Controversy Over Seth Rogen's Israel Comments Exposes Widening Rift With U.S. Jews

Cherry-picked quotes from talk between Rogen and Marc Maron on 'being lied to about Israel' not only ignored the humor in their conversation, but overlooked the fact it was the deepest dive into Jewish identity in modern celebrity culture in recent memory

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Left: Seth Rogen in a scene from "An American Pickle." / Right: Marc Maron performs at the Colony Theater during the South Beach Comedy Festival, March 1, 2012.
Left: Seth Rogen in a scene from "An American Pickle." / Right: Marc Maron performs at the Colony Theater during the South Beach Comedy Festival, March 1, 2012.Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO Max via AP // AP Photo/South Beach Comedy Festival, Mitchell Zachs

The back-and-forth banter regarding Jewish obsessions and neuroses between comedic superstar Seth Rogen and comedian-podcast host Marc Maron is hardly unfamiliar.

One can imagine any Jewish baby boomer and millennial tossing off similar views about everything from antisemitism to sex across a Friday night dinner table on the Upper West Side, over lattes at a Santa Monica Starbucks or at Jewish summer camp albeit perhaps without the professional comic edge of Rogen, 38, and Maron, 56. 

The hyperfocus of the two men on Judaism suited the occasion – given that the interview on the popular WTF with Marc Maron Podcastwas intended to promote Rogen’s new film, “An American Pickle.”

LISTEN: Seth Rogen on WTF with Marc Maron Podcast

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That film’s whimsical premise: A Jewish immigrant to Brooklyn in the early 1900s accidentally tumbles into a vat of pickles and is preserved in brine for a century. When he emerges in the present day, he meets his great-grandson and is deeply disappointed, among other things, by how tangential Judaism is to his descendant’s life when it had been so central to his own. 

But Twitter isn’t about wide-ranging conversations, deep contemplation of identity or snide humor. And so, cherry-picked quotes from the conversation by the two entertainers not only ignored the humor in their conversation, but overlooked the fact that the wide-ranging interview was the deepest dive into Jewish identity in modern celebrity culture in recent memory. 

The portion of the conversation that sent the pair into the trending Twitter orbit involved what they agreed was the “ridiculous” belief that all Jews should move to Israel and the assertion by Rogen – who attended Jewish day school and Habonim Dror Labor Zionist summer camps – that he had been lied to and deceived about Israel growing up. 

Without saying the word “Zionism” explicitly, Rogen pushed hard against it, saying Jews should “spread out” around the world instead of “putting all your Jews in one basket.” 

If congregating in a Jewish state is “for religious reasons, I don’t agree with it because I think religion is silly. If it is truly for the preservation of Jewish people, it makes no sense, because, again, you don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place – especially when that place has proven to be pretty volatile. 'I’m trying to keep all these things safe; I’m going to put them in my blender and hope that that’s the best place! That’ll do it!' It doesn’t make sense to me. And I also think that as a Jewish person, like I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life.”

Maron concurred.

Rogen continued: “You know, they never tell you that, 'Oh, by the way, there were people there.' They make it seem like it was just sitting there –  oh the fucking door’s open!”

Maron then suggested that the reason for the skewed narrative was that “They want to make you feel frightened enough about your own survival, to the point that when you're old enough, you'll make sure money goes to Israel, and that trees are planted and that you always speak highly of Israel and Israel must survive no matter what.”

Both men declared that they could never live in Israel, though Rogen conceded there were “nice parts.” They also said they didn’t find Israelis particularly likeable – Rogen said his summer camp counselors who were “fresh out of the army” had been “psychotic.” 

Israelis are a “sinewy” and “tough” breed of Jew, Rogen said. 

“They don’t fuck around,” Maron added. “Israelis aren’t going to put up with our middle class Jew bullshit. They don’t even care if we're religious.” 

Perhaps foreseeing the controversy their podcast would spark, Maron at one point confessed he was “frightened” to have such conversations publicly – and that the people he was afraid of were Jews. 

“It’s scary,” Rogen admitted, "But we’re Jews – we can say whatever we want. We should. I mean, if anyone can say whatever they fucking want about this shit, it should be two famous Jewish people. If anyone’s getting rounded up first, it’s our fucking asses.”

'Extremely common' views

For those who work with young progressive Jews, the willingness of celebrities to state these feelings publicly may come as a surprise, but their difficult relationship with Israel is nothing new.

Libby Lenkinski – who is vice president for public engagement at the New Israel Fund NGO, and is close to Rogen’s age – says what the movie star was describing “is extremely common among Jews my age and younger.” It's the driving force in the rise of groups like J Street U and IfNotNow, she added.  

Like Rogen, Lenkinski attended Jewish schools and Zionist camp, and even though her family was decidedly “leftist,” she too remembers the feeling when the cracks began forming in her connection to Israel. That ultimately felt like falling from a “cliff,” she said.

“What Seth is talking about, this thing, not being told there were people here, that it was empty – a land with no people for a people with no land – that’s the essential lie that my generation and those younger than us have had to deal with.”

Lenkinski said this experience drives her to work on educational programs for younger people with multiple narratives on Israel and Palestine, “to avoid giving young people that horrible painful moment of feeling like every adult in my life lied about Israel.” She urged the Jewish communal world to adopt a similar approach.  

“I really do believe that this thing he’s describing, that so many of us are describing, is not inevitable – it’s a choice that we make in Israel education. The prioritization of 'loving Israel' just doesn’t work. We know it from statistics, from studies that federations and mainstream Jewish organizations have done. That cliff is created by shielding people from other narratives, as if they aren’t going to find out.

“And it’s going to happen at younger ages with generations who are growing up online. They have access to everything and are going to find out there is a Palestinian narrative – so why not integrate as much diverse learning and complexity as possible in their Jewish education to better equip people to understand?” she asked.

While neither of the bar-mitzvahed comedians said they believe in or practice the religion, both said they had developed a less scornful attitude toward aspects of Jewish practice as they became older. 

“Specifically, revolving around death, Judaism has a lot of protocol that is helpful,” Rogen said. The process of sitting shivah after a death in his family, he said, “was one of those things where I was like, ‘Oh, this is like a very useful tool that religion has created around a very painful thing. ... This is actually a very well thought out, practical protocol to do after someone dies, whether you believe in it or not – it is useful.” 

Both agreed that no matter how they felt about any aspect of Judaism, it was too deeply ingrained in them to abandon.

This image released by HBO Max shows Seth Rogen portraying Ben Greenbaum, left, and Herschel Greenbaum in a scene from "An American Pickle."Credit: Hopper Stone/HBO Max via AP

“Being Jewish is inextractable for us. Our DNA comes back Jewish. If you're a Baptist, it’s a belief system. If you're Jewish, it’s who you are,” Rogen said. “You don’t have to believe in Judaism to be Jewish.” 

Equally inescapable as his Judaism is antisemitism, he said.

“I remember my dad frankly telling me: 'People hate Jews. Just be aware of that. They just do.' And it’s honestly something that I'm so glad was instilled in me from a young age, because if it wasn’t, I would constantly be shocked at how much motherf***ers hate Jews – because they do! It is pervasive and it is prevalent, and it is to many Jewish people so confounding that they don’t assume it’s true.” 

Maron concurred. “Hating Jews is as old as Judaism.”

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