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Michael and Me

by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2004-09-05

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Who says that God doesn't have a sense of humor? My regular readers will remember that at the Democratic National Convention, I found myself sitting a few feet from filmmaker Michael Moore.

I had been eager to talk with Moore about his positions on Israel, since I had read several negative comments attributed to him. I tried to speak with him, but he turned me away.

But last night at the Republican National Convention, I was working on my laptop from one of the press desks when a Secret Service agent suddenly walked in and told me that the empty seat next to me would now have an occupant. A moment later Michael Moore sat down beside me. He was there to write a column on the convention for USA Today. I shook his hand, welcomed him, and asked him if he was feeling comfortable surrounded by Republicans. He told me that everyone had been friendly and kind to him since his arrival.

A moment later, he was swarmed by the press, until it became such a distraction that they were whisked away by the Secret Service. Suddenly, it was me and him alone, again, this time cordoned off by a Secret Service perimeter, and I had my chance. I leaned over. "Mr. Moore, you were quoted in the New York Times as saying that you place Israel in your own private axis of evil. It was very painful for Jews to read that. Do you stand by the quote?"

"No, I don't," he said. "That quote was taken completely out of context. I believe strongly in Israel's security and Israel's right to defend itself."

"Well, Mr. Moore," I said, "the impression, sadly, is that you're an anti-Semite. That's a shame. However much you and I disagree on the major issues, you shouldn't come across as a Jew-hater. Joe Scarborough even asked me on his MSNBC show whether or not I believed you were an anti-Semite. That's the impression you've been giving. I trust that you are not a Jew-hater. Indeed, I bet you don't consider yourself any kind of hater. So why give that impression?"

He told me, "Of course I'm not a hater, and you would be surprised at just how little you and I disagree on all the issues, and on the Israel issue in particular. I really want to correct that because I am not an enemy of Israel. I should really sit down and do an interview just about this because I want it corrected."

"You know," I said, "there are people who want you to visit Israel so you can see the situation there for yourself."

"I like Israel," he said. "I've visited twice, the first time during the first intifada," he said.

"Well, then you'll know that Israelis are victims, too, and that they have suffered terribly under terrorism. But Jews have the impression that you don't identify with Israeli suffering, that you forget that the Jews have suffered horrific oppression. And that's a shame because it undermines the morality of your message."

He then said something that I did not expect: "I regard the Jewish people as the most oppressed people on earth."

"Then it's important that that be known. Look, Mr. Moore," I said. "I am a political conservative, so I am certainly not on the same page as you. I was deeply critical of your most recent film [Fahrenheit 9/11]. But Bowling for Columbine, your previous film, was important because it brought to light how Americans have incarcerated themselves in a prison of their own making, in a cage of fear. I greatly praised that aspect of your film in my upcoming book on the same subject, Face Your Fear. But you damage yourself and limit your audience by giving the impression that you are a hater of a people who have suffered so greatly."

He said, "After I made Bowling for Columbine, I discovered that Israel has one of the lowest levels of violence – I mean, besides the conflict with the Palestinians – even though there are so many guns around."

Moore and I agreed to a future formal sit-down interview, just as our conversation was interrupted by John McCain, the featured speaker of the evening, whose speech included a sharp attack on Michael Moore as "a disingenuous filmmaker" who grossly distorted Saddam's Iraq as "an oasis of peace." The entire crowd got up, turned around, looked directly at Moore, booing and shouting, "Four more years. Four more years." Even Dick Cheney, sitting across the hall, was pointing at Moore. The boos were so deafening that McCain decided to repeat the line. Moore, laughing nervously, started chanting, "Not four more years. Only two more months."

But only I heard him.

Michael Moore had earned those boos. Amid the many distortions of Fahrenheit 9/11, the most offensive of all was his whitewashing of Saddam's butchery and the portrayal of life under Saddam as something akin to living in Disneyland.

When the booing died down, I leaned over and asked Moore whether he was ashamed or offended. "Nah, I take it all in good humor," he said. "These people are Americans, just like me. They love this country, just like I do. I bet that if we all sat down together, we'd discover just how much we agree on all the issues."

He might think so, but it's unlikely that defending a tyrant is something that anyone sitting in that hall would agree on with Michael Moore.

Throughout the conversation, I went out of my way to be polite and respectful because I wanted to show the difference between people like me who support President Bush out of principle and conviction but believe profoundly in showing human decency to opponents, and the many who support John Kerry simply because they hate President Bush and liken him to Adolf Hitler.

Moore, too, was extremely friendly. He said to me, "It's important that people know that I don't have horns and a tail." Agreed. But that doesn't excuse him for defending and validating mass murderers who behave as though they certainly do.