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Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'm Back/Open Letter to Bill Maher

In the words of the classic poet, Rakim, “it’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you”. But I’ve been focusing on finishing my book proposal so I can get an agent and/or publisher. I hope to have an update on that in a month or two. As for my blogging hiatus, “time’s up, sorry I kept you”!

I’ll be back to two or three blogs a week, but for now I’m just posting a little letter I wrote to Bill Maher (you know, Real Time on HBO) about his movie, Religulous. It’s a little off my usual topic of race and politics, but then again, maybe not…

On that “note”, I’m outta here!


Dear Bill,

Last week I watched Religulous, and enjoyed it, for the most part. I actually agree with many of the points that you were raising, particularly about 1) the need to challenge some elements of religious orthodoxy, particularly those that aren’t even supported by scripture, and 2) the dangerous and disastrous role that organized religion has played in world history. To be fair, I think that a balanced discussion of point two would have to include examples of the positive role that religion has played in world history, whether through the Hinduism of a Gandhi or the Christianity of a Dr. King, but I’ll readily admit that, at least in practice, the negative has outweighed the positive.

Nevertheless, I was deeply dismayed by one of the segments—the one where you interviewed the Jewish activist (rabbi ?) who was against Zionism. Although it was surprising to me that you felt the need to end the interview and walk away from the camera, that act is not what I found troubling. What bothered me is that the position you seemed to be taking on Zionism and the state of Israel was the result of the same kind of religious tunnel vision that you spent the whole movie criticizing.

Most people who support the establishment of the state of Israel do so based on one of two reasons, either 1) because they feel that its establishment fulfills a promise made by God to Abraham, or 2) because they feel that it is deserved and necessary based on historic Jewish persecution, particularly, and most recently at the time Israel was established, the Holocaust.

In your case, the support you show for Israel, and the frustration you displayed with the Jewish activist, could not have been based on the first reason. After all, you had just spent more than an hour of the documentary criticizing the “fairy tale” known as the Bible, and ridiculing those who believe in stories such as a virgin birth. Given this, it would be incredibly hypocritical for you to support 60 years of foreign policy, billions of dollars spent, and millions of live impacted based on what you obviously believe was a mythical promise between God and some guy in the desert.

For the record, although I do not believe in absolute literal interpretations of all biblical writings, I do NOT believe that the bible is a fairy tale. However, since that is the position you took in your movie, I am simply using that as a starting point to follow your train of thought.

So with that in mind, I was glad that you did not make reference to “the promise” in your debate with the Jewish activist. Instead you focused on reason #2 above, that Jewish people deserved the state of Israel because of what had been done to them. But to me, taking this position is even more curious than the promise position, because if reparations is your justification, you’ve got to answer one simple question. What’s that got to do with the Palestinians (and their land).

Don’t get me wrong. I support reparations. I support it for the indigenous peoples who were displaced, robbed and killed by European settlers. I support if for Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during World War II, and you better believe that I support it for people of African descent (on the continent, in the United States and throughout the African diaspora) who were decimated not only by the European slave trade but by colonialism and a legacy of official, governmental racism even after official slavery ended. And yes, I support it for victims of the Holocaust as well. But the funny thing about reparations is this: they are usually given to the folks who have been wronged by the folks that wronged them. So when it comes to the European Jews who suffered horrifically during the Holocaust, I again ask the question—what’s that got to do with the Palestinians?

If reparations is the rationale, why wasn’t part of Germany’s land cut up and given to Jewish people? If Great Britain and the United States were complicit by ignoring the warning signs, why isn’t the state of Israel located a few miles from London, or perhaps somewhere in Oklahoma next to one of the reservations that the proud Cherokee were sent to. In fact, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, once proposed establishing the Jewish state in Uganda, which at the time was a British colony. Herzl argued that Zionism was a political issue, not a religious one. Which do you think it is?

And while you’re answering that question, perhaps you can tell me why you even included the interview with the anti-Zionist Jewish activist to begin with. At first glance, I would have thought you included it because the argument he was making was actually the same as the one you expressed throughout your documentary—namely that the failure to question religious orthodoxy creates serious problems. In other words, you should have been agreeing with him. But instead you got upset and walked away.

It’s a shame that in a movie where you asked so many interesting and important questions, that you could not bring yourself to question your own presumptions on such a critically important issue.

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