As rain teemed down on the roof of Gratz College, those seated in its large auditorium intermittently laughed, murmured and even wiped back tears in response to Marc Levin's acclaimed documentary "Protocols of Zion." More than 600 people watched on Jan. 29 as the film tackled issues of hate and anti-Semitism in post-Sept. 11 America.
"We're here to discuss a topic that could not be more pertinent at the moment," said Gratz president Jonathan Rosenbaum in introducing the event, co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. He went on to call the subject matter "enormously important, both historically and immediately."
Levin – an award-winning filmmaker whose movie "Slam" won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival eight years ago – was inspired to make this documentary after a cab ride in New York, the place of his birth and where he lives today. His young Egyptian driver insisted that no Jews died in the attacks on Sept. 11, and went on to claim that it was all written in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a century-old pamphlet put together by the Russian secret police professing to contain the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish elders who formulated a master plan to rule the world. (The book is currently sold on Amazon.com, though the Internet retailer acknowledges it is racist propaganda.)
Setting out with a camera, Levin interviewed Arab-Americans, imprisoned black nationalists, evangelical Christians, skinheads, rabbis, and Holocaust-deniers and survivors to explore the rise of modern-day religious hatred, bigotry and intolerance.
"The movie really stirred me up," said Josh Zimmerman, 17, who came with his friend, Jared Pashko, to see the movie. "But seeing people that hate us made me prouder than ever to be Jewish."
Pashko admitted that despite all the hate shown on screen, he managed to learn something.
"Knowledge is power," stated the teen from Newtown, in Bucks County. "Learning about anti-Semitism from the roots, I now have extra knowledge in my suitcase of weapons."
A Limited Run
Most of those present said they were thankful that Gratz showed the film, and wished that its original distribution hadn't been so limited. It played for just two weeks late last year at the Ritz Theater at the Bourse in Center City.
"Many Jews wouldn't see it unless they lived near Center City," affirmed Lois Levy of the Northeast. "It warrants being presented on television, but PBS would never show it."
After the screening, the film's director, Marc Levin, appeared and joined Michael Steinlauf, professor of history at Gratz, and Josey Fisher, director of the school's Holocaust Oral History Archive, in a panel discussion moderated by Rosenbaum.
Some audience members lamented that perhaps the film actually spreads anti-Semitism by exposing it so openly.
Fisher felt otherwise.
She expressed the hope that the work be shown in schools and museums – that it would help teach about the Holocaust.
Levin added that he wanted to bring the film all the way to Indonesia, a country with a very large Muslim population.
"I am not naive enough to think someone will be converted [from] their political ideology," he said. "But maybe they can all find a way to be a part of the conversation."