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Anatomy of a lie

This article features in this week’s Jewish Chronicle

On the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, the American diplomat to Libya Chris Stevens was murdered by Islamists in Libya. Coincidentally, protests flared throughout many Muslim-majority states in protest at a film trailer “The Innocence of Muslims” which insulted Mohammed and the Muslim faith, casting both in a negative light.  The murder of Mr Stevens has since been shown to have been pre-planned, and therefore separate from the protests surrounding the fourteen-minute-long Youtube video. Yet this past week, many within the mainstream media and within social media apportioned heavy blame for the murder of Ambassador Stevens, to the apparent provocation of The Innocence of Muslims.

Attention turned from the motives, background and identity of the murderers, to the motives, background and identity of the filmmaker. The Youtube user had uploaded his video using the name “sambacile”. Hours after the murder in Libya, “Sam Bacile” identified himself to reporters as an Israeli Jew, claiming that his film project had been enabled by one hundred Jewish donors, who had contributed five million dollars to the film collectively. The Wall Street Journal – a usually balanced and trustworthy news source on the Middle East – first presented Bacile as an Israeli Jew.

The assertion that the director and his benefactors were rich Jews, rapidly spread across the internet. There were many obvious problems with this theory. The trailer began depicting a slaughter of Christians. Crosses featured prominently throughout the film. A huge wooden cross was used as a backdrop, to a key scene involving an actor portraying Mohammed. It was not possible that the film should have cost five million dollars to make, given the obvious use of cheap backdrops, the poor acting, and the farcical dubbing. The trailer consisted of key parts of different scenes linked together, without any voiceover, textual effects or music which would really make it look like an actual trailer.

All this prompted a Channel 4 reporter to quip that the film was so poor, that if they existed, the Jewish donors might want their money back. Whilst these mysterious donors – always alleged and never confirmed – continued to be mentioned amongst the images of burning effigies, the angry rioters, and obituarial clips of Ambassador Stevens, it became evermore unsettling to see how readily Bacile’s lie was believed.

It seems incredible, now, that people could possibly have thought that the film project and its  director were Jewish, and that rich Jews would spend so much money making this film, which seemingly led to so much chaos. Why would news outlets as lofty as the BBC, repeat Bacile’s unsubstantiated claims? There were so many clear signs that the Jewish link was untrue.

The film looked like it cost a few thousand dollars to make, at most. Yet people believed that it cost millions, because of the added detail of the Jewish donors. Unfortunately, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, if you removed the Jewish donors, no-one would believe it cost five million dollars. This is because there is an unsettling assumption lurking in some parts of Western society, which casts Jews as rich, politically powerful, and highly motivated to push their own agendas, to the detriment of others. Jewish avarice and obsession with money can be a casual topic of humour in Britain. Through these jokes, we get an insight into how some people perceive Jews.

If we hear such a joke, we might be tempted to think nothing of it. But when we see people readily believing that Jews could spend thousands of pounds on pamphlets, or millions on amateur Youtube films, we realise that we are dealing with an issue that goes way beyond humour. We should remember that antisemitic ideas about Jews being rich or obsessed with money, have existed for centuries. It would be dangerous to assume they have disappeared suddenly. To do so would be to ignore a mountain of concerning evidence.

For its part, The Guardian carried a headline labelling Bacile an “Israeli director”, again mentioning the omnipresent “Jewish donors” within its article. When Bacile was shown to have Coptic rather than Jewish connections, The Guardian did not alter its headline.  Why would The Guardian hold to a false idea, even when it has been proven to be false?

Just days earlier, The Guardian had made claims about Jewish donors in a different setting. In a news piece about the Democratic convention re-affirming its support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, published on September 6th, you could read matter-of-factly: “Jewish donors, particularly in New York, and pro-Israeli lobby groups are generous supporters not only to Obama but to individual senators and members of the House, who are also facing election in November.”

There are donors of all colours and creed to American politicians, so it is remarkable that The Guardian should choose to focus on the Jews. If unaware of political donors of other ethnic and religious backgrounds, readers might conclude from this article that rich Jews act as a hidden hand behind American politics. So when “Sam Bacile” began to spin yarns of a hundred rich Jewish donors financing his project, the idea struck a chord with those who tacitly accept theories about rich Jewish money leading to unrest in the Middle East.

It is tempting to feel incredulous, and to laugh and mock the absurdity of educated people so readily believing a lie about Jews. Yet there is a clear enough pattern emerging, which ought to concern us more than it amuses us.

Earlier this year, the Anglican Church voted at their annual Synod to support the anti-Israel religious and political group Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), which is run by the World Council of Churches. Duly, Jewish deputies and community leaders expressed their concerns to the Synod. In doing so, they were met with accusations from vicars, of “powerful lobbies” seeking to influence the Synod. Significantly, the proposer of the pro-EAPPI motion John Dinnen, claimed that an unremarkable A4 protest leaflet “must have cost £1,000”. The unspoken assumption was clear. The fingerprints of collective Jewish financial and political efforts were evidence that the case against the EAPPI motion was corrupted in its origin. Clearly the leaflet did not cost a thousand pounds, just as the Innocence of Muslims film trailer did not cost five million dollars.

When Ken Livingstone campaigned to become London mayor back in May, he expressed his belief that Jews would not vote for him because they are rich, and the rich vote for the Tories. In the end, Livingstone lost by just over 60,000 votes. In the aftermath, some gleefully suggested that if Ken had not alienated so many with his unfair comments about Jews being rich, he might have run Boris Johnson far closer. However, it seemed unfathomable as to why Livingstone would deliberately risk upsetting voters, just to make his point about Jewish money.

In the wrong hands, the lie can prove fatal. 24 year old Ilan Halimi was kidnapped in 2006, in France. Halimi’s kidnappers tried to extort money from his family. They thought that the young Jew was rich, as he was from a Moroccan Jewish family. However, Halimi’s family was of the same wealth as the families of kidnappers. When no ransom money could be provided, he was tortured to death and murdered.

The infamous Hamas charter asserts that the Jews, “with their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press […] they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein […] they formed secret societies [..]for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests.”

When we see Westerners march in solidarity with Hamas, we should not assume that they do so whilst ignoring these unsavoury parts of the Hamas charter. It is far more likely, that Hamas accusations about Jewish money chime with something about Jews that many educated people quite readily believe.

In this context, surely the media has a responsibility not to sustain prejudices, but rather to challenge them. Yet in recent years, we have seen a more subtle version of this concept, slowly creeping into mainstream political thinking.

The respectable version of the theory that Jews are rich and that their influence poisons politics, is that there is an “Israel lobby”, which seeks to sway leaders in the USA into taking pro-Israel positions. This was the theory of American academics Mearsheimer and Walt, which quickly became popular amongst many left-wing British academics. So when John Mearsheimer expressed support for Gilad Atzmon by endorsing his book, and then defending his decision on Stephen Walt’s blog, it seemed shocking. Atzmon’s writings were overtly anti-Semitic. He had claimed that modern Jews were the living embodiment of Fagin and Shylock, and that the Jews had effectively caused the Second World War by declaring war on Nazi Germany and seeking to boycott Nazi products. Mearsheimer had supported Atzmon’s writings, as if they were respectable. All of a sudden, the gap between intellectual Leftist anti-Zionism, and crude, aggressive antisemitism seemed infinitesimally small.

We will have to come to terms with the uncomfortable and distressing fact that in the twenty-first century, ludicrous claims about Jewish money and influence are a fact of life. The conspiracy theory about a hundred Jewish donors is the latest variation on this theme.

Media outlets are only tempted to publish wild ideas about Jewish money, because they are readily believed within wider society. The longer this vicious circle continues, the more Jews will be forced into a corner, bound and trapped by the stereotypes which are readily thrust upon them.