Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A failure in media reporting fuels Jewish conspiracy theories

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When news first broke about violent Muslim protests in response to the film ‘The Innocence of Muslims', significant media outlets failed any test of reliability by reporting that the film's producer was Sam Bacile an Israeli/Jew who funded the film with help of ‘100 Jewish donors'. It was first reported by the AP and Wall Street Journal but was then picked up by other newspapers - the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and went viral around the world.

 It would later be revealed that Sam Bacile was not a real person; neither was he Jewish or Israeli, but rather Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian, and the "100 Jewish donors," was also a lie. One can only guess of why Nakoula claimed to be a Jewish/Israeli with Jewish funders.

Rather than apologise for wrongful reporting, much of the media simply moved on to the next story.  Nevertheless, the damage was done. As journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said in the Atlantic, "It is not possible to withdraw such a story." And as a result it will feed into the hands of extremists and conspiracy theorists around the world.

This is supported by research by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) which found that the myth of Jewish responsibility for the film has led to a series of antisemitic statements, cartoons and caricatures in countries across the Middle East, where Jews, America and Israel are blamed for having conspiratorially created a film intended to offend Muslims and encourage unrest around the world. As ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman said:

"Now that the individual behind the anti-Muslim film that sparked the protests across the Muslim world has been identified as a Coptic Christian who misled the news media about his true identity, we had hoped that this myth would die down and quietly fade away... Instead it has gone from a whisper to a scream... This false notion that an Israeli American made the film with funding from 100 Jewish investors in an effort to mock Islam and sow violence across the Muslim world is turning into yet another big lie about the Jews."

To see the cartoons and statements click here and here.

Meanwhile, the Iranian regime has used the false report as an opportunity to blame ‘Zionists'. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei alleges that the film "[is tied to] Islamophobic policies of arrogant powers and Zionists. Prime suspects in this crime are Zionism and the U.S. government." And, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the film is an Israeli plot "to divide (Muslims) and spark sectarian conflict."

As Rabbi Cooper notes in the Huffington Post, false reports of Jewish responsibility for the film have also led to violent attacks on Jews and Israel:

  •  A twenty-year-old Israeli soldier Netanel Yahalomi, was shot and killed at the Egyptian-Israeli border, by the terrorist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes who said the attack was in revenge for the film ‘The Innocence of Muslims'. The terrorist group reportedly posted the following statement online: "After finding out that Jews were involved in the matter, are motivating the hostile group of foreign pigs [the film's producers], took part in this film's production and encouraged the shameful crime, and because protecting the prophet's honour is one of our duties, your brothers from the Ansar Beit al-Maqdes organization decided to punish the Jews for the their heinous crimes."
  • An east Jerusalem woman attempted to stab an Israeli policeman, allegedly in retaliation for the film. 
  • Arabs protest in front of the US Consulate in Jerusalem, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, and the al-Jazzar Mosque in Acre.

Jewish people are not unfamiliar with conspiracy theories, and the damage they can perpetuate. Therefore, as Zachary Novetsky writes in an article in Tablet magazine, "The journalists who uncritically reported that ‘Sam Bacile' was an Israeli-Jew with ‘100 Jewish donors' should ask themselves, to quote Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles, ‘What steps can be taken in the future to make sure they are not manipulated by individuals who are looking to smear all Jews.'"

Sharyn Mittelman

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