This exhibition at SMU’s Pollock Gallery was based around a fictional organization of Christian Zionists called the New Elders of Zion. The exhibition included a manifesto modeled on the real anti-Semitic text, The Protocols of Zion. It also included audio propaganda and fabricated broadsides and posters made in collaboration with J.J. Campbell about their activities and a group of drawings that this group made to map out the various stages of the end times.
The mission of this fictional group is to borrow strategies from avant-garde artists of the early 20th Century to further the cause of the Jews returning to the land of Israel, for their enemies to be vanquished and for the second coming of Christ to come in the next few years.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a panel discussion called The Jerusalem Syndrome: One City At The Crossroads Of Faith And Human Rights was held in the gallery. It included students and faculty from the SMU community concerned with the relationships between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.
The following essay by Jeff Ward was included in the accompanying catalog:
Apocryphal Apocalypse: Truth and Honesty in Noah Simblist’s Protocols of Zion
Forgeries are legion in visual art. Perpetrated by criminals, such chicanery has money as its goal. Quality fakery, however, is perpetrated by an artist with the intention of exposing some emotional honesty through untruth. Noah Simblist undertakes a series of forgeries in Protocols of Zion, satirizing several positions—specifically anti-Arabism, Christian Nationalism, and misguided youthful idealism—in the fraught relations among Muslim-Jewish-Christian geopolitical interests. In doing so, Simblist jettisons factual truth but suggests something provocatively plausible enough to alert us to a complex honesty. After deconstructing and adjudicating his hoax, we sense both the confusion Simblist (himself a former idealistic Zionist teen) feels about these ancient hostilities as well as his conviction that bigotry and dominion theology are not acceptable methodologies.
The implausible setup for Protocols of Zion is that a number of Southern Methodist University students were members of a messianic cabal, the New Elders of Zion (NEZ), which sought to bring about the Christian end of days by supporting United States policies that consolidate all lands occupied by the state of Israel under the exclusive control of the Jewish people. The group’s hidden artifacts were discovered during the renovation of student dormitories, and now they are being presented in an exhibition organized by Dr. Nisim Hosblat, a professor from Hebrew University, and Noah Simblist, a faculty member in the art department at Southern Methodist University who was conscripted by Hosblat because of his interest in abstraction and Jewish identity. A series of abstract symbols, posters, literature outlining NEZ’s tenets, and a motivational audio recording are displayed and interpreted by Dr. Hosblat and his artist accomplice. They observe a clear anti-Muslim bias and blatantly opportunistic support for Israel in NEZ’s methodology. Notably, a curious mix of Russian avant-garde imagery, organized Zionism, and a debunked anti-Semitic text informs NEZ’s methodology and aesthetic. Is the narrative true? If followed with any rigor, clearly no.
NEZ’s broadsides depicting their edicts for behavior are patterned on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an ur-conspiracy theory screed that was mobilized in opposition to the revolutionary forces that led to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 by blaming socialist activities on a Jewish sect bent on world domination. Simblist’s NEZ have repurposed the Protocols to embrace, under false pretenses, Jews, and to exacerbate hatred for and mistrust of Muslims, particularly Arab nations that oppose Israeli interests. NEZ’s strictures range from the seemingly generous (”Reach out to Jewish American communities”), to the bigoted (”Spread hate for and mistrust of Arabs”) and the deceitful (”Curtail civil liberties with the excuse of defeating the enemies of peace”). That’s a pretty suspect repurposing of the original Elders’ Protocols: anti-Semitic to pro-Zionist? Furthermore, embracing Russian avant-garde overtones in the group’s imagery—the visual template of the interests opposed by the original Elders—is also fishy. Suspiciously, Russian avant-gardism and the original Protocols are generally contemporaneous with the original organized body designed to set up the Jewish state of Israel, the World Zionist Organization, which had its first congress in 1897. Perhaps the NEZ looked back to the last millennium and synthesized different practices to manufacture its own apocalyptic story. That is sloppy scholarship for college students, no? Add to it the improbability that a university would treat detritus of former dorm-dwellers as artifacts worthy of scholarship and the curious scramble of Dr. Nisim Hosblat (an anagram for Noah Simblist). It must be a hoax.
Perhaps, but Simblist’s hoax has more at stake than just poking fun at racists. The original Protocols’ authors are unknown, as are their intentions. Though it was clearly used for fearmongering, the text itself is largely plagiarized from a mid-nineteenth-century pamphlet satirizing Napoleon III. The threat, then, is that what might have been written satirically was used to propagate genuine mistrust. The original Protocols were used by the Third Reich to justify their ethnic cleansing objectives in Nazi Germany, and the Protocols are still circulated today as a teaching curriculum in parts of the Arab world. Would a believer under the aegis of dominion theology—the belief that biblical law should rule government—not take political steps to hasten the second coming of his or her divinity? In some formulations of Christian eschatology, the Rapture, or the faithful’s physical movement to heaven at the end of days, will not come to pass until several global-political situations come to be, including peace in Israel and the rebuilding of a Jewish synagogue on Temple Mount. Would not such politically motivated youth, weaned on Russian-socialist-looking post punk band flyers and the Rapture-as-action-adventure narratives of the bestselling Left Behind novels, organize into political action groups? The audio of Rev. John Hagee’s sermon heard in the exhibition, though highly edited, is genuine 2006 speechifying. Such ideology is characteristic of the fifteen percent of Americans journalist Michelle Goldberg terms “Christian Nationalists,” who believe specifically that the United States should proceed with a policy to do anything—including supporting Israel—in accordance with biblical destiny. Simblist’s hoax is more than a lark.
The proximity of truth is visible even in a more focused look at one element of the show, the images invented by NEZ. The works consist of bold, graphic designs characteristic of modern abstract art, such as the fundamental geometric shapes found in Suprematism, a painting style founded by Russian avant-gardist Kasimir Malevich in 1915. Arranged on white backgrounds, they look flaglike. They combine rectilinear fields of color—swatches and bars—with six-pointed stars, swastikas, and crosses. The palettes of the drawings feature highly saturated colors, especially blue (the color of the Israeli flag), green and black (which often represents Islam), and red (symbolic of Arab nationalism). With just a formal read of these design elements, historical references, and cultural allusions, it would be a sound assessment of the artworks—which have been exhibited under the artist’s real name—to say they are part of a larger postmodern strategy that employs abstraction as a vessel for particular political content.
But Simblist repurposes his drawings as an extremist beacon. The artist, playing both adolescent other and mature anthropologist, brings openly anti-Arab and anti-Muslim quotations to bear on these drawings. The veracity of the designs comes into question. Perhaps formal dictates, such as color, composition, etc., can suggest a certain political territory, but blatant anti-Arabism? There is real-world precedence. The re-designed Iraqi flag proffered, and eventually unadopted, by the interim government in 2004 was roundly rejected by the citizenry in part because the former flag’s red, green, and black (i.e., Muslim or Arab) motif was replaced with a largely blue (or Israeli) color scheme. Beneath its untruthful surface, there is an urgent honesty in Simblist’s hoax.
This honesty holds that we can be critical of our youthful naïveté, our mythologies have actual consequences in the world, and salvation that arrives via breeches in our moral code is worthless. The casualty was verifiable truth, but it was a necessary gambit. Alas, Simblist cannot produce the panacea to end political strife, but he can expose complexities and beseech us to meet them compassionately.
Jeff M. Ward, former critic-in-residence at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Core Program, lives and works in Chicago.