I may have lost a friend over this, and I’d hardly even begun the conversation. I’ll call him Dave. We’ve been friends for over 20 years. It was a friendship that grew out of our common activism. We were advocates on behalf of animals and were no strangers to unpopular causes. We participated in a peace march together at the beginning of the war in Iraq.
The text message came when I turned my phone back on at the end of our trip. We were, in fact, still in Chicago, waiting for our connecting flight back to Minneapolis. It said, “Your name came up the other day and I haven’t heard from you in a while. How are you?” I replied that I had been in Israel and Palestine. He was quite surprised; he responded with something to the effect of “Wow!” and “How long were you there?” I explained that it was a global justice trip, with a brief explanation of the reason for our visit. By then we had boarded our flight to Minneapolis and I turned off the phone.
When I reached home, I fully expected to find a message waiting. There was nothing. I waited a couple of days, and then, seeing from his Flickr account that he had been in the U.K. — yes, we also keep in touch through photos — I sent a message asking him about his trip. He replied, briefly. Then, wondering if he had misunderstood something in my message about our Israel-Palestine trip, I explained that we had met with both Israeli and Palestinian groups during our trip. Again, no reply came. This was not like him. I sent another message to say that I sensed that it was not a good topic and I would not bring it up again. I have not heard back from him.
I am mystified, stunned; he is the last person I would expect this from. I have since recognized the folly of undertaking the conversation through text messages, but that is how he usually keeps in touch. And I didn’t expect it would be an issue with him. Not at all.
This conflict cuts across lines in a way that might surprise us. My friend is liberal, progressive, non-religious, cosmopolitan in his outlook (a world traveler). So, you could say, is Bill Maher and I bring him up because he is a comedian with some influence among progressives, who has commented on a lot on this conflict. His 2008 “documentary,” Religulous, which I have not watched but I plan to soon, mocks religion and from what I have read in reviews, at the end of the movie the Muslim faith is conflated with terrorism through several images. Maher then calls for an end to all religions if we are to save ourselves.* In an earlier interview with Larry King, Maher responds to the complaint he has heard from a Palestinian schoolgirl about the attitude of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints with the comment, “Well, yeah, but that’s because a lot of your brothers are blowing up their pizza parlors. Sorry.”
Sorry? This is racism; we know this. Somehow it is okay to mistreat people because they are Arabs or Muslims or Palestinians. Somehow that’s okay with a supposedly progressive comedian and a progressive audience. Maher, like many others, has said there was never a Palestine, so there is no occupation.
We forget our own history; we forget, for example, the Japanese concentration camps in our country during World War II, when a whole population became guilty by association, were considered dangerous, and were rounded up and held without cause. I can’t imagine anyone I know who would not consider that a terrible and regrettable thing in our history; but many simply shrug off similar treatment for Palestinians in their own land. History will judge us for this, I believe, but that doesn’t help the Palestinians now.
Meanwhile, I am heartbroken by the silence of my friend. I keep thinking about picking up the phone, but I am afraid. Will he let it go to voice mail? Will I ever get to explain? What is he thinking? Has he bought the charge that criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Semitic? Does he know that there are Israelis who are firmly opposed to the occupation, too, and stand against it? Does he view me as terribly misguided and backwards? Can we at least talk about this? Does he remember that when we demonstrated on behalf of animals, wanting only to expose the plight of the terrible conditions under which they suffered, we were called terrorists? Does he remember?
 CNN Transcripts. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0201/04/lkl.00.html
*I have since watched Religulous. The film seems calculated to find people who would be easy targets for cheap shots, truck drivers at a truck stop chapel, for instance, or visitors at a Holy Land theme park, or people who are enamored of the end times. People who were sincerely trying to express their beliefs when Maher asked were often interrupted and not allowed to speak: Maher put words in their mouths. It did seem that Islam was depicted largely in terms of violence, with Christianity a runner up. I have no issue with critical analyses of religion, but Maher picked his examples in a highly calculated way, generalized, and then came to a sweeping conclusion: that we need to end all religion. Based on a 90 minute highly selective “documentary” by one man, it doesn’t seem like a well reasoned conclusion for a self-described rationalist to make.