An Open Letter to Bill Maher
I’m an American who identifies as Palestinian, and I’ve been watching you for 30 years.
I’ve been following your career since I was a kid when I’d wait until my parents went to bed so I could sneak out of my room and watch movies and cutting edge comedies on HBO. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every last one of your stand-up specials; even that mostly crappy one, when you went down to Oklahoma just to lob softballs for an hour. I still remember routines of yours from your late-‘80s bad-hair days, when all you had was your drugs and ambition (and that clunky little lemon you tooled around in for years). Routines you’ve probably long since disavowed.
I’ve seen every episode of your first talk show, Politically Incorrect. In fact, I watched them as they aired, live and in…well, real time. When that show ended because certain folks weren’t so interested in the primacy of free speech in those days, I applauded you for taking a stand and for going down swinging at a target I almost always find valid. When you got a new show on HBO, I applauded then, too; I knew how much sense the match made, given your career to that point and given HBO’s role in the pay-cable verse. Here we are, umpteen episodes of that show later, and I’ve seen every one of them, too. Every single episode of Real Time, Bill.
Years ago, when you brought a Zionist propagandist on your show, I stayed with you because I believed that you’d hear it from enough people you trusted that it would open your eyes; believed you’d get yourself right on Palestine eventually, as so many other liberals have in the early years of this new century. In 2017, when you used a racial slur on the air, I watched you rightly apologize and spend half your show the following week making amends and listening with humility as African-Americans dropped some wisdom. You are one of the most visible liberal paragons in America, and so I kept the faith for us.
All this context…it’s important for what I have to say to you next.
On your show this Friday, you crossed a line. In a discussion about Congresswoman Omar’s observations on the influence of Zionist money in our politics, you rightly acknowledged that criticism of Israel’s policies and practices is neither out of bounds in American discourse nor anti-Semitic in itself, but in the proverbial next breath, excused and shielded Israel’s behavior completely. You said of Rep. Omar, “We would agree that Palestinians are victims…but not of Israel. They are victims of other Palestinians.”
With all the aforementioned context I provided, I need you to know the following: That statement was the single most ignorant and immoral thing you have ever said on camera.
The entire rest of the civilized world, accounting some 200 nations of disparate peoples, stands united in holding Israel responsible for its ongoing illegal military occupation of the Palestinian people and of lands guaranteed by the UN to be held in reserve for a Palestinian state. This is the view held not just by the vast majority of states, but our own State Department. American administration after administration have not only recognized the Israeli military occupation as existing but further recognized it as a clear violation of international law. Our own State Department has further recognized that settlements in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank are also strictly prohibited under international law.
In light of this, and of the undeniable lived reality of the people there these last 70 years, to assert that the only (or even primary) source of victimization of the Palestinian people is the Palestinians themselves, is to engage in victim-blaming on a gross and epic scale.
It’s not the Palestinians who ran themselves out of their homes and off their lands at gunpoint during what we appropriately refer to as the “Catastrophe.” It’s not the Palestinians who are shooting and maiming themselves by the thousands, simply for having the audacity to stand beside one another in public, on their own land. It’s not the Palestinians who wall themselves in and force themselves to slog through checkpoint after inhumane checkpoint just to get medical care or put in a day’s work. It’s not the Palestinians who are detaining their own kids in military prisons without charge or trial. It’s not the Palestinians building illegal settler-only roads and bus lines on their own land. The list of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians is long, well established, and abhorrent.
Bill, you have gone on national TV and declared yourself an occupation-denier. And try as I might, I just don’t see how a rational or objective mind can interpret it any other way.
And while I believe in learning, in redemption, in growth for people through their lives, I also know that I have to draw the line at certain extreme positions and behaviors, both as a human being and as someone who identifies as a liberal and a progressive. Complain about “woke sophomores” all you like, but the demographic reality is that 82% of Americans under the age of 40 no longer even see Israel as an ally of the United States, let alone support the individual policies and practices of one of the most right-wing governments in the world, which has been Israel’s identity for many, many years now.
If you would deny liberty and self-determination for the Palestinian people, who have already suffered so much and for so very long, then you are not a liberal. You aren’t.
If you would support the perpetuation of the world’s longest-running illegal military occupation (and on our dime, no less), then you are not a progressive. You simply aren’t.
And if you would lend your voice to the dinosaur leadership of the Democratic Party in dismissing the Palestinians’ suffering—and in so doing, proving Congresswoman Omar’s point far better than she ever could have, herself—then you are no longer an ally of mine.
It’s the Right or Palestine, Bill.