I’ve been thinking through fakes a lot over the past week as I watch media commentators and my social media friends respond to reports about an anti-Semitic letter being distributed in Donetsk. Purporting to be a letter from a pro-Russian separatist, the document demands that Jews register with the local government or risk deportation. Many responses online revolve around questions of authenticity: Is this document real or a fake? Who wrote it? Should we be worried?
Unfortunately, the last question isn’t necessarily related to the first two. Does it matter who wrote the thing? We’d like to think that if it’s a fake, then it has no power. It can be ignored. If we can prove that the authorities are not, in fact, planning to round up the local Jewish community for some yet-unnamed reason, then perhaps we don’t have to worry about pogroms and ethnic cleansings. A fake can be dismissed.
But is a fake really impotent? Even a fake document really exists, out there in the world. People read it, react to it, interpret it. The fake still carries meaning.
Perhaps the most (in)famous fake in modern history was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet which presents itself as a record of a global Jewish conspiracy. First published in 1903, it prompted sensational reactions when it appeared in translation around the world in 1920.
Many observers, including writers at major newspapers, initially took the Protocols at its word, so to speak. The Times of London, for example, published a somewhat credulous editorial at the time, as historian Michael Hagemeister reports:
What are these ‘Protocols’? Are they authentic? If so, what malevolent assembly concocted these plans, and gloated over their exposition? Are they a forgery? If so, whence comes the uncanny note of prophecy, prophecy in parts fulﬁlled, in parts far gone in the way of fulﬁlment [sic]?
The Protocols still show up in white supremacist and anti-Semitic circles. The text is one of the many pieces of ‘evidence’ underpinning poisonous theories of Jewish global dominance, which continue to circulate around the world and motivate threats to Jewish communities.
Academic and popular historians–not to mention novelists–have long been captivated by the puzzle of the Protocols‘ origins. Is there a secret global conspiracy of Jews and Masons? If not, who would concoct such a story, and why?
But to my mind, the interesting story is the fact that a document of such dubious provenance could have stirred such lively, and even violent, responses. Phenomena like the Protocols reveal that, like it or not, authenticity may have little to do with impact. No matter who is behind the fake, the item itself has social effects. It provokes, confuses, frightens, excites.
Writing about another forgery with deadly consequences, anthropologist Nils Bubandt points out that creating an effective fake actually requires the author to have a high degree of empathy with the target audience. Bubandt describes how a photocopied letter was distributed from motorbikes in eastern Indonedian cities in 1999. The letter purported to be from the regional Christian Church, ordering local churches to persecute and exterminate Muslims in order to permit Christian takeover of the territory. It was clearly a fake, and many local people immediately recognized it as the work of provocateurs. Nonetheless it sparked riots, eventually contributing to 18 months of violence that killed some 2,000 people.
The proliferation of powerful fakes may occur in places where all official truths are suspect. The trouble isn’t simply that people believe the fake is real, but that nothing at all seems legitimate. As Bubandt writes, “the empathy and intimacy that go into violence exist in a political universe where truth is already entangled in verisimilitude, conspiracy, and inauthenticity.”
Consider, then, that the falsified anti-Semitic letter appeared in Donetsk, a city caught between claims by a post-Maidan interim government, self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatists, and military forces that claim to be Ukrainian but are almost certainly Russian special ops. News reports vary wildly depending on the source: are Ukrainian speakers in the East being beaten by nationalist thugs, or is Russia engaged in a hostile land-grab? Who even has the authority to decide what official truth is, in such a place?
So what should we make of the Donetsk letter? In the best case scenario, this document is a forgery concocted by someone who merely wishes to create the impression that Jews are being located and documented. Or to create the impression that someone wants to create that impression. Regardless of the number of iterations–whether the letter is a threat, or a mock of a fake of a forgery of a threat–none of these are exactly reassuring possibilities.
And indeed, that may be the point. Threatening fakes contribute to an atmosphere of distrust and deception. If one’s true goal is simply to spread fear and uncertainty, a fake will do as well as something real, or maybe even better.