That other Zion conspiracy

The conspiracy is almost too big for words and its secrets have been protected through the ages by a hidden society around the world.

It has given birth to organizations large and small, from local Lions Clubs to the Communist Party. It has started revolutions and manipulated the world's wars. Using their great wealth, the conspirators control mass media and steer the churches.

No, this isn't part of "The Da Vinci Code."

This is a different Zion conspiracy. This is the great Jewish plot, as described by an early covenant in the Islamist organization Hamas. Where can one learn the truth?

"Zionism scheming has no end, and after Palestine, they will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates River," proclaims article 32. "When they have finished digesting the area on which they have laid their hand, they will look forward to more expansion. Their scheme has been laid out in the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion.' "

Sooner of later, anyone who studies modern anti-Semitism ends up studying this infamous document, with its 24 chapters that claim to reveal the minutes of a vast Jewish network that rules the world. Although its origins are the subject of debate, scholars agree that it emerged in 1905 in Russia and has become a touchstone text for conspiracy insiders around the world.

"Conspiracy theories are, by their very nature, insidiously seductive. It doesn't matter if you are talking about who shot John Kennedy, who blew up the World Trade Center or who is driving up oil prices," said Daniel Greene, curator of a U.S. Holocaust Museum exhibition entitled "A Dangerous Lie: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

"A great conspiracy theory answers all kinds of questions in a very uncomplicated way. It gives you the secret information that you need to know to understand why some people are oppressed and others are powerful. And, of course, if anyone says they have evidence that proves that the conspiracy theory is wrong, then that just proves that they are part of the conspiracy. You can't win."

This conspiracy can be summed up in four words: "The Jews did it."

As could be expected, Nazi Germany produced 23 or more editions of "The Protocols." By this time, explained Greene, Adolf Hitler did not need to quote the text by name, because its ideas had become part of the air he was breathing. There is also evidence that German leaders knew the book was a fake.

"I believe that 'The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion' are a forgery," wrote master propagandist Joseph Goebbels. However, he also said, "I believe in the intrinsic, but not the factual truth of the 'Protocols.' "

The current exhibit, which precedes a larger project about propaganda scheduled for 2008, demonstrates that this text's unique brand of hatred knows no borders -- especially not in the Internet age.

There is a copy of industrialist Henry Ford's 1920 book entitled "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem." There is a Pakistani edition of "The Protocols" that King Faisel of Saudi Arabia offered to foreign diplomats as a gift. There is another another edition in Japanese, which is a mystery to many scholars since there are fewer than 1,000 Jews in Japan, out of a population of nearly 130 million.

An edition recently published in Syria suggests that the 9/11 attacks were planned and executed by Jews, seeking a way to further involve the United States in the Middle East. An infamous Spanish edition is even more cynical. It shows finger puppets representing the U.S. economy, the Masons, the Communists, Christianity and the Nazi swastika -- all being controlled by a palm marked with the Star of David.

Yes, there are anti-Semites who insist that Jews planned the Holocaust as a deadly gambit that would give them the ultimate "victim" trump card in international affairs.

Do they really believe this?

"They may want to believe that it is true because, to them, it feels true," said Greene. "So there is truthiness out there and, from the beginning, 'The Protocols' has been an assault on the very idea of truth. But people are supposed to debate the facts, not what they feel in their gut. If people will use their heads, they will be able to see this kind of hatred for what it is."