It wasn't the Jews this time
False reports that an Israeli made the film that sparked the violence across the Middle East raises questions, and emphasizes some uncomfortable facts.
On Wednesday afternoon a collective sigh of relief could be heard in cyberspace. Enterprising reporters from half a dozen newspapers and websites had finally done the research and reached a conclusion: It wasn't the Jews.
The shadowy "Israeli-American real estate developer" who had supposedly received $5 million from "100 Jewish donors" to produce a movie portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a violent and stupid child-molestor was actually a convicted scammer from California belonging to another faith with a grievance against Islam - the Coptic Christian Orthodox Church.
So far, all those who have been identified in helping him produce and distribute the movie are not Jewish either. So there you have it, another blood libel against the Jews exposed in less than 24 hours, thanks to the power of the Internet.
We are left with a long list of factual and moral question marks. Who translated the film to Arabic and made sure that it would be seen by at least 1,000 times more Muslims than the number of Americans who had watched it a couple of months ago in a nearly-empty California movie theater? And why? Was it simply out of journalistic interest, was it for the purposes of rabble-rousing? Or was this all the work of Al-Qaida or another terrorist organization interested in creating a diversion that would enable it to carry out the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi?
And what of the movie's producers? Why did they add inflammatory anti-Islamist remarks to the soundtrack? Were they trying to make money out of it or use it to raise funds for anti-Islamic activity in America? Are they connected to a wider network? And in a democracy, should we stand up and defend their right to disseminate whatever stupid and offensive material they produce?
The answer to the last question I hope is clear: we limit freedom of speech at our peril.
Salman Rushdie was protected by the British government and defended by a large part of the cultural establishment in the west when the Iranian regime issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death over the blasphemous "Satanic Verses" (though there were those who would claim to be democrats who, to their shame, placed the blame on Rushdie ).
Taking potshots at the prophet
The shyster Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, AKA Sam Bacile, has every much right as celebrated prize-winning author Rushdie - setting aside for a moment the comparative merits of either man's artistic output - to take potshots at the prophet.
There is another question which should be asked of those media organizations, originally the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal, that swallowed Bacile's story of Israeli citizenship and Jewish backing: Why were you so quick to run his version when reporting such a highly sensitive story, without first performing some elementary corroboration? The moment it was out there, the Jewish and Israeli angles were reproduced on 10,000 websites and established as facts. But there is a wider issue at play here than journalistic practice and ethics. (To their credit, AP and the WSJ made major efforts, after their initial reports, to pick apart Nakoula/Bacile's story and to set the record straight. )
What if Sam Bacile's real name was Shmuel Berkowitz, originally of Herzliya, Israel? What if he had received funding from a neo-conservative foundation bankrolled by Jewish billionaires? And let's be honest now - for the few hours during which this was the accepted version, we either believed it, or if we harbored doubts, we at least thought it could be true.
The straight and simple answer should be that it doesn't matter. Rushdie, Nakoula and Berkowitz - Muslim, Christian and Jew - should all enjoy the same rights to sling mud at Mohammed, Jesus or Woody Allen. But it never is that simple. Rushdie was forced into hiding for a decade and will forever be looking over his shoulder, until his last day. The Copts in Egypt certainly didn't need this, as the second-oldest religious community in Egypt struggles to hold on to their precarious existence under the new Muslim Brotherhood administration. And as for us Jews, many of us haven't abandoned the shtetl mentality of fear of being held to account for what one tribe-member may or not have done. A fear that is often justified.
There is another Jewish dimension at play. While AP is a fully respectable organization and no one in their right mind would even begin to accuse the Wall Street Journal of even a hint of Judeophobia, there were Jewish readers who felt there was something sinister about the way the first reports seemed perhaps to emphasize the "Israeli-American" angle. Not that there was anything in it; that is just the way our brains are wired - we immediately spot the Jew in every picture, and then start asking why he is there? Why has he been made to stand out?
And another uncomfortable fact. Jewish filmmakers have been heavily involved in producing the films "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against The West" and "The Third Jihad: Radical Islam's Vision for America." And prominent Jewish philanthropists have financed some of these films' production and distribution costs. What the far-right views as necessary, truth-telling documentaries and the far-left regards as Islamophobic racism, can be seen by the rest of us as highly selective takes on reality - a neocon version of Michael Moore's films, just without the buffoonery. Whether or not you agree with all or some or none of the content of these movies, a pattern has been established in which Jews have voluntarily placed themselves at the front line of the propaganda battle with Islam. That's why it was so easy to believe that the producer of "The Innocence of Muslims" was Jewish and Israeli.
Why should we be concerned here? Whether or not Jews or Israelis are involved or at fault, they usually get the blame anyway. The last time an embassy was attacked in Cairo was following the death of Egyptian soldiers in a border attack carried out by Islamic Jihad. That didn't prevent the mob from sacking Israel's embassy. And if Jews think, rightly or wrongly, that radical Islam is an existential threat to the west, why should they keep silent? Surely that would be a capitulation to anti-Semitism.
But those Jews who have taken it upon themselves to uncover the "true face" of Islam have created the paradigm by which this war, with no clear battle lines, is increasingly being seen. Eleven years ago, the western world stood by the United States in its defense of democracy and freedom; much of that struggle has now been marginalized to a great degree. No longer is it the west defending its values and freedoms from Islamic fundamentalism. It is now Jews against Muslims, Israelis versus Arabs and brave Netanyahu taking on Iran single-handedly.
The self-appointed warriors against "Islamofascism" have every right to fight their fight. But their shrill daily cries of wolf, their willingness to embrace some of the darkest elements of Christian fundamentalism and European nationalism - as long as they share the same cause - have hugely contributed to the situation where decent people can shrug and turn away.