Opinion

Seth Rogen Exposed an Irreconcilable Difference Between Israel and the Diaspora

The American Jewish problem with Israel is not what it does, but what it is

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Seth Rogen playing the dual roles of Ben and Herschel Greenbaum in "An American Pickle."
Seth Rogen playing the dual roles of Ben and Herschel Greenbaum in "An American Pickle."Credit: Hopper Stone,AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

Like so many other celebrities who have gotten into trouble with wayward comments or tweets concerning the Jews and/or Israel, Seth Rogen now says he was misunderstood.

He may have been joking when he told host and fellow Jewish comedian Marc Maron on the hugely popular “WTF” podcast that the existence of Israel “doesn’t make sense to me.” But the response from much of the Jewish world was immediate and angry.

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Coming on the heels of author Peter Beinart’s broadside published in The New York Times calling for replacing the Jewish state with a bi-national entity, a rant from an actor whose image and roles have generally portrayed him as a stereotypical Jew, seemed to be just one more indication of the growing divide between Israel and the Diaspora.

Critics of Israel couldn’t be faulted for jumping on the interview as proof of opposition to Zionism and the policies of the Netanyahu government. Rogen claimed that, “As a Jewish person I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life! They never tell you that — oh by the way, there were people there. They make it seem like it was just like sitting there, like the fucking door’s open! … They forget to include the fact to every young Jewish person.”

Many of those pro-Israel voices that responded to Rogen emphasized what they rightly considered his seeming ignorance of the history that made a Jewish state a necessity.

A native of Vancouver, Canada, Rogen went to Jewish schools as well as a Jewish camp and his parents met while volunteering at a kibbutz in the 1970s.

The actor, who was promoting a new film called “An American Pickle” in which he plays a Jewish immigrant to America who falls into a vat of pickles in 1919 and then wakes up 100 years later, now says he doesn’t want anyone to think that he believes Israel shouldn’t exist even though that was the plain implication of his podcast comments. But his words resonated specifically because they are very much in tune with the opinions of the woke Jewish left that tends to predominate in Hollywood as well as among non-Orthodox Jews.

Despite the arguments of the Jewish left, the growing Israel-Diaspora divide has little to do with opinions about the settlers or even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closeness with President Donald Trump, who is despised by the vast majority of American Jews like Rogen. The difference between these two Jewish tribes goes far deeper than politics. The American Jewish problem with Israel is not with what it does but with what it is.

The two nations are bound together by support for the values of democracy and are natural allies in the context of the contemporary Middle East. But there is a profound difference between the American experiment in democracy, which is avowedly non-sectarian, and a nation state whose purpose is to provide a home and security for one specific people that had been persecuted for 20 centuries. Like most other nations on the planet, Israel is an expression of particularism. Its priority is to reconstitute and defend Jewish sovereignty in the ancient homeland of the Jews and not to be the last and best hope of all mankind.

The inherent tension between a state whose purpose is sectarian but which seeks to govern itself democratically and with respect for the rights of the religious and ethnic minorities within its borders is a perennial theme of Israeli debates. But even in its most idealized form, a particularist project such as Zionism has been a difficult sell for American Jews.

Having found a home in which not only were they were welcomed and granted free access to every sector of society but also in which the non-Jewish majority proved willing to marry them, it is unsurprising that many American Jews have always had difficulty coming to terms with an avowedly ethno-religious state whose raison d’être is so different. With non-Orthodox Judaism having embraced social justice as its primary focus, support for Jewish nationalism is at odds with the mindset of American Jewry’s leading activist and faith organizations.

The Holocaust and then the drama of Israel’s creation and early wars effectively squelched anti-Zionist sentiment as an active political force for a time. But that seeming consensus ended once the murder of six million Jews — who had no homeland to flee to before there was an Israel — was safely in the distant past.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that liberalism and nationalism are incompatible. But liberals who tend to think sectarian nation states are inherently racist have little patience for Israel’s problems in coping with a generational war against those who don’t accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.

This is not only a function of ideology but also one of demography. Diaspora Jews who have not merely accepted intermarriage but no longer regard endogamy as an acceptable goal are bound to take a dim view of a country that specifically defines itself as a Jewish state. That is true no matter how generous Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians might be. Writer Cynthia Ozick’s quip that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews” has never seemed more apropos than in the context of the American Jewish debate about Israel.

This doesn’t mean support for Israel among American Jews is becoming totally extinct. Though still a minority, Orthodox Judaism — whose adherents tend to be more supportive of the Jewish state — is growing in the United States. And among those Jews who are actively involved with Jewish causes, including the non-Orthodox, support for Israel is far higher than among the Jewish population as a whole. But it would be foolish to pretend that pro-Israel activism as expressed by groups like AIPAC is not increasingly alien to the mindset of most liberal Jews even at a time when contemporary anti-Semites are now to be often found hiding behind a veneer of anti-Zionism.

Rogen’s comments mattered because they seemed to spring from a typical American Jewish alienation from a Zionist project that has always been difficult to reconcile with contemporary secular liberalism no matter what Israel does or who leads it. It may pain Israelis and those Jews who still do back Zionism to admit it. But for all too many in the Diaspora, the fate of Jews in a world where Israel might theoretically no longer exist is inevitably going to be of little interest when compared to what they consider more relevant concerns about racism and other more fashionable causes.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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