Although it seems unlikely that “The Innocence of Muslims” will be nearly as impactful as Mohamed Bouazizi’s fateful self-immolation in 2010, the wave of violence across the Islamic world since its dissemination has thrown Western observers for a loop. In the wake of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’ murder in Benghazi, a multi-tiered narrative has emerged in the American press, drawing together repudiations of the film, passionate defenses of free speech, and questions as to whether American policymakers have any control over events on the ground.
And while it’s clear that there is more than enough blame to go around, one emerging story of culpability might be most illustrative. In early press correspondences, a man identifying himself as Sam Bacile, an “Israeli Jew” living in California, claimed to have produced the film with the support of “100 Jewish donors.” Just as American Jews had begun to reconcile themselves to the unfortunate truth—despite lingering suspicions: since when is Bacile a Jewish name?—the Associated Press reported the Bacile identity to be nothing more than an alias for Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Christian Egyptian-American at the helm of the film’s production.
We cannot be sure what motivated Nakoula to pose as an Israeli Jew, but the damage wrought by his subterfuge cannot be undone. As the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press spread word that a Jewish cadre had financed a film mocking the Muslim prophet Mohammed, rioters accepted the news as further validation of a global Zionist conspiracy—a ubiquitous, hate-filled theme in the political discourse of the Middle East.
However, the takeaway from Nakoula’s false self-identification is a less tired one: to quote a friend’s paraphrase of a common Republican refrain, Nakoula and his fundamentalist Christian supporters “threw Israel [and Jews] under the bus,” assuming the reality of a fictive common interest in inciting Islamic fundamentalist riots. And although no measure of religious offense should entail a violent response, Nakoula’s selfish mistake makes a stark point about the problem of Christian fundamentalists claiming the mantle of America’s Israel policy.
Despite the appearances of the Christian Zionist movement, there exists a profound variance between the interests of the Christian right and those of American Jews on questions of religious plurality and Middle East policy. Unlike Nakoula, Pastor Terry Jones, and the throngs of conservatives up in arms about a creeping Islamic takeover of the United States, the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that American Jews are exceptionally tolerant of their Muslim neighbors.
Moreover, against the theory of an unquestioning Israel lobby, American Jews are more likely than the general American public to support pro-peace policies with regard to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Working with thousands of responses, the Jewish Values Report recorded that American Jews were significantly more likely both to prefer diplomacy to military means and to support the enactment of a two-state solution than the average American.
These nuanced, pro-peace opinions come because of, rather than despite, the Jewish community’s deep concern for Israel’s security—a claim you might not believe if you let the Christian right and its Nakoulas speak for Jews. Earlier this year, biblically-motivated right-wing lawmakers in both Florida and South Carolina’s state legislatures passed resolutions calling for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, citing the interests of the great powerbroker in the sky. During the Republican primary season, both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich demonstrated their sincerest solidarity by delusionally suggesting that Palestinians don’t exist.
It is easy to make sweeping, millenarian statements about Islam and Middle East foreign policy when you don’t have any skin in the game: no matter how hot things get on the street in Benghazi, Cairo, or East Jerusalem, Terry Jones and the South Carolina Republican Party will be just fine. For many American Jews, the unmaking of Israel as a Jewish state or the cessation of its peace treaty with Egypt would be a personal tragedy—putting into harm’s way millions of brothers, sisters, and cousins. Moreover, as a community that can palpably remember the yoke of persecution, most American Jews have no interest in making the lives of American Muslims difficult.
Make no mistake: none of this is to minimize the immediate tragedy that claimed the lives of four distinguished American diplomats in Benghazi. In fact, as a secular person, I cannot begin to comprehend why any level of religious offense should compel anyone to violence—and above all, think it a healthy thing for people to make light of all systems of authority. But as a member of the Jewish community, I cannot forgive Nakoula for misrepresenting himself as an Israeli Jew and setting back the cause of coexistence in the Middle East yet another step. Let us hope for the sake of peace that the Christian right can learn from his lesson.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.