Seth Rogen’s Israel Problem — and Ours


I was going to ignore actor Seth Rogen’s remarks about Israel. Plenty has already been written about his interview on Marc Maron’s podcast, in which Rogen asserted that Israel “makes no sense” as a refuge for Jews, and that as a kid attending Jewish day schools and summer camps, he was fed “lies” about Zionism – namely, that the Holy Land was virtually empty when Jews began to build the modern state.

(If you ever heard a teacher unironically use the phrase “a land without a people, for a people without a land,” wrongly attributed to Theodor Herzl, you know what he means.)

Allison Kaplan Sommer, in Haaretz, has an excellent summary of the blowback about Rogen’s remarks, and why they seemed to matter so much to the Jewish commentariat.

But I will note a couple of things that haven’t been said.

First, Rogen is the Jewish organizational world’s worst nightmare – not because he is ignorant of Jewish life or history, but precisely because he is a product of its institutions. As a kid he attended the Vancouver Talmud Torah and Camp Miriam, a Habonim Dror camp. A lot of Jewish communal life is predicated on the idea that rising indifference to Israel among young Jews is the result of scant or inadequate Jewish education. It’s doubly disconcerting when an educated Jewish kid like Rogen grows up not just to be a critic of Israel, but appears to embrace some of the familiar themes of the anti-Zionists.

But is he really an anti-Zionist? Maron is a deeply and famously conflicted Jew, having written a book on the topic and spoken frequently on his podcast and in his standup about his ambivalence to religion and his heritage. Yet he is also deep inside his Jewishness. It is he who leads the conversation with Rogen into the intensely Jewish territory. Neither of them sounds like an indifferent Jew: They care enough to have opinions, as discomfiting as they may be.

You also have to listen to the podcast to get a sense of how they are playing off one another as Jews and humorists. The Israel stuff is a rollicking riff – two Hebrew school kids BS’ing in a dorm room, not think-tankers debating on PBS NewsHour.  Rogen appears to have said as much in a Zoom call with Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in a call arranged over the weekend. According to Herzog, Rogen “explained his words were meant as a joke, taken from a critical, humorous exchange with a fellow Jewish comedian.”

I’m disappointed in a lot of what Rogen says, as I always am when I hear Jews blithely dismiss the reality of and justification for a nation that is home to the majority of the world’s Jews — as if a place where 9 million people live, work, play, vote and argue is just a bad “idea” to be corrected.

Still, I wouldn’t condemn Rogen for the things he says. First, he’s no politician – he’s a comedian with opinions. Second, our impulse to condemn – instead of say, educate or persuade – is how we got here in the first place. “Cancel culture” – that bugbear of the right – is not about persuasion, but suppression. Don’t like an idea? Silence its messenger, shame its adherents, demand an apology.

At the same time, the “Israel experience” – the educational and “identity-building” strategy employed by Birthright and Hillel and summer canps and embraced on the right and the center – is heavy on inspiration, light on inquiry.

It’s also a formula for eventual disaffection. An impulse to downplay the complications and contradictions of creating and securing Israel has left too many Jewish kids either disillusioned with Zionism as adults or unprepared to respond to Israel’s critics. I suspect that Rogen is more typical of Jews his age (he’s 38) than Jewish leaders would like to admit.

I wish Rogen’s zoom call with Herzog had been made public. I’d love to hear Rogen discuss his ideas not with someone, like Maron, who essentially agrees with him, but perhaps with a liberal Zionist Jew who recognizes Israel’s flaws and shares Rogen’s skepticism about the “official history,” but can also point him to a more serious consideration of the need for and complicated story of Israel. He might even come away inspired.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.