Last week, an individual who presented himself as Sam Bacile, supposedly an Israeli Jew, released some clips of a movie he produced entitled “The innocence of Muslims”. The movie mocks Muhammad, an historical figure of central importance for Muslim. Just as a side comment, he not only mocked Muhammad, but in my opinion he mocked the film industry and the intelligence of the viewers considering the poor quality and wooden acting characterizing the film.
The release of these clips on YouTube sparked angry demonstrations across the Arab world similar to those sparked by the Muhammad Danish cartoons a couple of years ago. This time, the demonstrations focused on US facilities with mobs besieging American diplomatic representations across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, with those mobs invading the US Embassy in Cairo and with a missile attack on the American mission in Benghazi (Libya) taking the lives of the American Ambassador and three of his staff people.
So, naturally, all the nice people who walk the Internet with predatory intentions, seized on that snippet of information to launch their anti Semitic and anti Israel rhetoric blaming Israel for provoking the Arabs to attack the US. The only problem is that very shortly after the initial release of the information, it became increasingly clear that not such an individual as Sam Bacile existed. Steve Klein, one of the film supporters was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the founder as Secretary of a far right Christian group. He conceded in an interview that Sam Bacile was not the real name of the producer, nor was he Israeli or even Jewish – but that he was Middle Eastern and that the name and identity was probably a disinformation campaign. This didn't stop the little monsters in the machine, who continued to elaborate the attack on Jews, with some claiming that it was an undercover Mossad operation!!!! - In other words, when reality does not fit your wishes...reality is wrong!!
The incident highlights among other issues, one that we wish would not exist: the rise of Anti Semitism in the XXI Century around the world. It was not only the attempt to saddle the Jews with the blame for Muslim attacks on the US; it was not only the Anti Semites who grabbed the opportunity to pile accusation against Israel and the Jews; it is the fact that this kind of behavior is no longer seen as unusual nor criminal. The Chief of the European Commission (the main Executive body of the European Union) warned this week of the rise of Anti Semitism in Europe. The Pope, on his way for a Middle East tour, felt compelled to condemn the movie in order to protect the Christian communities living in Arab lands. Our President and our Secretary of State rightly felt the need to call the attacks on US personnel “unjustifiable” - not just unjustified, and rightly so. Our government, however, also felt compelled to condemn the movie to protect US personnel in danger. Why should a government feel compelled to condemn a movie produced by a shadowy individual with a false identity? And even if the individual was known...isn't the movie an expression of Freedom of Speech?
A few years back, a well known individual (Mel Gibson) produced a movie called “The Passion of the Christ” based on the theological understanding of a fringe Christian denomination. The movie portrayed Jews in a very insulting and stereotype-reinforcing way – even promoting the old Deicide accusation which brought so many Jews to death during the Middle Ages. No government official felt compelled to condemn that movie nor question the right of the film maker to freedom of expression. The condemnations focused on the content and the underlying ideology, as it should be in a free society.
This time around, however, the discussion centers on the identity of the film producer. No discussion on the underlying ideology or the message – at least as I write this blog on September 13. As it happened during the Danish cartoons crisis many people shy from discussing the underlying ideology and automatically assume that “somebody needs to be blamed”. These reactions speak of fear – the fear of Western society of upsetting the Muslim world.
If we truly want to live up to Western democratic ideals, Islam should be subjected to the same scrutiny that as a society we focus on Christianity, Judaism or any other religious belief. The scrutiny should certainly be respectful – but in our days, any kind of scrutiny of Muslim beliefs or texts is decried immediately by many as “Islamophobic”. This social tabu on discussing Islam pushes the discussion to the fringes of society, where rules of civilized behavior are at best on shaky ground. So instead of an honest discussion over coffee on the nature and beliefs of Islam, we end up with a film which is (I agree) clearly Islamophobic, crossing so many red lines on civilized discourse that it would be too long to enumerate.
But there was also an underlying reason to blame the Jews, and as Jews living in America we are uncomfortable acknowledging those reasons. The reasons are not connected to specific policies of the State of Israel (of which we are not citizens) nor to any perceived wrong done by Jews to America. The underlying reason is an irrational hatred of Jews. Call it Anti Semitism or call it Judeophobia. It is the same phenomenon that fueled the Nazi killing machine and that fuels many of those who wrongly invoke Islam to justify their Fascist ideology today.
As the “little monsters in the machine” we could deny reality. They are able to ignore the fact that the producer of the movie is neither Jewish nor Israeli, and they can elaborate a convoluted Mossad conspiracy to cling to their hatred. In the same way, we could claim that Judeophobia is only a fringe phenomenon with no acceptance in our society. Or we can confront reality and discuss ways to extirpate the poison of anti Semitism from our midst before it spreads too widely to be stopped.