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If initial reports that the anti-Muslim film that triggered riots in Libya and Egypt is the work of an Israeli filmmaker supported by Jewish donors are incorrect, then the media is guilty of a “blood libel,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Wednesday.
He said that the media will have to answer for its role in spreading controversial and possibly false information about the makers of the purported film Innocence of Muslims, which ridicules the prophet Muhammad, without thorough fact-checking.
Cooper specifically cited The Associated Press, which reported on a phone interview with a man who identified himself as Sam Bacile and claimed to be an Israeli-born Jewish writer-director who made the film with the backing of 100 Jewish donors. Subsequent reports have cast doubt on the filmmaker’s identity, claiming that the man might not be either Jewish or Israeli and is using a false name.
The AP has continued to report on the film, most recently tying a California Coptic Christian named Najoula Basseley Nakoula to the film. According to that report, Nakoula denied he directed the film and said he knew the self-described filmmaker, Sam Bacile. But the cellphone number that AP used to contacted Bacile traced to the same address near Los Angeles where AP found Nakoula. The report also cites court papers that show Nakoula’s aliases included Nicola Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.
Cooper explained that “blood libel” refers to the false claims that began in the Middle Ages that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzos for Passover. “As ludicrous as the charge is,” the rabbi said, “Jewish people have been murdered over this, have been put on trial, have had pogroms against their community — even though it is based on a complete falsehood and fantasy.
“If it was not a Jew who made this film, then whoever fed The Associated Press [false information is responsible for] headlines which constitute blood libel against Jews,” Cooper added. “With what is going on in the world — all the violence, emotion and hatred you see toward Americans and Israelis at these demonstrations — to then catapult what might be a nonexistent Jewish element could lead to violence against Jews.”
Cooper called on the same media outlets that spread the story to work just as hard to disseminate the complete and true story as it emerges. “I would hope the wire services that were involved in spreading this allegation will belatedly do their due diligence and get to the bottom of who said this and why they said it and then hold them accountable,” he said.
“That needs to be done and done quickly,” Cooper added, “because it makes the world a more dangerous place for Jews — because of a lie.”
Cooper also called on the AP and other news organizations to learn from this and see “what steps can be taken in the future to make sure they are not manipulated by individuals who are looking to smear all Jews. If it turns out the filmmaker Sam Bacile is not a Jew, then this is a very successful ploy for which the price tag has already been paid by American diplomats and the Jewish community.”
He added that show business also needs to reflect on what this means for its future. “Everyone in Hollywood should take note that this is something that deserves wall-to-wall condemnation,” Cooper said, “and whoever made a film that portrays Islam as inherently evil also deserves wall-to-wall condemnation by everyone of whatever faith.
“I don’t think anyone in Hollywood needs to get the memo, but obviously film — the presentation of ideas through movies — shapes history,” he continued. “Sometimes even if they have done a lousy job and have poor production values, even if it is not as good as an Ed Wood movie, it doesn’t make a difference, not in the YouTube world. Once you have it out there, it shows the dramatic power of film. I think everybody in this town has to be aware of that.”
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Tracee Ellis Ross