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Zionism in a Pickle?

08/06/2020 05:07:59 PM

Aug6

It’s not the first time that Seth Rogen has gotten in trouble for “The Interview.” Whereas his film by that name created an international incident with North Korea, this time, the actor/writer/director famous for movies like “Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and the upcoming “American Pickle” has created a different sort of pickle among his own people.
An interviewer asked Seth Rogen if Israel should exist, and Seth gave an answer that was non-committal at best. As a non-religious Jew, he could not accept the religious arguments for Israel’s creation. From a pragmatic perspective, he wondered aloud whether it was wise to have so many Jews living in such a “volatile” part of the world. From a pragmatic perspective, I might disagree with those answers, but they are not unique to him, and are shared by some who love Israel fiercely. Some Israeli Zionists come from a rigidly secular orientation. Aside from the many jokes wondering why the promised land couldn’t have been in a “better neighborhood” (perhaps California rather than Canaan), our fear of, and opposition to, a nuclear Iran is premised on the same concerns for Israel’s safety.
What troubles me most is that Rogen took aim at the pro-Israel education he had received, attending a Zionist Jewish camp and even traveling Israel on a teen summer program. He felt that he had been deceived, that no-one had told him that the Palestinians existed, and that that was one of the things that had turned him against Israel.
The brouhaha came in an environment of other, more clearly anti-Semitic statements from pop-culture figures, including some in the black community. We understand that anti-Semitism in the African American community, (and, while we are at it, racism in the Jewish community) are issues that require continued attention and response. Condemnation may drive these sentiments back underground, but they will only be eliminated by partnership between those who are willing to commit to honest and sometimes difficult dialogue.
Rogen’s comments, however, provoked particular angst because they came from one of our own. Our community invests so much in Israel education, in Jewish camps and schools and youth groups, in Israel trips, and yet we see that many young people who grew up with of those experiences still have views not far from those of the actor/writer/director. Have we accomplished nothing with our Israel education? Are these efforts wasted?
Our Torah portion this week, Ekev, includes one of the first examples of Israel education. Moses is addressing the Israelites who have grown up in the desert, and have devoted their whole lives to a journey to a land that they have never seen, but that they are expected to embrace. Moses speaks of the fruitfulness of the land, its streams and springs and its remarkable produce. He is also very clear with them that even though they have a valid claim to the land, that claim is not without conflict, as there are already residents, not all of whom will be displaced. A previous generation of Israelites did not find out about the Canaanites until they had already sent spies into the land, and the result was a rejection of God's gift. The Israelites of Ekev had to truly understand what they were getting into if they were to avoid the failures and disappointments of the previous generation.
No amount of finger-pointing or condemnation will change the left-wing approach of a new generation of Jewish leaders and thinkers. “My country, right or wrong” will not gain traction, and religious arguments may not exert influence. On the other hand, there are so many positives to Israel from a liberal perspective. With whatever warts, it is the most democratic and open state in the Middle East, a haven for gender and LGBTQ rights, a relative leader in environmental sensitivity. It reaches out even to hostile neighbors, offering medical care for Syrian refugees and victims of the Beirut explosion. In that context, we can be honest about the intractability of a conflict that has lasted over 70 years, and now seems to defy either a one-state or two-state solution. There is a lot of suffering to go around, amongst real people and many factors that contribute to that suffering. Acknowledging that complexity takes the wind out of the sails of those who would seek to assign blame unilaterally or place a wedge between American Jews and Israel.
This situation will soon be forgotten by all but a zealous few. In retrospect, it might have been over-optimistic to think that the man who made an R-rated movie called “Sausage Party” would choose a podcast called “WTF” as the venue for a refined and nuanced view of international diplomacy and post-Zionism. As the accounts would seem to indicate, Rogen suffered the greatest censure imaginable, a tongue-lashing from his mother.
What I take away from this incident (and what I have seen from my time working with teens and college students) is that we need to ensure that our teaching of Israel is spoken in language that those listeners can grasp and absorb.
Sun, May 9 2021 27 Iyyar 5781