''The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" may be the most successful forgery in the history of hate. Written by the Czar of Russia's secret police in 1897 -- and cribbed mostly from an 1868 anti-Semitic novel -- it was made public in the early 20th century and quickly acquired a life of its own. It purports to be the true record of a meeting of Jewish leaders plotting world domination. It has been exposed as a fraud numerous times, yet it remains in print and is accepted as fact by many, many people desperately looking for scapegoats.
All right, why? Filmmaker Marc Levin -- a mild-mannered fellow who's as assimilated as a Jewish-American child of the suburbs can be -- went looking for answers after Sept. 11, 2001, when a virulent rumor arose that 4,000 Jews had stayed home from the World Trade Center, alerted by their ''leaders," the true conspirators of 9/11. Levin hadn't even heard of the ''Protocols" until an Egyptian cabdriver in New York told him, ''It was all written in a book 100 years ago."
''Protocols of Zion," the result of his efforts, is simultaneously enraging, depressing, necessary, and frustrating. Levin pokes his camera into the dark corners of modern anti-Semitism and finds it alive and ugly, but the film is far too unfocused to do more than simply say, ''This exists." That's enough and yet not enough.
Because the director is a mensch, however, he's able to get testimony from surprising quarters. Of course Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is going to go on the record, as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, but Levin's journey to Paterson, N.J., to speak with the publisher of the Arab Voice -- which reprinted the ''Protocols" after 9/11, knowing them to be a forgery -- yields a stubborn, ingrained hatred that defies reason.
The film reminds us of how acceptable anti-Semitism once was to mainstream America -- Henry Ford reprinted the ''Protocols" in the Dearborn Independent and distributed them to buyers of his cars -- and how it remains so in other countries. Clips from Arab TV miniseries based on the document -- dramatizations of Jews killing children to get blood for matzos -- are mind-numbing to behold.
Not that the United States has risen above it all; far from it. The strongest sequence in ''Protocols of Zion" is Levin's visit to Shaun Walker, the natty young head of the white-power National Alliance. Walker comes across as a polite voice of reasoned hate, and he only reveals the depths of his lunacy when he casually remarks that Rupert Murdoch is a Jew and that Adolph Hitler doesn't strike him as the suicidal type. (Levin's priceless response: ''Um, he committed suicide.")
The film bites off more than it can comfortably chew, however. Levin journeys to Hollywood to talk to Rob Reiner, visits West Palm Beach, Fla., to wonder why an international Jewish conspiracy can't get old ladies to understand the butterfly ballot, drops in on young Palestinians in Brooklyn (who cogently voice their own frustrations and encounters with racism), tackles ''The Passion of the Christ" and the death of Daniel Pearl, and visits a Greenwich Village seder attended by that nice Jewish boy Lou Reed.
The cumulative effect is terribly sad and much too fuzzy; a viewer may come away with the hopeless sense that religious faith itself is what's wrong with the world. ''Protocols of Zion" only feels like it's getting someplace toward the end, when Levin circles back to the medical examiner at Ground Zero whose job it was to identify body parts. Yes, plenty of the dead were Jewish. One of them was a friend of the medical examiner's. The dead man's widow talks of ''tikkun olam," a Hebrew phrase that means ''repairing the world." ''Protocols" surveys the damage and leaves the healing up to us.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.