Not long after Sept. 11, an Egyptian cab driver in New York told filmmaker Marc Levin, whose documentary "Protocols of Zion" is being released Friday in Los Angeles, the act of terrorism was caused by Jews rather than by Muslim fundamentalists.
No Jews had died in the attack, the cabbie said. They all had been warned in advance to stay away, part of the Jewish plan for world domination as spelled out in the "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
This encounter opened Levin's eyes to the resilience of the fraudulent "Protocols" and ultimately prompted him to make his new documentary "The Protocols of Zion," which inevitably examines the staying power of anti-Semitism as well as this notorious artifact.
Levin was stunned by his encounter with the cabbie. A child of the 1960s who gobbled up Kennedy-conspiracy and other sinister theories, he remembered when he was first introduced to the "Protocols."
"Someone gave it to me as ancient history saying, 'You need to read this because it's the greatest comic book of conspiracy thinking,'" he said. He never imagined that 40 years later he'd be "going down the streets of New York and people would say this is alive and well" -- not to mention factual.
Levin said evidence points to agents of czarist Russia as creating and first publishing the anti-Semitic "Protocols" in 1905, a time of civil unrest in a country with a long history of animosity toward Jews. It purported to be an account of a meeting by Jewish elders on their secret plans for world domination. It attracted a following in Europe, including Hitler. In 1920, American industrialist Henry Ford translated it into English and offered it free with new cars.
Like many others, the 54-year-old Levin figured the hard lessons of the Holocaust had wiped out the book's following -- as well as the world's taste for lies about Jews. But intrigued by the cabbie, he discovered that both the "Protocols" and the "no Jews died in 9/11" slurs had a strong following in an Arab/Muslim world shocked by the impact of Sept. 11 and already inflamed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He found "Protocols" also had a following among some Arab Americans as well as among some American black nationalists and white supremacists.
Indeed, Egyptian and Hezbollah TV each have broadcast miniseries since Sept. 11 based on the "Protocols" to millions of Arabs and Muslims during Ramadan. And Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, incorporated a belief in the "Protocols" into its charter.
Levin's "Protocols of Zion" has the style of a first-person essay and intersperses scenes of humor amid the chilling revelations -- as when a street fanatic decries Mayor "Jew-liani." It's stylistically akin to Michael Moore films, in which the director's journey is part of the experience.
Levin patiently confronts those who espouse the "Protocols" as truth and tries to reason with them. He also movingly disproves the "no Jews died in Sept. 11" falsity. At the same time, he consults with his aging father, a former labor organizer who had taken him to the 1963 March on Washington, wondering what is happening in the world.
The filmmaker also broaches sensitive issues beyond the "Protocols," such as the blaming of Jews for the death of Jesus. In "Protocols," Levin is shown on the phone trying to persuade several Jews in the entertainment industry to watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and talk about it. He gets the runaround.
"Marc Levin is a truth seeker and courageously rushes past taboos and PC language to deliver a scary, human and often funny film," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "One other important fact he discovered is how unavailable too many Jews in Hollywood are to confront the uncomfortable new-old phenomenon of anti-Semitism."
The film is both shocking and important, said Alison Mayersohn, senior associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's L.A. office: "Here we are, it's the 21st century, and people believe this again -- or still."
A New Jersey-raised New Yorker who considers himself a secular Jew, Levin has had a long and wide-ranging filmmaking career. He has been especially interested in racial and cultural topics. His dramatic feature "Slam," about a rap poet's life amid mean streets and prison, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. His "Twilight: Los Angeles" was an adaptation of Anna Deavere Smith's play about the 1992 L.A. riots.
As a result, Levin has a certain street credibility and hip-hop-informed savvy. But that hasn't won over black nationalist Eric Ture Muhammad, executive director of the Black African Holocaust Council, who attended a recent screening in New York.
"I have no proof," he was reported in the New York Observer as saying about the "Protocols," "that it's a fabrication. I'm not here to say that I believe in it. However, it is uncanny how so many similarities in terms of what we see in the world today fit those 'Protocols.'"
Reached by telephone, Muhammad said he takes issue with the movie for failing to refute the Protocols, point by point. He said it's more accurate to describe Levin's work as a film essay about discovering anti-Semitism in a post-Sept. 11 world.
"I'm for proving or disproving the facts behind anything," Muhammad told The Journal. "If the Protocols are a forgery, we'll all celebrate. If it's true, that's something to be dealt with."
It is just such a mindset that intrigued and disquieted Levin in the first place -- that an articulate, educated observer could find the Protocols to be plausible, even when Jews, not to mention reputable historians, can immediately spot the forgery as transparently ridiculous and fraudulent.
In Los Angeles for recent interviews, Levin is aware of a certain disconnect in talking about his film's troubling subject in such a place as the dining room of Beverly Hills' Le Meridien hotel. It's tempting to think the whole world -- certainly the whole country -- must be as secure and accepting of him, his work, and of Jews. And yet Levin no longer takes such things for granted.
"Before Sept. 11, I didn't give a lot of thought to these subjects," he said. "One thing I can say for sure after making this film is that I'm much more mindful than I ever was. I have come to subscribe to the theory that when there are traumatic world-changing events there's almost this default setting, certainly in the West and now we see the Muslim world adopting it, to blame the Jews. It's almost built into the system.
"For me, the big question is how do you defuse the hate? How do you combat that? I would say that's a question we're going to struggle with," he said. "I would say the battle for ideas matters. So those of us who deal in ideas are part of this. That's what my film is saying. We have a responsibility to try to figure out how you fight this."
The film opens today in Los Angeles. At 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 3, it screens at the Desert Jewish Film Festival in Palm Desert, co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. For more information, visit www.desertjewishfilmfestival.com.