The Rogen Affair: Did Daniel Gordis Miss the Mark?

The month long train of reactions to Seth Rogen’s explosive comments about the State of Israel, and the paucity of the Israel education he received as a youngster, have been fairly predictable. On the one hand, we’ve seen one camp decry the fact that someone could say such things, either because Israel education isn’t what is once was, or attempt to claim that Rogen is an outlier. Similarly, we’ve seen others embrace his remarks in their entirety either as a smokescreen for their own anti-Israel sentiment or as unmitigated proof that most Jewish youngsters are beginning to develop similar sentiments (“What Seth Rogen said is par for the course among our generation and the Israeli government has to wake up and see that their actions have consequences,” said Yonah Lieberman from If Not Now).

I’m glad that we have some adults in the room who are able to compose more nuanced responses, significantly more thoughtful than most of the knee-jerk reactions that we have seen from both “sides”. Undoubtedly, some of Rogen’s remarks were remarkably unintelligent, but the general direction of his comments deserved a closer inspection than most responses have provided.

The general direction of his comments deserved a closer inspection than most responses have provided

Daniel Gordis has hit the nail on the head in so many ways in his article, not least in his considered critical remarks about the tepid Israel education we provide for our youth. The call for a more sophisticated education is both timely and pressing, and one need only take a cursory glance at the outputs from many Hasbara organisations to understand just how deep the problem runs (sharing images of a Jew and Arab sitting in a hospital side by side with headlines such as “What Apartheid?” is so transparently superficial that it’s no surprise people are switching off).

And yet, I believe his solution lacks a most critical element. He suggests as follows; “So try this thought experiment: tell the story of the rise of Zionism in Europe and continue with Israel, and don’t mention Israel’s enemies or its wars. There’s a lot we’d have to leave out, obviously, and the story would be far from complete – but would we know how to tell such a story? What are the important texts we would include? The Declaration of Independence – what does it say, and why? Some of Israel’s Basic Laws? Which, and why? What were the important ideological disagreements among Israel’s founders? About what did Ahad Ha’am and Herzl disagree so vehemently? What were the core values of Revisionist Zionism, created by Jabotinsky, inherited by Begin and now (he says) continued by Netanyahu (even though that claim makes a farce of Revisionism)? Who were and are the public intellectuals who have most shaped Israel? What did they say and what sort of Israel did they envision?”

Basing our Zionism on the European ideal of self-determination of the 19th century is not the story we should be telling to our youth

I’m not convinced, nor have I been for many years, that such a solution would yield any more successful results in terms of a binding positive relationship with the State of Israel than the status quo. Basing our Zionism on the European ideal of self-determination of the 19th century is not the story we should be telling to our youth, nor does it begin to scratch the surface of the unique and rich history that the Jewish People have enjoyed. Rooting ourselves in the political history of European nations, subconsciously suggesting that our connection with Israel can somehow be equated with Bismarck’s successful creation of modern Germany would hardly create a sea-change in our youth.

Instead, there should be no fear of scrapping “Israel Studies” in favour of a reinvigorated Jewish History curriculum. Any attempt to place Israeli or Zionist History as somehow detached from Jewish History is a grave error. For some unknown reason, our education systems are too wary of going back any more than 200/250 years, falsely believing that any foray into the medieval period, let alone Antiquity and earlier, are the unique realm of religious scholars or professional historians.

A complete education would begin with the stories of the Tanakh, continue through the Talmudic and Midrashic narrative concerning the battle to maintain Jewish sovereignty in our land, and proceed through the myriad of Medieval scholars who emphasised our connection with this land. How much stronger a connection could we forge if students received a passionate understanding of our millenia-long connection to the Land of Israel? Imagine studying ancient Jewish texts which emphasise our bond with the land, such as the later Prophets? Imagine a class exploring the fascinating attempts by Jews to restablish our presence in the land, notably the Jewish rebellion in the 7th Century when the Jews living in Israel successfully joined the Persian forces to depose the Byzantine Roman presence from Israel? Imagine exploring the rich poetry of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, written with a ferociously passionate love for the Land of Israel? Imagine casting our gaze to the Persian community, who had a far better understanding of what Zionism really meant (Aziz ben Yona Naim, one of the leaders of this community, wrote that “Zionism is nothing but a new name and new institution, for the Zionist idea has been present in Jewish thought for over two thousands years.”)?

But first, let’s give our children a proper understanding of our own history

And yes, less you fear I’ve avoided this element, let’s also study the history of the people with whom we share this part of the world, but only once we’ve fully explored our own history as a people. Let’s have those difficult conversations about the Palestinian claim to this land. Let’s discuss and explore how two peoples can have radically different readings of the same events. But first, let’s give our children a proper understanding of our own history, because we shouldn’t be surprised if our youth, provided with such a poor understanding of their own national history, become as disillusioned as Seth Rogen.

When Seth Rogen claimed that the idea of Israel is “antiquated”, let’s embrace the implication within that choice of words that there was once a successful and popular idea of a nation state for Jews, but let’s turn “antiquation” into re-invigoration. Let’s empower our Jewish Youth, through education, to understand that the concept of a nation state has existed throughout our history, rather than being a concept onto which we piggy-backed in the mid-19th century. Perhaps we’ll then succeed in creating confident Jewish youngsters, enthused with a deep understanding of their own history, and thus far better placed to confidently explore the histories of others.

About the Author
Before making aliya, Simon worked in many roles within Jewish Education in the UK, including as the National Director of Bnei Akiva UK, teaching Jewish Studies and heading Mizrachi UK. In Israel, he has continued in the world of education, including as the Director of Education for Lavi Olami, an educational consultant for the National Library of Israel and Director of Educational Projects for the Shabbat Project. He writes in a personal capacity.
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