Seth Rogen and digesting the pickle of Israel education

An open letter to Seth Rogen and all of us who had a crack at him and messed up

Seth Rogen at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Feb. 29, 2020 in New York City. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images) (photo credit: ROY ROCHLIN/GETTY IMAGES)
Seth Rogen at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Feb. 29, 2020 in New York City. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)
Dear Seth,
Turns out we have something in common. Both of us have relatives who worked in a pickle factory. Your celluloid character’s grandfather and my flesh and blood wife. Honestly. And though, unlike yours, mine avoided falling into a vat of brine, she remains perfectly well preserved 50 years later. But while I’m sure it would be fun to trade family secrets on souring cucumbers, what really brings me to write is something almost as engrossing: your souring on Israel.
I don’t know whether your recent dismissal of the notion of a Jewish state, and your accusations of having being misled about its creation were delivered tongue-in-cheek, but I, for one, take what you said seriously. Anyone who cares about engaging you and your peers with the Zionist idea had best take them seriously as well. With so many alumni – like yourself – of our finest Jewish day schools and Jewish camps sharing the sentiments you expressed, we ignore you at our own peril. 
A quick recap for those who may have been fermenting in a tub of vinegar and garlic for the last two weeks and have no idea what I’m talking about. During a recent podcast promoting An American Pickle, you complained that you were “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life,” specifically noting that “they never tell you that… there were people there.”  That aside, you dissed the whole idea of settling Jews together anywhere, saying that “it just seems like a very antiquated thought process… If it is truly for the preservation of the Jewish people it doesn’t make sense. You don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place.”
Of course I don’t agree with you, but I’m not going to hit you over the head with that here. Rather I’m going to ask all of us who had a crack at you and your fellow travelers, a question: How is it that after more than 40 years of conscious effort on the part of leading educators to conceptualize the field of Israel education, that Seth and so many others feel they were duped, and find themselves uneasy with the very idea of a Jewish state?
The matter is particularly mystifying in that serious discourse on Israel education has always been saturated with sensitivity to the need for a nuanced approach that acknowledges the complexities of the subject matter, which is precisely what you, Seth, and many of your cohort, insist you were never exposed to.
Whatever the reason – and I’ll get to that in a moment – there can be no denying that support for Israel among generations X, Y and Z is hemorrhaging. In a recent study of the Bay Area Jewish community, only 43% of those aged 18-34 said they feel comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state, compared to 73% of those 65 and older.  In parallel, a Pew study found that a full 20% of American Jews aged 18-29 feel alienated from Israel, compared to only 3% of those their grandparents’ age. So Seth, you really haven’t told us anything new. You have, however, given the statistics a face and a voice – and, in so doing, have underscored the need to rethink Israel education and to consider how all who interact with the future of our community might navigate this pickle. 
Allow me a few observations along those lines:
Alienation anxiety. “We’re going to turn our kids off even before we get them to fall in love,” is a fear often voiced by those who refrain from dealing with the complexities of Israel. “’Complexities’ is a nice way of putting it,” others have said to me. “How are we supposed to educate our students to support an Israel that acts in ways contra to the very values we want to inculcate?”
What those sharing these concerns need be convinced of is that exposing young minds to an imperfect Israel – with which they will become plenty familiar with or without us - does not preclude the development of a deep devotion to the country. We just have to be sure to articulate as well the ideals on which Israel was founded and towards which it continues to aspire. No need to apologize for Israel being a work-in-progress. To the contrary. We need to challenge the next generation to take their place in making things right, replacing estrangement with engagement.
Beyond safety. If they are to engage, however, our young people must come to understand Zionism not only as an undertaking to create a refuge for those needing one (not overly resonant for today’s youngsters), but also as a movement infused with the ideal of creating an exemplary society, for its own citizens and for the world at large. In other words, we need to convey both the fundamental legitimacy of the Zionist idea and the inspirational power of the Zionist vision.
Teacher timidity. “Our teachers still have to figure out where they stand on some of these difficult issues,” I’ve been told by more than one day school principal. “Many lack the knowledge they need to address them responsibly. They’re fearful of being unable to respond satisfactorily to student pushback so they avoid the tough questions.” The challenge here is clear. Educators need to attain a sufficient level of comfort with uncomfortable issues so that they in turn might engage their students in developing a mature relationship with Israel.
Parental pressure. “It’s not only a matter of us wanting to do Israel education differently,” teachers have told me. “It’s also what parents are prepared to accept.” Accosted from both the right and the left for what they are teaching and what they are not, many have opted for a safer middle ground. A third obstacle, then, to introducing the sort of Israel education that our students are demanding and of which they are deserving is getting their parents – who pay the tuition – to agree to it. They need to be made part of the process.
Israel education only makes sense if it helps make sense of who one is. Israel is about the Jewish people returning to its homeland and fashioning a society rich in Jewish character: the interplay of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael. Israel education, then, must invite questions as to what it means to belong to the Jewish people, to face Jerusalem in prayer, to incorporate Jewish values into one’s life and the life of the community.
When an ever-increasing number of our young people are expressing disaffection with Israel, it is the tough questions being asked and the criticism being levied by those who still care enough to express their disillusionment that constitute the challenge we need meet head-on. Wittingly or otherwise, Seth, you’ve now added your voice to that chorus.
Any response that would dismiss what you’ve said, that refuses to grapple with your disenchantment, which would avoid complexity for fear of disaffection will result in even greater distancing. If we do not combat that eventuality we will have done a grave disservice to Israel; more importantly, we will have deprived an entire generation of the opportunity to be inspired – even transformed - by the enormity of the Zionist enterprise and the lofty ideals it encompasses. In short, the only way to extricate ourselves from the pickle of Israel education is to bite into it with exuberance. I can think of far less tasteful things to digest.
The writer serves as deputy chair of the executive of The Jewish Agency. He earned his doctorate from Hebrew University in the field of Israel education and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center in Jerusalem.