Peoplehood in a Pickle – A Response to Seth Rogen

Despite current social protests in Israel, the surge in the spread of COVID-19, and intensity on Israel’s Northern border, I want to turn the conversation this week to the Israel discourse in North America. Seth Rogen’s unrehearsed remarks on a recent podcast hosted by Marc Maron shocked many in the organized American Jewish community when he said: ” [As] a Jewish person I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life,” Rogen told Maron, mentioning additionally that “Israel just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Seth Rogen should not be dismissed willy-nilly because he may have offended our pro-Israel sensibilities, nor should the discussion be about whether or not he apologized for his remarks. His unfiltered comments were raw, authentic, and came from his gut, and we in the Zionist camp ought to pay attention.

He is more representative of the American-Jewish demographic than we might choose to acknowledge. Current trends are to shed our ethnic particularistic identity and in favor of a socially and politically progressive ideology.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents struggled valiantly to acculturate, assimilate, and integrate into American society (see: White Privilege) while stripping our Jewishness of its ethnicity and national expression (See: Shaul Magid’s American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society. He makes the point that understanding Jews and Judaism(s) amidst current patterns of cultural and religious practices reflects a decline in “ethnicity” as a viable identity-marker).

Rogen’s point is that Jewish ethnicity and national identification are on the outs – which is essentially the core theme of Rogen’s new movie “An American Pickle.” The residual affect is now being felt in a post-assimilationist world in which most American Jews do not lose sleep over fear of dual loyalty accusations and can’t comprehend the notion that one’s national identity could be anything other than American.
That leaves many with the conclusion that Zionism (i.e. Jewish nationalism) is unnatural for most North American Jews. It ought not be so surprising that Rogen, a 38-year-old actor, and comedian, renounces any connection to Israel and speak out against the very idea of a Jewish State.

Rogen lamented aspects of his Zionist education though he grew up in the liberal socialist HaBonim Dror movement. Rogen claims he was never taught that there were actual people living in the Land of Israel prior to the Jewish nationalist movement. He remembers the early Zionist refrain: “A land without a people for a people without a land, ” which, according to historian Anita Shapira, was commonly used among Zionists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Let it be known that most Zionist movements dispelled that myth a long time ago, and no one teaches it anymore. That is not to say that we must have an honest reckoning with how we educate our young people with all the nuances and complexities about Israel and Zionism through our youth movements, Sunday schools, and summer camps.

Instead of gasping in exasperation and shock, let us analyze and respond to the ideas that Rogen provokes.

Journalist Jonathan Tobin wrote in Haaretz: “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 particularistic project such as Zionism has been a difficult sell for American Jews.”

Tobin continues: “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.”

If it is true that many American Jews think that nation states are illegitimate vestiges of the past and essentially racist in their conception, it is all the more challenging for progressive Zionists to promote our liberal values while supporting our strong connection to the State of Israel. I believe that it is in our connection to Israel and to our collective identity as part of the Jewish people, that we can actively express our tradition’s universal values.

In her book “Liberal Nationalism” Yuli Tamir argues that nationalist sentiments can animate our commitments to social justice – and even makes a surprising and compelling case that they already do in modern liberal welfare states in her chapter “A Hidden Agenda.”  Her claim that “recognizing the binding power of associative obligations [which she claims come with nationalism] increases rather than lessens the scope of our obligations to help others.”

Emanuel Levinas, a prominent 19th-century French Jewish philosopher, also stressed that the particular is valid and useful only to the extent that it embodies and expresses the universal.

We know that early Zionism, much of which was based in humanism and utopian thinking, was committed to envisioning the universal through the particularity of Jewish peoplehood. The attempt to embody this dynamic is why Marxism and socialism played such a significant role in early Zionist ideology.

But that was then.

Now, Zionism is regarded by many as particularism above all – especially at the expense of the rights and aspirations of the Other. After more than a century of American Jews working to become Jewish Americans, we are seeing the results of our forebearers’ concerted effort to remove the essence of peoplehood and ethno-national expression from their identity.

If one disavows a religious connection to Judaism and an ethnic connection to our nationalist identity, not much is left. In light of Rogen’s comments, as American Reform Zionists we need to embrace our connection to our collective Jewish identity and harness our particularism and sense of peoplehood for the collective power that both offer, and demonstrate how they lead us to an active expression of our tradition’s universal values and the ability to the ability to work for justice, peace, equality, and democracy. The alternative is much, much worse.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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