Unlearning What I Was Taught About Israel

Seth Rogen was right: We weren't taught the whole story.

When I opened up Twitter last month to see Seth Rogen’s name trending, I immediately assumed the worst. “He must have said something horribly problematic,” was my first thought — Rogen does have a history of exhibiting racism in his films, whether knowingly or unknowingly. But when I looked closer at the reason for Rogen’s Twitter trending, I was surprised to discover that while he had said something that was cause for controversy, it wasn’t controversial to me or many other progressive Jews.

Rogen had made comments on Israel and his Jewish education and upbringing in an interview on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. After explaining why Israel “doesn’t make sense” to him, Rogen went on to add, “As a Jewish person I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life!he exclaimed, sounding bewildered. “They never tell you that — oh by the way, there were people there… They forget to include the fact to every young Jewish person.”

Backlash on Rogen’s podcast performance was swift and brutal, with commentators rushing in to condemn his comments as an attack on Israel, some even going as far as to call him a “self hating Jew.” Yet while there were plenty of those who were shocked and disappointed by Rogen’s words, there were also plenty of young Jews who resonated with at least some of his message: We weren’t told the entire story.

I was one of those who found Rogen’s sentiments to be an echo of my own thoughts regarding the Israel education I was taught. While I never went to a Jewish day school, as Rogen did, I attended Hebrew school every Sunday at my synagogue up until graduating high school. What imprinted on me the most, however, was not the education I had in my synagogue but the weeks and months I spent every year at summer camp.

The first time I attended my Wisconsin-based Reform Jewish summer camp when I was 11, I was mesmerized. At school, I remember being the only Jewish person in my grade, and was already beginning to experience slight microaggressions by my friends and peers (notably, I was once told by a friend that I couldn’t sit with her at lunch because she was talking about Christmas cookies). To go from a public school environment, where I often felt hesitant to mention my religion, to a wide-open space where all my friends were Jewish was liberating. I continued to go to camp every summer until I was 18.

While at camp, I embraced my Judaism to the fullest extent, finding comfort in the prayer services we had twice a day. On Friday nights, we would put on our prettiest summer outfits and gather for a camp-wide Shabbat celebration, singing and dancing joyously. At camp, I found a safe haven in exploring what it meant to me to be Jewish and made life-long friendships and lasting bonds with counselors.

But simultaneously, I was also learning one-sided facts about Israel and its relationship to Palestine.

My Jewish education at camp heavily involved learning about modern-day Israel and the reason why it was so central for Jews to have their own homeland. I remember first learning about Theodor Herzl at camp, along with famous Israeli prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. We had Hebrew lessons every day which often came with education about Israeli culture, and a section of our madrichim (counselors) were Israeli, young and usually fresh out of the IDF. They would teach us about where they grew up and put on a week-long celebration of Israel’s independence every summer. Posters with facts about Israeli culture and history were commonplace in camp buildings: Did you know that the average Israeli consumes 22 lbs of hummus each year?

I loved learning about Israel and felt a spiritual connection to this country I had never lived in or been to. When I was told by my counselors that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East, that it had every right to defend itself from missile attacks coming from the West Bank, I believed them — why would I not? I was never told about the nation that existed before the formation of Israel or the native Palestinians who lived there. I was never told about the occupation and what it means for Palestinians living under Israeli rule.

It was only in my sixth year as a camper that I began to notice that when it came to Israel, we were only getting one side of the story. That summer I was part of a “Hebrew-immersion” program for the oldest campers that required us to speak Hebrew with our counselors and learn about Israeli culture and politics every week. This included a day called “Yom Tzahal,” a day entirely focused on learning about the Israeli army, which I was incredibly uncomfortable participating in. The more I heard from my Israeli counselors about their time in the army and the ways in which they felt violence was justifiable, the more unnerving my view of Israel became. Something didn’t feel right, but I didn’t know how to verbalize it.

Looking back on my experience now, I know for a fact that I was not given a full picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while at my Jewish summer camp. And in talking to other progressive Jews who went to Jewish day schools, I found that their education also lined up with mine — and Rogen’s — in very similar ways.

Katy Joseph, who attended a Jewish day school in New York City through middle school and high school, said that “we did not have a course specifically dedicated to Israel, to Zionism, but there was, across subjects and events that we participated in, a prevailing political viewpoint about Israel, about the role of Israel in American Jewish life that was conveyed in a lot of different settings.”

There’s no doubt that the process of unlearning what you were taught for so long can be painful, and continually ongoing. A 25-year-old Chicagoan who attended a Jewish day school in New York told me, “I definitely still am navigating how to be a Jew who’s anti-Zionist, both in the mainstream Jewish world but also in the rest of the political world. I can definitely still experience anxiety or shame, or a feeling of cringe, when people who aren’t Jews talk about the bad things Israel is doing.”

Jonathan Horowitz, who attended a Jewish day school in Northbrook, IL and is a current member of IfNotNow, doesn’t say he went through a process of “unlearning,” but more so a process of “willing to put my voice out [there] and being willing and able to be more active” when it comes to his feelings and critiques of Israeli policy.

The recent uproar over Rogen’s comments is an example that there is still much that the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t want to talk about. As Rogen himself said in the podcast, “I’m 100% afraid of Jews!” But should we as Jews really be so afraid to question the narratives that we’ve been fed and form our own opinions on the modern Jewish state?

I’m extremely grateful for the space Jewish summer camp gave me to embrace and love my Judaism, and the day school alumni that I spoke to also expressed similar positive sentiments about their own education. Yet there is more work to be done to confront and rebel against what we were taught, and that includes facing our Jewish organizations and educators to tell them the truth: We weren’t told the entire story.

Header image by Rudzhan Nagiev/Getty Images.

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