March 7, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

Connect the antisemitic dots

“Putin could have written the Protocols.”

Russian firm's billboard, according to the Times of Israel.
Russian firm's billboard, according to the Times of Israel.

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Not enough has been said about Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy being Jewish. Not enough, anyway, by the mainstream press in the west. In Russia, though, it has been the subject of intense focus. Why? 

Because the fact that a Jew was democratically elected as president by a people once subject to Soviet control is proof of a conspiracy. 

A conspiracy against whom? Against Russia.



Like white supremacy, antisemitism makes everything seem upside down, backward and prolapsed, because, to many people, the truth is unacceptable. It’s too “dangerous.” It feels better to make-believe.

Vladimir Putin is a neo-Tsarist, a Christian, a militarist and a former secret policeman. You could draw a direct line between him and the Tsarist secret police who cut-and-pasted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion together 120 years ago. 

Yet here we are, two weeks into a military invasion premised on a lie – that the Russians must “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Yet the western press corps has for the most part overlooked the role of antisemitism.

The idea behind “de-Nazify,” as far as I can tell, is that the Russian people are the real victims of Nazism, not Jews, and that Jews exploit memories of the Holocaust to redirect attention away from Russians.

At the same time, liberal democracy and all the danger it poses to the traditional orders of power (with white men on top) is not the result of Ukraine’s desire for freedom, which it was, but the result of a global Jewish cabal set on undermining the traditional orders of power.

The audience for such propaganda is Russia, not the west. Perhaps that’s why not enough has been said about Zelenskyy’s Jewishness or about his Ukrainian and cultural identity being one and the same.

Let’s correct that. 

As the peerless Jason Stanley said last week: “Proponents of the view that a Christian nation needs protection and defense against liberalism, ‘globalism’ and their supposed decadence, will be marshaled to their most violent actions when the faces of free, secular, tolerant liberal democracy prominently include Jewish ones.”

As for make-believe, there’s a long history of lying about Jews in Russia. After all, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that deathless document falsely alleging a Jewish conspiracy, originated there. 

Imperial Russia’s secret police chief worked with two journalists to publish the Protocols in 1903, giving it the imprimatur of fact.

That Vladimir Putin is a former secret policeman means the past has come full circle to the present. Given Putin’s resume, according to Arthur Goldwag, “he could have written the Protocols himself.”

Arthur is the author of The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. (He’s also a loyal subscriber!) It was published in 2012, but it has stayed with me all these years. His forthcoming book is The Politics of Fear: The Puritan Roots of America’s Paranoid Style

It’s been pointed out that Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and that that fact should be central to our understanding of the invasion. Can you draw on your knowledge to give us some insight?

Let me begin with a personal response.

I’m a second-generation Ashkenazi Jew. When I asked my mother where her father came from, she said he came from a nowhere town in the pale – a shithole not worth remembering, where he was poor and hated. 

Two weeks ago, my wife looked at a DNA site. She found my grandfather’s immigration papers, and confirmed that he was from the Ukraine. 

“Jews may have lived in the Ukraine,” I said, “But they weren’t Ukrainian.” 

Then the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened, and I learned – I don’t know how I didn’t know this, but I didn’t – that that clever TV actor who stood up to Donald Trump when Trump tried extorting him is a Jew. I was flabbergasted. The turn-around is amazing.

The irony that Russia is calling its campaign de-Nazification is just too rich. Putin ticks off all the boxes for classic Russian antisemites, except one – he doesn’t particularly hate the Jews. 

Which is also a change. 

So much of what we know about Russia and Ukraine are from old models. These places have experienced a lot of history and have changed a lot – Ukraine, in many respects, for the better.

Then there’s the whole Trump-Putin thing, which isn’t going away. 

The Republicans have tied their identity to the former president, who clearly idolizes Putin. It’s hard to see how they can pivot away from that without seeming to pivot away from him. 

While Putin and the Ukrainians may not be defined by antisemitism these days, there’s an awful lot of that in Republican politics. 

It’s a crazy, volatile mix.

I’ve probably said enough about that.

I disagree. More needs saying.

It’s a big thing for a non-Zionist Jew like me to have a brave Jew on the world stage who seems to be speaking for humanity, not Israel. 

But given the likelihood that Russia will succeed in crushing Ukraine, that thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians will die, Zelensky potentially among them – well, it’s sobering.

So much of the unity right now comes from the exhilaration of a David and Goliath story. When things get darker and western economies start to suffer, when oil prices go up, you will hear voices blaming the Jews – and probably more so in the United States than there.

Those voices are getting louder. The Wall Street Journal reported on antisemitic pamphlets being circulated in cities around the country, including the home of the Texas synagogue recently attacked.

I am a great believer in the idea that America is the safest place in the world to be Jewish, but there are a significant number of Americans who would like to change that. 

I don’t know what their numbers are, how many are evangelical or neo-Nazis. Those people hate Jews on principle, because of how we fit into the biblical End Times, or because of how we supposedly control the media and finance – the Protocols of the Elders of Zion story. 

There are people who hate us because we became “white,” which we did. A lot of the antisemitism you hear from otherwise progressive Black people falls into that category. 

There’s a lot of reported antisemitism that I don’t think is antisemitism at all, for instance, the pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses. 

But Trumpism draws on this well of paranoia, and antisemitism is the classic expression of it. So naturally, I worry.

When I had a bigger internet presence than I do now, I used to hear from a fair number of Nazis. What was weird was how many wanted me to agree with them – to acknowledge the correctness of their analysis.

A lot of those people were mentally ill, of course. But I think they are tapped into something more universal – the Puritan idea that America is a Christian polity, that its success is a testament to its righteousness. If it doesn’t succeed, what does that mean? 

You can blame yourself, you can blame the devil, you can blame the Jesuits, or you can blame the Jews. 

The Jews tick off so many of those boxes in their imaginations.

Can you explain your impression of Putin? You said he’s a classic antisemite, but he doesn’t hate Jews.

Putin is a neo-Tsarist, a Christian, a militarist and a former secret policeman. You could draw a direct line between him and the Tsarist secret police who cut-and-pasted the Protocols together 120 years ago. And yet … from what I understand, the handful of Jews who are left in Russia (a couple of hundred thousand, from what I understand) are nowhere near as persecuted as they were in Soviet times. 

So much of the unity right now comes from the exhilaration of a David and Goliath story. When things get darker and western economies start to suffer, when oil prices go up, you will hear voices blaming the Jews – and probably more so in the United States than there.

And of course there are a lot of really rich Jews who made good after the USSR collapsed. What Putin hates isn’t a fantasy of Jews as rootless cosmopolitans. It’s Europe and the US. 

He is just incredibly dangerous for everyone.

And let’s not forget that Ukraine does have a horrible past where the Jews are concerned. It does have a radical right (anyway not in enough numbers that they are in the legislature or could stop Zelenskyy from getting 75 percent of the vote).

I don’t want to say anything optimistic, because I think we really are on the brink of something awful. But I suspect that in the long run, this will not be good for Trumpism. 

I think there’s a hunger in the US for righteousness and unity, and for the time being, the drama of plucky Ukraine and its Jewish leader is providing it.

To what extent do you think workaday Americans are seeing the link between the Kremlin and the GOP-Fox-Trump?

I spent a lot of time yesterday reading all the pro-Russian garbage on the American right and the brain-dead communist left. 

They need to be attacked.

We need to remind the world that Trump withheld arms from Ukraine, that he and Rudy Giuliani pushed an absurd conspiracy theory about Ukraine, not Russia, meddling in the 2016 election. 

The Republicans were on the wrong side of this one. They’re pivoting as fast as they can. Tomorrow they’ll complain about Biden not having nuked Moscow yet. 

But they are much more comfortable with Russia’s authoritarianism than anything multicultural, tolerant, secular, “woke.”

The theory behind the Protocols and Naziism is that the Jewish elites weaponize the poor and the “dark races” with socialism and civil rights and political liberalism so they can destroy the Christian monarchies. 

That theory was premised on the idea that the Christian monarchies were decadent and weak, which they were 120 years ago. 

The world as they knew it really was about to fall apart. 

That’s very much the plaint of the white Trumpist today and they’re not that far off the mark. They are losing power, thank goodness. But revanchism and reaction are incredibly dangerous things.

They have the potential to destroy everything.

Ultimately, this is about liberalism versus authoritarianism, driven by a dictator’s world-historical vision. 

I hope people in the west recognize what’s at stake. 

It’s a civilizational conflict, not a religious one.

Here’s what Jason Stanley said in The Guardian last week: “In the west, fascism presents itself as the defender of European Christianity against [the forces of liberalism], as well as mass Muslim migration. Fascism in the west is thus increasingly hard to distinguish from Christian nationalism.” Thoughts?

I agree.

The Fox-right fantasizes that the Nazis were evil because they were “socialists.” The far-right doesn’t pretend. It openly celebrates the Nazis because they asserted whiteness. 

That’s certainly what Nick Fuentes was doing last week when he led pro-Putin cheers (“Now they’re going on about Russia and Vladimir Putin is Hitler — and they say that’s not a good thing”). 

I don’t know what goes on in Putin’s mind. It’s possible he was using de-Nazification rhetorically, as a battlecry – the “Great Patriotic War” is a huge cultural memory in Russia, and there were Ukrainians who fought alongside the Nazis. 

Possible, but unlikely. 

I think he is very aware that Zelenskyy is a Jew and that antisemitism is deeply engrained in Russia. I think of it like Trump’s projection, where he is constantly accusing people of doing what he’s doing himself. 

Given Putin’s resume, he could have written the Protocols himself.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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