So here we are again - installment number five zillion of the long-running ethical debate entitled, "Should actors talk publicly about things they clearly don’t know that much about?" The subject of this latest edition, a recent podcast by actor and comedian Marc Maron in which he interviews the actor and writer Seth Rogen. Rogen’s new film has themes of Jewishness, so it’s fair enough that they talked about being Jews, and the talk quickly turned to Israel.
Rogen doesn’t believe that the idea of all Jews going to live in Israel is the safest policy for our people. That’s OK, neither do I. “If it is for truly the preservation of Jewish people,” said Rogen, “it 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?” Er, hmmm. Let’s unpick that. 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. If we’re not there to make our case, who will be?
But that doesn’t negate the equally vital important aspect of having our own country, something that is even - infinitely - more important for the safety of Jews. Because now we have a power base from which to talk to other leaders at their own levels, now we have a home where we can go if we need it. 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. When I was researching a play I wrote a few years ago, set in the 1920’s, I was stunned by the sheer number and geographical scope of antisemitic atrocities that occurred every week, every day, all across the diaspora. They’re all right there, documented in the contemporary news reports of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and elsewhere.
The Holocaust was a failure of Zionism to create a modern Jewish state before the worst happened. But that writing was on that wall for decades. For centuries. Since the creation of Israel, by contrast, far fewer Jews around the world have been at serious risk of their lives, far more Jews have been at liberty to live and eat and pray as they wish than at any time in recent history.
Rogen continues, “And I also think 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 f****** door’s open!”
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 made the place arable. And they built cities, like Tel Aviv, where there had been swamps. 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. And today, for all its flaws, Israel offers more equality and freedom to all its citizens than any of the surrounding countries.
And where would Seth Rogen prefer that a Jewish state, if he believes in one at all, had been created? In Canada - not so far from the US where Henry Ford was giving out an antisemitic magazine with every car he sold, and where the Ku Klux Clan were killing Jews for bloodsport? In Africa, a region not known for its lack of volatility? Or in Europe somewhere, where Germany - the country where Jews had been most integrated, most successful - had given us the Holocaust and the murder of a third of the world’s Jews?
I get the feeling that Seth Rogen, an artist I admire, hasn’t been presented with these facts. I have the strong sense that he doesn’t actually know much of the nuances of the debate and is instead reflexively cleaving to what he feels 'should' be the views of a progressive (he'd perhaps be surprised how progressive in some respects Israel is, as well as how very much it contributes to the advancement of every other nation through stunning medical, agricultural and high-tech advances). I wish someone would buy him a copy of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor, which will give him a more rounded picture. I hope he has a Google search set up for himself or a diligent publicist who will put this article in front of him.
Because - should actors publicly talk about politics? Anyone can talk about anything in the free world and just because Rogen happens to be an actor doesn't mean he loses that right. But if people are going to listen, if they are going to pay close attention to what someone they admire, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics, says - it would be better if the person speaking really knew what they were talking about. And in this case, with all respect to Seth Rogen, I don’t think he did.