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Poison, penned

The Plot: The Secret Story of ''The Protocols of the Elders of Zion"
By Will Eisner
Norton, 148 pp., illustrated, $19.95

Until his death at 87 last January, I had never heard of Will Eisner. But ask anyone familiar with comic books, and you quickly find that Eisner is the Babe Ruth of what is now called the graphic novel.

I didn't read the funnies as a kid. As an adult, even after Art Spiegelman won his awards for the ''Maus" books about the Holocaust, I stayed away. Time is short, and I couldn't quite take the genre seriously. But Eisner's obituaries told of his significance, and I decided to read ''The Plot," his last book, a history about the forgery used by bigots to frame Jews with a plot for world domination.

You can read this book in about 40 minutes. It is a testament to Eisner, and his skill in the genre, that he packs so much historical narrative into so few pages. ''The Plot" tells the story of ''The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" with a wallop, and makes you writhe in disbelief at how this rubbish has served as a justification for so much political and human wreckage.

But as Stephen Eric Bronner, a political science professor at Rutgers University, writes in the historical afterword, the medium of comic books forced Eisner to abbreviate the complex history of ''The Protocols." The effect is not unlike watching the best of PBS documentaries: You learn about serious subjects painlessly, even enjoyably, if not always with the knowledge that comes from reading traditional books. Still, Eisner is not a man to dismiss, and I now take the genre seriously.

To learn more, I visited a number of comic book stores and asked the salesmen to tell me about Eisner. The reaction was not unlike speaking to a classically trained record store proprietor, who sells Britney Spears to stay in business, about the glory of J. S. Bach. Asking experts in comic books about Eisner meant I was interested in the good stuff, not the junk they are forced to carry.

And I saw what makes him special. If you place Eisner's work alongside that of other comic book artists, what strikes you are three things. First, the man could draw -- so much so that his word balloons often aren't necessary to advance his narrative. Second, he was a cultivated man whose work bears the impress of thought and learning. And third, his artistry used comic books not for intergalactic superheroes, but serious topics -- loneliness, suffering, Vietnam, the personal encounter with God, and now ''The Protocols."

The idea of ''The Protocols" was hatched in the 1890s -- the decade of the Dreyfus trial -- when advisers to Czar Nicholas sought to block the liberalization of Russia, especially the granting of political and human rights to Jews. To do this, the czar's secret police in Paris took an 1864 screed by Maurice Joly against Napoleon III's ambitions for world conquest, and rewrote it as a document purporting to be the plans of Jewish elders to control the world through political and financial manipulation.

It worked. ''The Protocols" not only helped to freeze the czar's hesitant steps to liberalization, but also incited a new round of pogroms. And the influence of ''The Protocols" spread beyond Russia. Eisner reproduces a 1920 article about the Jews by Winston Churchill, staunch Zionist and philo-Semite, who still failed to disavow ''The Protocols." Yet when The Times of London in 1921 exposed it as a hoax, no one imagined that it could survive so conclusive a refutation.

What is astounding -- and what Eisner skillfully shows in his book -- is how ''The Protocols" has became part of the tool kit for Jew haters ever since. In the 1920s Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent serialized ''The Protocols." Translated in 16 languages, in 1922 it sold over a half million copies in America alone. In the 1930s the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem adopted it as a reason to expel Jews from Palestine. In ''Mein Kampf" and elsewhere, Hitler also used it to justify the Nazi reign of terror.

Yet ''The Protocols" did not end with the Nazi defeat. In this book, Eisner shows the front covers of editions of ''The Protocols" from Italy, Argentina, Egypt, Japan, Syria, Mexico, Turkey, Russia, Spain, India, and the United Kingdom -- editions that are being published to this day, decades after The Times first demonstrated their inauthenticity.

Does anyone today, apart from cranks and political nut cases, take ''The Protocols" seriously? Since it has been so thoroughly refuted, the odds of its being revived as a historical document should be about as likely as the mission statement of the Flat Earth Society hitting the bestseller lists. But there is reason anew to marvel at its perdurance.

For one, in Syria, ''The Protocols" is indeed a bestseller, according to MEMRI, the Middle East media research group. And recently, Arab television broadcast ''Knight Without a Horse," a 41-part drama based on ''The Protocols" and sponsored in part by Egyptian state television. As Eisner notes, the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Youssuf praised the series for revealing that ''The Protocols" is the central line that dominates Israeli policies.

Why even a thuggish state like Syria, much less an Egypt that is kept afloat by billions of dollars in aid from the United States, would use so crude and discredited a device to stir hatred of Jews is beyond me. Even now, ''The Protocols," preposterous as it is, remains a thing to be reckoned with, and still has consequences -- a situation evident to all except those who advocate appeasement of bigotry, and other ostriches hell-bent for a sandpile.

Jonathan Dorfman writes often about politics and religion.

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