An unexpected conversation with Michael Moore

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Readers of my columns will remember that at the Democratic National Convention, I found myself sitting a few feet from Michael Moore. I tried to speak with him, but he flicked me away with a finger.

Yet, there I was, at the Republican National Convention, working on my laptop from one of the press desks, when a Secret Service agent suddenly walked in, stood behind me and told me that the seat next to me was now taken. A moment later, in walked Michael Moore, sitting down right 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 in this supreme bastion of Republicans. He told me that he was, and surprisingly so, that everyone had been friendly and kind to him since his arrival.

He then asked me to borrow a pen so that he could take notes, and I lent him mine. A moment later, he was swarmed by tens of press who wanted to interview him. They asked him questions until it became such a distraction that they were whisked away by the Secret Service. Suddenly, it was he and I alone, again, this time cordoned off by a Secret Service perimeter. 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. And that’s a shame. Because however much you and I disagree on the major issues, you shouldn’t come over as a Jew-hater. Joe Scarborough even asked me on his MSNBC show whether or not I believed you’re an anti-Semite. You see, Mr. Moore? That’s the impression that’s being given. 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. And you can see the real situation there for yourself.”

“I like Israel,” he said, “and I’ve visited twice, the first time during the first intifada.”

“Well, then you’ll know that Israelis are victims, too – that they have suffered terribly under terrorism. But the impression that has been given is that you don’t identify with Israeli suffering. It seems 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.”

“Well, then it’s important that that be known. Look, Mr. Moore, I am a political conservative, so I am certainly not on the same page as you. And I was deeply critical of your most recent film. 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, beside the conflict with the Palestinians – even though there are so many guns around.”

“Well, that’s because it’s a healthy society,” I said, “a society that values life.”

We agreed to a future formal sit-down interview, just as our conversation was interrupted by John McCain, the featured speaker of the evening, who 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 and looked directly at Moore, booing and shouting, “Four more years. Four more years.” Even Dick Cheney, standing 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.

Now, these were boos that he really had earned. Amid the many distortions that certainly had offended me during “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 it died down, I bent over and asked Moore how he felt during the boos, whether he was ashamed or offended. He said, “Nah, I take it all in good humor. 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.”

Perhaps. But defending a tyrant is probably something that few of us sitting in that room would ever agree upon with Michael Moore.

Throughout the conversation, I was polite and respectful. I went out of my way to be so because I wanted to show the difference between people like me who support President Bush out of 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 Hitler. Moore, too, was extremely friendly and said that it was important people understood that he didn’t have horns or a tail.

Indeed, I was left feeling that he can have a charming side and is certainly not Satan. But that gives him little excuse to defend and validate those who certainly are.