The Digital Elders of Zion and a Lesson for Obama

If you go to expecting to find the old tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, you’ll be hilariously shocked to discover that the address leads to, wait for it, the website of the Anti-Defamation League. Go on. Try it. If you do, you’ll find the ADL’s rebuttal of everyone’s favorite anti-Semitic tract, which, among other things, asserts that Jews control the world and, yes, the media.

Surprised? Not as much as the ADL was when reached for comment about this little felicity. It turns out that the ADL, committed to stopping “the defamation of the Jewish people,” doesn’t actually own this particular domain name, though it owns many others. Back in early 1998, when the Web was exploding in a flash of HTML fecundity, the ADL began buying up potentially poisonous domains: URLs like,,, and so on. They were, as ADL spokesman Todd Gutnick delicately put it, “domain names we didn’t like.” But as the ADL soon realized, there was just too much defamation on the Web for the organization to preempt all evil Web site creators. “We couldn’t cyber-police all the haters out there,” Gutnick said. So the League stopped buying up offensive domain names, instead channeling its resources to a crack team of web monitors, Samsons on patrol.

So what of “It’s a pleasant surprise,” Gutnick said. “We think it’s great someone just decided to do this on their own, but it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the stuff that’s out there. Just type the word ‘Jew’ into Google.”

Fair enough, but that got me no closer to solving the riddle. Who quietly bought the domain name and linked it to the ADL’s material exposing the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion as “The Hoax of Hate”?

As it turns out, the Web trail leads to Brooklyn real-estate developer Seth Brown who, six years ago, stumbled on the orphaned domain name and decided to purchase it for the nominal fee of $15 per annum. Why? “I thought it was kind of creepy for it to be out there like that,” a surprised Brown explained when reached for comment. “And since I’m Jewish, I figured it would be less creepy if I owned it and linked it back to the existing ADL page. I was too lazy to make my own.”

“At one point, I had a vague idea to make it into this colossally funny hoax about The Protocols,” Brown went on, “but I decided there were enough anti-Semitic people in the world for me to be confusing them.” People, Brown pointed out, rarely remember the source or the veracity of a bit of received information; if you hear it enough, eventually it just gets stored in the
brain as a rootless bit of data, assumed to be true. (Witness the Obama madrassa madness.) In punning on The Protocols, Brown feared, the joke might be lost on some. “That’s how lies get propagated. I didn’t want people to come away with the vague idea that actually Jews control the world.”

Does the lesson apply to the recent New Yorker cover portraying Obama as a Muslim terrorist and Michelle as an Angela Davis-styled guerrilla? “I think so,” Brown said. “I think the magazine’s readers get the joke, but people just seeing it on newsstands might not get what they’re trying to do.”

Maybe the Obama campaign should look into buying some domain names.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Julia Ioffe is a freelance writer based in New York City.