By now, I am sure you have heard of Seth Rogen’s latest comments regarding Israel. I wasn’t shocked by his comments, but I knew that they didn’t speak for me or my experience with Israel.
I grew up in a small town in Iowa and there weren’t any Jews nearby for hundreds of miles. I wasn’t born into a Jewish family and only found out that we were Jewish through a DNA test my mother took when I was in college.
After growing up in a fairly agnostic home, I didn’t know what to think of this new identity, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love. Since I didn’t grow up knowing that we were Jewish, everything I learned about it I had to find for myself. When I started to learn about what being Jewish meant, I consulted different people from varying perspectives to get a full understanding of what I had just unearthed. While I didn’t always agree with everything I was told, I never felt I was being lied to or misled.
What I discovered about Jews reflected my progressive values and shaped my Zionism. I learned that we were indigenous to the Land of Israel, backed up by archaeology, genetics and historical accounts. And, after our forced displacement and being scattered all across the world, we tried to blend into our new societies. Yet, despite our best efforts to assimilate, we always started to experience our dark history, violence repeating itself. When the early Zionists realized we wouldn’t ever be safe anywhere else, they made the brave decision to fight for a Jewish and democratic state in our ancestral homeland.
This story of a marginalized people returning to their homeland and guaranteeing their own self-determination and future spoke to me as a young queer progressive committed to social justice. When I went to Israel for the first time, I was flooded with emotions as I looked down from the plane and my eyes filled with tears. I felt like I was coming home — but how could that feeling be real for a place I had never been?
Throughout my journey, I connected with the stories of Jews who were Holocaust survivors and refugees who built a thriving nation for themselves. Building a democracy that ensured freedom and equality for all of their citizens, Jew and Arab. There was a strong sense of communal responsibility and tikkun olam, to not only build a thriving state, but one that would do good in the world. I listened to the stories of the socialists kibbutzim, brave young Israelis fighting fiercely to defend their new state, and a vibrant democracy that demanded political discourse and dissent. A nation that stood up for its minorities, ensured equal rights for all genders, and was a beacon of hope for the LGBTQ community. What I learned deeply resonated with my own values.
Do we need to reclaim Jewish social justice? Should Jewish social justice focus on helping Jewish communities or on leading the way for others? Forward editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren moderates a talk in partnership with BINA on August 25 at 1 p.m Eastern. Sign up here.
I didn’t walk away from Israel thinking it was perfect, but I did walk away knowing there was a progressive case to be made for this beautiful country that wasn’t being told, let alone experienced by a majority of Jews in the Diaspora. I also understood the country was incredibly complex.
I don’t believe that Rogen is a bad person or even antagonistic towards Israel. I think he is the product of a failed Jewish education system that has forgotten how to educate Jewish youth today about Israel in a way that speaks to them. He wasn’t aware of Israel’s complexity or didn’t feel like he got the full picture of its history. The story of Israel that he was taught just didn’t speak to him.
What I learned from my experience is we must embrace Israel’s complexities and strive to build our own authentic relationships with it. I firmly believe that if more people had a similar journey as my own to learn about and engage with Israel, we wouldn’t be dealing with these types of controversies.
Rogen also argued that no one ever told him about the Palestinians. Yet I was taught about their own ties to the land, history and trauma. Nobody I consulted on my journey to Zionism acted as if Palestinians didn’t exist or that their experiences weren’t valid, not even on Birthright. I never felt I had to negate Palestinian experiences in order to be a Zionist.
I believe in Palestinian self-determination because it aligns with my values. Furthermore, I believe it is essential to Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish and democratic state. There has to be a solution that sees safety, security and prosperity for both sides. However, I don’t need to check my Zionism at the door to work for those things.
Now, anti-Israel activists are using Rogen’s comments to drive further wedges between Jews and Israel.
Those voices trying to separate my Jewish identity from Israel don’t speak for me. I am a millennial. I am queer. I am a progressive. I am secular. I am committed to gender, social, racial and economic justice. I am in favor of Palestinian self-determination. None of these things conflict with or take away from how I feel about Israel, because, just like the country itself, my experience and identity is complex and nuanced.
I invite those of you who are confused or intentionally misled on how to feel about Israel to not run away from it, but join me in running towards it. Dive into learning more about our history, the connection we have to the land and the history of the conflict. Build your own authentic connection to this land and its people. Join the millions of people who, just like me, are complex, from different backgrounds with different perspectives, but united in our love and support for a sovereign Jewish and democratic state that safeguards our future as a people.
Quentin Hill is an LGBTQ Jewish activist who works in the progressive pro-Israel movement.