Comedian and actor Seth Rogen made news with some provocative comments during an interview on Marc Maron’s podcast WTF. The interview was ostensibly about Rogen’s upcoming film release, An American Pickle.
The movie is about a Jewish immigrant worker at a pickle factory who falls into a pickle barrel 100 years ago and wakes up in modern-day Brooklyn, N.Y., so it was no surprise that the interview was going to have a decidedly Jewish bent.
Rogen has always been first in line when it comes to calling out anti-Semitism. When American rapper Macklemore donned a fake beard and prosthetic nose that looked decidedly like a shameful Jewish stereotype in 2014, Rogen called him out on Twitter.
He was also one of the first signatories to a 2014 statement I helped circulate in support of Israel’s right to defend itself, which was ultimately signed by more than 300 key influencers in the entertainment field, including actors Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kelsey Grammer.
So, it was a big surprise to hear him speak disparagingly of Israelis, Israel and Orthodox Jewry in the podcast with Maron.
I hope that no one in the Jewish community turns their back on him. However, I do think it’s important to challenge his suppositions, and a surprising number of different Jewish voices have done that quite well.
When asked by Maron if he would ever live in Israel, Rogen replied “no,” calling the idea of Israel ridiculous and antiquated. “If it is for truly the preservation of Jewish people,” according to Rogen, Israel “makes no sense, because again, 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?”
In an opinion piece for The Jewish Chronicle, music and theater critic James Inverne addressed the actor saying, “Keeping all Jews in one place? I think few Israelis would argue that to be a good idea; it’s very clear that having Jews arguing for Jewish interests across the diaspora is not only important, but vital.”
However, Inverne pointed out that while Diaspora Jewry is essential to Israel, so, too, is Israel essential to the Diaspora: “We’ve tried the nomadic existence thing, we’ve tried the living among the nations thing, and without a Jewish state, it doesn’t work out so well.”
Rogen gave credence to the “stolen lands” narrative of the BDS movement that seeks to isolate Israel economically, academically and culturally with false claims against the Jewish homeland. “And I also think,” Rogen opined, “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.”
Inverne responds to that as well. “Right. There were people there, Seth. Some of them were Jews. Most weren’t. But there was also a heck of a lot of empty space. In the late 1800s, there were half a million people in an area, small as it is, that today holds around 13 million. And the Jews who arrived then bought their land, at vastly inflated prices, from the Ottomans who owned it. … And they wanted to partition the land to make an Arab state alongside a Jewish state and even though there was plenty of space the Arabs said no and launched a war.”
Rogen also said that today young progressive Jews ask a lot of questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “really challenge the status quo.” That is true. And many are finding that although they need to educate themselves further to fully understand the matter, there is little reciprocity from the other side.
According to George Washington University student Blake Flayton, “When I engage fellow students about Israel who I suspect don’t share my views, I approach them with thoughtful questions about the conflict: What can be done to end checkpoints? Which peace proposals are the most realistic? What I get in return are simple answers: Israel is an apartheid state born in sin. Israel has no right to exist. … Anybody who associates themselves with Israel is complicit in ethnic cleansing and is therefore a white supremacist.
“ … I realized that those who repeatedly criticize us for our bias, for our lack of education and understanding of the other side, are engaging in the exact same behavior.”
According to Rogen, all this stems from his experience in a Jewish summer camp, where he learned about Israel and apparently disliked his Israeli camp counselors.
To which, Shany Mor, an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, retorted: “I understand; I get it. You were 12, you were at summer camp, and someone gave you a heroic version of Israel’s history, and now that you’re suddenly surrounded at university by theologians of the grand church of intersectionality, you feel the need to renounce. Fine. Renounce your summer camp. Renounce your parents. But leave us out.”
Mor challenged him to confront his fellow Americans with the failings of their country before deriding Israel, “ … then tell me if you still want to use the word ‘brave’ the next time you and your bunkmate trash talk your camp counselors.”
Refusing to let bad enough alone, Rogen shared his theory that the iconic wizards of fantasy worlds, like Tolkien’s Gandalf, are modeled on Chassidic Jews, and that this community is not doing the rest of us Jews “any favors.” Oy.
As Irene Connelly noted in The Forward, “Here, he’s just leaning into stereotypes for laughs … It’s one thing to enjoy some self-referential humor, and another to joke at the expense of vulnerable Jewish communities they’re not part of.”
Seth Rogen’s disparagement of Orthodox Jews and Israel is particularly painful to Jews everywhere because he is so widely known as a Jewish personality and has been willing to take on others, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for tolerating white supremacists and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Hopefully, Rogen will extend his Israel education past his summer-camp experience and BDS talking points. Then, I am sure, we will all be happy to hear from him again on the subject.
Lana Melman is the CEO of Liberate Art Inc., a leader in the fight against the cultural boycott campaign against Israel, and a writer and public speaker.
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