Years ago, I heard about a colleague in the Jewish journalism field who spoke about the Middle East conflict at a local private school’s foreign affairs club. Most of the students there were Jewish and wanted to gain insights from an American journalist who’d lived in Israel.
The speaker’s perspective tended to be rather dogmatic and one-sided, focusing on Israel’s herculean efforts against Arab armies hell-bent on driving the Jewish state into the sea.
The students, however, weren’t having it. “Don’t give us the same old line that everything Israel does is perfect and the other guys are evil,” they said. “We’ve heard all that before.” Frustrated and shouted down, the speaker eventually beat a hasty retreat.
I remembered this anecdote recently when reading about actor Seth Rogen’s remarks on comedian Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, which sparked an outcry from Israel’s supporters.
In the podcast, Rogen, who plays a Jewish immigrant in the new film “An American Pickle,” discussed attending Jewish schools and Zionist camps in his native Vancouver.
“I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel,” said Rogen, whose parents met as volunteers on a kibbutz. “They never tell you that, ‘Oh, by the way, there were people there [in pre-state Israel].’ They make it seem like it was just like sitting there, like the f—— door’s open.”
Rogen branded Israel’s primary raison d’etre — that Jews need a haven after centuries of persecution and genocide — “an antiquated thought process.”
“If it is for truly the preservation of Jewish people, it makes no sense,” he said. “You don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place — especially when that place is proven to be pretty volatile, you know?”
Facing fierce backlash — including an apparent tongue-lashing from his mom and Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog — Rogen subsequently backed down somewhat from his previous remarks and attempted to clarify.
“I don’t want Jews to think I don’t want Israel to exist, and I understand how they could have been led to think that,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “I was just not given a full picture of the situation, and I understand it’s a wildly complex picture to give a child.”
And therein lies the problem. The Middle East is an extraordinarily complicated, thorny subject that we Americans attempt to simplify, even in Jewish settings. I still recall learning songs in Hebrew school comparing Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hitler and Haman, while studying the daring exploits of such Israeli “superheroes” as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin.
Jewish educators have a dilemma. Their students need to see Israel in a positive, admirable light. But the complexities of the region and history leave little room for evenhanded and objective analysis, especially for young minds.
It’d be easy to demonize Rogen as a self-loathing Jew and Hollywood type who wanted to take a snarky poke at his own people and appear “cutting-edge.” His remarks might demonstrate a clear lack of historical sensitivity and understanding, but there’s a lesson to be learned here.
Despite the heroic efforts of Jewish educators and others in the community to inform and inspire young people about Israel and help them understand why it’s relevant to their lives in the 21st century, we are failing. Miserably.
With this New Year ahead, I suggest we revisit this “Israel Fatigue” quandary and try to come up with real solutions that enable our young folks to see the Middle East in a fair, accurate and comprehensive light while still loving Israel, warts and all.
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief