengthy denunciation, describes The Protocols as "One of the most infamous, and tragically influential, examples of racist propaganda ever written." However, Wal-Mart took a decidedly different tack and opined: "If … The Protocols are genuine (which can never be proven conclusively), it might cause some of us to keep a wary eye on world affairs. We neither support nor deny its message. We simply make it available for those who wish a copy."
Understandably, once the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center learned about Wal-Mart's review of The Protocols, both groups voiced their outrage.
Writing to Wal-Mart President Lee Scott on Sept. 21, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center said he was "Quite frankly, astounded that a reputable company would even give consideration to marketing this flagrantly hateful text, which libels the Jewish religion and perpetuates the bizarre notion of a Jewish plot to take over the world."
Offering no explanation why it plugged The Protocols to begin with, Wal-Mart quietly yanked it off its website the next day. In an e-mail to the Reuters news agency, a Wal-Mart official would only say, "Based on significant customer feedback regarding the book titled 'The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,' we have made a business decision to remove this book."
Perhaps Wal-Mart's tight-lipped response to this episode ought to come as no surprise. In recent years its image as a family-friendly merchant has been badly tarnished by conflicts with community groups and revelations of worker abuse. However, the fact that the world's largest retailer treated a notorious anti-Semitic rant as a credible examination of world affairs should not be swept under the rug.
Wal-Mart's characterization of The Protocols gave the treatise more exposure and respectability than the neo-Nazi websites where it is routinely celebrated. Almost as disturbing was Wal-Mart's explanation that removing the book was a values-neutral "business decision" rather than a moral choice. It's one thing to say that promoting The Protocols is wrong because it is bad for business, but quite another to admit it is wrong because the book is morally repugnant.
Wal-Mart's ambiguous response reflects a disturbing and dangerous new trend in American life: the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism.
As time passes and awareness of the Holocaust fades, anti-Semitic attitudes that once were considered out of bounds are increasingly expressed more openly. In France, anti-Semitism, including violence against Jews, has grown so severe that at one point more than one-quarter of French Jews polled reported that they have considered leaving the country permanently.
In the United States, anti-Semitism is far less prevalent. But that is changing. One 2003 poll sponsored by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research found that Americans aged 18-34 are more likely to hold anti-Semitic attitudes than their elders. Stunningly, 23 percent of younger respondents agreed with the statement that Jews were a "threat" to the country's "moral character." Roughly the same number believed Jews control the U.S. news media.
The notion that Jews manipulate powerful institutions, the basic theme of The Protocols, has found a home at the fringes on both ends of the political spectrum. Both the far left and the far right allege that powerful Jewish forces are guiding U.S. policy in the Middle East to the detriment of our national interests. Extremists on the right see Jews orchestrating much of the nation's economic and cultural life, too. It is little wonder that among some on the far right (presumably those who don't also hate Catholics), actor Mel Gibson is regarded as a hero for defying the "Jewish-controlled" film industry to make The Passion of the Christ.
However, whether it originates on the far left or the far right, the danger posed by this anti-Semitism isn't that it will win a wide following any time soon. Instead, the risk is that a new generation, unfamiliar with the reality of the Holocaust – let alone the Spanish Inquisition – will fail to recognize anti-Semitism when they see it. To these Americans, all anyone who preaches hatred of Jews will be guilty of is violating an imagined code of "political correctness.”
Some institutions are working to combat this trend. Each year, the American Federation of Teachers teams up with the Jewish Labor Committee to send educators to Poland and Israel to learn about the Holocaust and how to bring its lessons into their classrooms. It is a program that works and there are many other effective Holocaust education initiatives, as well. But today they are reaching only a small share of the youngsters who need to understand what happens when racism and bigotry go unchallenged.
Americans of all faiths share a stake in pushing back against anti-Semitism. Holocaust education is an important place to start. If we fail to meet the challenge, we may one day discover that Wal-Mart's values have become America's.
Jim Grossfeld is the director of Speechwriting and Editorial Services at the Center for American Progress.
Read more on Wal-Mart:
Can Wal-Mart Families Make Ends Meet?
What America is Saying… About Wal-Mart