Ben M. Freeman is an author, internationally renowned educator, and is among the founders of the modern Jewish Pride movement.
Ben M. Freeman is an author, internationally renowned educator, and is among the founders of the modern Jewish Pride movement, for which he created the Jewish Pride manifesto, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People. Ben’s second book Reclaiming Our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride looks at internalized Jew-hate and ways to overcome it. Throughout his work, Ben seeks to educate and empower Jewish people to reject the shame of antisemitism imposed on Jews by the non-Jewish world.
In this conversation with Jay, Ben discusses his youth in Glasgow, Scotland as formative in building that Jewish Pride. He also addresses the role of Zionism in Jewish Pride, as well as the historical context and misinformation around anti-Zionism as it relates to antisemitism. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Ben relates his experiences coming out as gay to his developing and continuing Jewish Pride.
To learn more about the Jewish Pride movement and Ben’s books, click here.
Ben Freeman: My work’s always about a solution, it’s always about empowering, inspiring and educating Jewish people to feel their Jewishness is a source of pride and never shame.
Jay VO: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change: a podcast, showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
Jay VO: Today on our show, Ben Freeman.
Ben Freeman: In my opinion, anti-Zionism is Jew hatred. It is antisemitism. It is a modern post-war manifestation of thousands of years of hate.
Jay VO: Ben Freeman is an author, internationally renowned educator, and is among the founders of the modern Jewish Pride movement.
Ben Freeman: My journey to pride was very long And it wasn’t necessarily because the people that I was surrounded by were homophobic, but the world in which I lived was pretty overtly homophobic.
Jay VO: Ben grew up in Glasgow Scotland in a community that was proudly Jewish and Zionist, but, while growing up, he struggled to accept his gay identity. While attending university, he came out and started the journey that he has been on ever since. It’s a journey to find acceptance as a gay man from his peers, his Jewish friends and family, but most important from internalised homophobia within himself. Along the way, his eyes were also opened by the antisemitism that he experienced as a Jew who believed in the movement of self-determination, supporting a Jew’s right to return to their indigenous homeland. Or what we call for short – Zionism.
Ben Freeman: I was on Glasgow University campus and it was overtly hostile and at that point it was sink or swim. And I had a choice, and this was a choice I’ve been faced with a few times in my life. you can either shut up or you can fight.
Jay VO: Ben as you are sure to find out for yourself from our fascinating conversation, is not one to be silenced.
Jay Ruderman: Ben. So thank you so much for joining me on my podcast of All About Change.
Ben Freeman: Thank you so much j.
Jay Ruderman: Well, I wish you a lot of, success
You’ve written two books and I want to recommend them to the audience – the first book: The first one, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People. And the second one, Reclaiming Our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride.
VO Reading of selection from Ben Freeman’s work: Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People
Jewish people have been in a dysfunctional relationship with the non-Jewish world for over 2000 years. To be accepted, we’ve tried over and over to change who we are.
In our thousands of years of history, has this sacrifice ever worked?
Every time we change ourselves to be accepted, we look at the non-Jewish world with hope. We think that maybe this time, they will accept us and embrace us, yet they continue to reject us and shame us.
This cycle has to stop.
The way to stop this abusive and destructive, exhausting cycle is to turn to ourselves for that acceptance and love.
Our journey is not about finding antisemitism. That is the non-Jewish world’s journey.
The Jewish journey is one of self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-love. In the name of our collective pride.
Turn inwards, learn our history, understand our diverse experiences and connect to our collective Jewishness in order to define our own identity, rather than basing that identity on the latest fantastical image that the non-Jewish world is trying to impose on us.
This is where the journey of our Jewish pride.
Jay Ruderman: In just a few sentences, tell us what these books mean to you and, what was your passion behind writing them?
Ben Freeman: So my passion behind writing them was to help the Jewish people understand their identities more and to feel pride in their identities. I had personally experienced with internalized homophobia and I had to work through that. So I have, like I already have a framework in how to deal with internalized hate, Jewish Pride Rebuilding A People is the manifesto of the modern Jewish pride movement. It is really what kickstarted this global thing that we’re seeing. It’s a revolution, a global revolution taking place. Where Jews are casting off shame and reclaiming their Jewishness with pride. And the second book, Reclaiming Our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride is a deep dive into internalized Jew hate.
VO Reading of selection from Ben Freeman’s work: Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People
To rebuild a Jewish community that is whole and unified, we have to understand and embrace the specific and unique experiences of various Jewish communities and individuals throughout the world. My seven interviewees were purposely and carefully selected because they each represent various facets within the Jewish community. Each of the seven has had a different Jewish life, in different parts of the world, yet each of their experiences is as valid as the next and are essential for the rebuilding of the Jewish people in Pride.
Jay Ruderman: You were born in Glasgow, in Scotland. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up?
Ben Freeman: So growing up in Glasgow, generally speaking, was great. But I had this kind of extra challenge to deal with, and that was my sexual orientation. My journey to pride was, was very long And it wasn’t necessarily because the people that I was surrounded by were homophobic, but the world in which I lived was pretty overtly homophobic. There was no representation of LGBTQ plus people. The only representation that did exist was kind of fairly stereotypical. And I grew up at the tail end of the AIDS epidemic. I was born in 1987 during the AIDS epidemic. So for me, being gay was kind of a life sentence of, of misery and unhappiness. It was a huge challenge for me and, and I was filled with, with huge amounts of kind of self hatred and internalized homophobia.
Jay Ruderman: And do you feel that, the community that you grew up in, in Glasgow was accepting at the time that you were coming of age and, and coming out as to who you were?
Ben Freeman: You know, I didn’t necessarily talk about it, but I always felt accepted. And I remember after I’d come out, I worked with a Jewish community and I meant to meet, I went to meet a rabbi, and this is a man I’d known for years, and he was just as polite and kind to me as he’d always been. And again, it wasn’t even necessarily that, the school community was overtly anti-gay. It was just that the world was, and I mean at school, then people would say, that’s so gay and that kind of thing. So that was very challenging and there was certainly stigma attached to it at school. But it was, it was the media. And I also think that the language we had, the understanding that we have of these issues today was just so uninvolved then.
Jay Ruderman: Right.
Ben Freeman: And it wasn’t discussed at school. I remember we did sex education at school. There was no mention of of same sex relationships, which is so damaging.
Jay Ruderman: I wanna talk a little bit about Glasgow and what it was like being Jewish in, in a community where the Jewish community was so small. Were you accepted? Was there a level of of antisemitism towards Jews in Glasgow?
Ben Freeman: Yes, absolutely. But back then, I don’t know if we had the language to describe the specific experiences that we were having, because I’d say that for the most part, in the UK and especially Scotland, we experienced left wing Jew hatred and it was really focused on Israel. I mean, I remember I was at a JNF function. It was in the Hilton, in the city center of Glasgow, and I was there because I was invited. They always invited, kind of a youth contingent. If we did big events in the community, we’d always have to have CST, which is the community security trust, like the Jewish security. But also the police. the, the anti-Jewish protestors became so violent that they started to try and break into the building to break into the Hilton and the staff who were serving the meal. They left. So there definitely was anti Jewishness.
[Audio From Yoni Jenser News Story]
Ben Freeman: I remember that the first British person to be killed by a Palestinian suicide bomb was a young man from Glasgow called Yoni Jesner. And he was my youth leader growing up. I remember coming into school and it was either the day he passed away or the next week, and the, some of the Muslim students were wearing pro Palestinian badges. So there were, there were things happening all the time. I mean, my father was told to go back where you come from. But to grow up in, I mean, in a sense growing up in the Glasgow Jewish community was kind of magical. You hang out with other Jewish kids, so you’re kind of like bonded together. You’re fused together. You have very similar experiences. and there is something pretty amazing about it. And in a sense, I don’t really relate to the experience of some North American Jews who grew up in huge Jewish communities with Kosher delis on every corner. That was not our experience. I remember when the Kosher butcher closed. And that was a big deal. And there now is no Kosher butcher, but there is a kosher deli. I guess for my parents it would’ve been a challenge because you’re trying to cultivate a very strong Jewish anchor, a very strong Jewish identity, but you’re in a very small community. I mean, we really were a minority. However, the funny thing is there was about 5,000 Jews living in Glasgow when I was growing up, and five Jewish families lived on my street. So I lived in a very Jewish area, so we were a minority, but within our own community there was lots of Jewish people and you would sometimes see Jewish people kind of walking to shul on Shabbat. I was aware that there were certain areas I would feel less safe in than others, and that, and I didn’t wear a kippah then but my friend’s father who wore a kippah, he was physically attacked.
Jay Ruderman: So it was.. the community that you grew up in, while warm and welcoming and tied together. the general community, walking around showing that you’re Jewish carried a certain risk to it.
Ben Freeman: For sure. Absolutely, and I think it does for Jews all over the UK. And I would say, especially now the world. But yeah, that was absolutely our experience then. And that is the, the kind of interesting thing about more recent developments in North America, because the experiences that are happening in North America now are the experiences that British Jews, European Jews, Jews in other places have had for a really long time. I mean, my experience at Glasgow University, very much mirrors what’s happening on campuses today.
Jay Ruderman: So you went to university in, in Scotland, and you experienced what I would describe as an overt, hostile environment. How did you make it through it?
Ben Freeman: I think one of the reasons I made it through was that I had just returned from Israel in a gap here or from a gap here. I was in Israel with RSY Netzer, a British Jewish youth movement, and then I was on Glasgow University campus and it was overtly hostile and at that point it was sink or swim. And I had a choice, and this was a choice I’ve been faced with a few times in my life. you can either shut up or you can fight. And because I had just returned from my gap year, because I had actually a pretty good level of literacy and history and, and Israel, I was able to argue. And I did politics. My degree was politics, political science, so I fought for four years and it was incredibly isolating and incredibly disheartening, and I don’t really think I started to process the trauma until many, many years later, until into my thirties because. it was just something that I accepted. This is just the way it is. And friends at other British universities were experiencing similar things.
I guess some of the differences with my friends who say, went to university in Nottingham or Birmingham or Leeds, was that there were sizable Jewish communities there and communities of students, Jewish students. The, you know, I was probably the only out Jew on my course, so it really was my responsibility. And so it wasn’t a choice I kind of consciously made, I just knew, I was like, well, that’s just not true what people are saying. Although back then, I wouldn’t have had the language to describe it the way I would now. Right now I’d say, okay, I experienced leftist Jew hatred that came from the Soviet Union, and anti-Zionism, et cetera. Back then. I just said, well, they’re anti Israel, but I knew that it wasn’t just criticism of Israel. I got it from my professors, from my peers, from university staff. I mean, I think I was failed in an essay, because I wouldn’t demonize Israel because I wouldn’t say that Israel’s the worst country in the world.
And it was very interesting because during my time at university is when I came out. That’s when I came out as a gay man. And I, as I said, I really struggled with it and definitely in my final year at university, it affected my ability to work. I like had a very difficult time with regards to my mental health and I remember writing to one of the professors and he was so nice and so sympathetic and empathetic. but only towards me as a gay person. To do with my Zionism, my Jewishness, any support I had was secret. You know, the, the man who, was my tutor for my dissertation was amazing, and I won’t name him because he said to me, how are you? And I was like, oh, I’m okay. And he’s like, no, how are you? Because I know how hard it is to be here on this campus. Because you’re Jewish. And he said, please don’t tell anyone I had this conversation with you because I could get fired.
Jay Ruderman: Did you ever approach the authorities at the university and say, Hey, um, as a student experiencing this all the time, I’m not the only one, and this is not a very welcoming academic environment?
Ben Freeman: The prejudice came from all parts of the university. So I imagine that I didn’t feel that anyone would listen to me. And there were examples when, Jew hatred was overtly expressed and nothing happened. It wasn’t shut. I mean, the conversation was shut down. The Jew hatred was not. And, this one professor who didn’t help me with my dissertation was the only person that I could talk to about it, um, because a lot of other professors made it clear that it was not, that they didn’t approve.
Jay Ruderman: How did you deal with that dichotomy of being accepted as gay and part of part of the progressive community. On the, on the other hand, being very proud of your Jewishness and your connection to Israel and that, and being demonized for that. How, how do the two of those go together?
Ben Freeman: So you’re right. I mean, to be a gay Jew is to kind of experience the double standards, which Jews, um, experience all the time, and it’s to experience it firsthand and in living time. The same people at university who accepted me and celebrated me for being gay and supported me, were not so thrilled when it came to my Zionism. LGBTQ+ spaces are unfortunately not always very friendly to Jewish LGBTQ+ people, which is pretty tragic because as I said, I had to work very hard to be proud of my LGBTQ+ identity. To be excluded from those spaces is very, is very hurtful. And only because of another immutable identity. And that’s the thing, I cannot change my Jewishness. It is so much more than just faith. It’s, it’s so much more than that. It is who I am. I was born this way just as I was born as a gay person, I believe. So it’s really sad and it’s kind of interesting because I think a lot of people would expect the Jewish side to be the side that was intolerant. Whereas, actually, I’ve gotta say that is for the most part, not the case. I’ve been very, very, uh, accepted by the Jewish community, not so much by the LGBTQ plus community.
Jay Ruderman: I recently had a guest on the podcast, and she said that there are two types of antisemitism and they sort of exist simultaneously at the same time. There is the hitting down at the Jew, uh, like you are a dirty Jew. You’re subhuman. Um, we don’t want you amongst us. And there’s the hitting up at the Jew saying, you are the elite, you’re the super white. You’re supporting an effort that they see as colonialists, suppressing a minority, and your association with that. So it’s coming from the right and the left. And it sounds like your experience was more from the left, more from people saying, you are part of the elite and you’re part of the problem, and being a Zionist in supporting Israel is the problem. Did you also experience that the reverse the the traditional anti-Semitism.
Ben Freeman: Absolutely. Yeah. And as your other guest said they exist simultaneously and they absolutely do and, and not, and in a sense, we can’t even really separate them because they can exist within the same person. I mean, Jeremy Corbin’s a very good example of that. Jeremy Corbin was the former leader of the Labor Party in the UK. And he is a leftist Jew hater. But there was a very kind of infamous incident that actually has just been resolved in court, where he said to a British Jew, you may have lived here a long time, but you don’t understand British irony. Which actually is classic Jew hatred. It’s the “you’re foreign, you don’t belong as part of us, you’re this other group. Go away. Get away from us.” Which is quite different than the whole anti-Zionist perspective. So that’s what I meant when I said it can coexist in one person. And that coexisted alongside the anti-Israel perspective.
Jay Ruderman: let me dig in a little bit about Zionism. Cause I think Zionism has become demonized whereas many of us see Zionism as the rebirth of, of the Jewish nation. Jews whose homeland is, the land of Israel, which is also, you know, described by the name of Palestine historically before the creation of the of the modern state of Israel, and that we have been dispersed across the world. My wife is, is from a descent of, Indian Jews and Iraqi Jews and, and I’m a descent of, of Eastern European Jews. But we all sort of came from the same place and were dispersed around the world. But, you know, this is our homeland, a homeland that we happen to share with other people who are there. And there’s a political issue that’s been going on for over a hundred years as to how to split this land, how to share this land, and, and it’s still going on. But how did Zionism, which is essentially a very beautiful philosophy that the Jews deserve their own, you know, homeland become so demonized where we don’t demonize other people for saying this particular land is our home land. How did that come about?
Ben Freeman: It was a purposeful manipulation by the Soviet Union and the Arab world. Russia has a very complicated history with Jews. And when the Soviet Union was born, that complicated relationship continued and it targeted Zionism and the connection of Jews to our indigenous land.
So, the study of Hebrew was banned and let’s just compare and contrast that with the banning of indigenous languages in North America, it’s the same thing. They banned the indigenous language of the Jews in North America, they banned the indigenous language of indigenous people there, the First Nations in Canada, Native Americans. So it’s a similar process of, of trying to strip Jews of their indigeneity, and the Soviet Union was engaged in that for a very long time. But really after 1967, they started a very purposeful campaign where first of all, they reframed anti-Zionism, and then they spread their warped definition as an official part of their policy, foreign policy and domestic policy. And that was deeply encouraged, deeply, um, promoted by the Arab states as well. Then we see Israel being described as a white country. For example, Africa was described as being between a white stranglehold, Israel, the North and southern Africa in the south. So it was being reframed as, as a kind of colonialism imperialism, it was reframed as akin to Nazis, and this was purposeful manipulation. It wasn’t organic, it was the purposeful spread of misinformation. And the Soviet Union targeted universities, they targeted black civil rights campaigners like Angela Davis and kind of brought them into the fold.
And that’s one of the reasons Angela Davis’ work is one of the reasons we see the the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, kind of having the North American or the United States binary of race imposed onto it. And it was purposeful and it was manipulation, and they spent money promoting this. So when people today are saying, oh, I’m an anti-Zionist, or, from, or, or, or when they start critiquing Israel as a white colonial imperialist, Nazi state, what they’re doing is parroting Soviet propaganda, and we have to just remind ourselves who were the Soviet Union? The Soviet Union was a totalitarian, dystopian nightmare, you know? Yes. We fought alongside them to defeat the Nazis, but that was, they were not our ideological cousins. They were also an extremist estate. And the only reason they joined the fight against the Nazis is because they were tricked by the Nazis and were invaded in 1941. So that is how Soviet anti-Zionism was reframed and how it was spread.
Jay Ruderman: It seems to me that most people who are anti-Zionist don’t really understand the history, the political conflict between Jews who were returning to a Biblical homeland and a Palestinian population that was living on a land that was not a state, that was not a country, and that, the United Nations, the British were very involved in trying to understand, um, and come up with solutions as to how to divide the land. It’s a political issue, just like Northern Ireland or any other conflict around the world, we could probably name dozens of them, were political conflicts that had to be resolved. And unfortunately, this one still has not been resolved. For me it’s a term to be used with pride. You know, that, that I believe that the Jews who were dispersed for thousands of years across the the globe are able to come back to their, you know, historical, biblical homeland. Do you feel that, that the anti-Zionism, that the reason that it’s so strongly felt is directly tied to antisemitism, to a view of a Jew as not deserving of a homeland, not deserving of self determination?
Ben Freeman: In my opinion, anti-Zionism is Jew hatred. It is antisemitism. It is a modern post-war manifestation of thousands of years of hate. And there are some people who say, well, you know, an anarchist for example is anti-Zionist because they don’t believe in any state. And it’s like, yes, they might not believe in any state, but to describe them as anti-Zionist, I believe is is kind of misleading. Anti-Zionism is Jew hatred. It is antisemitism. Cause remember, why would people all over the world have a problem with this little state, with this conflict that’s happening thousands of miles away? Do you think anyone cares about Northern Ireland or Southern Ireland or the Basque region in Spain? No one cares. The reason that people care about Israel and the Palestinians is because they are primed to care. Because for thousands of years, Jew hatred has been circulating in our societies. And actually I’d say more than that, Jew hatred is a pillar and is a foundation of Western and Muslim societies. It’s of of our culture, our civilization. So people are primed. People are, are ready and they’re not even aware of it because so much of this goes unsaid. So much of it is subtle or is in dog whistles, but that is why this issue, this conflict has become so important globally. And that’s not to say you can’t criticize Israel or Israel hasn’t done stuff wrong, like whatever. Fine. It’s a country locked in a conflict. Every country does stuff wrong. However, the disproportionate amount of attention given to Israel, the demonization of Israel, the reframing of Zionism as a form of imperialism, colonialism is Jew hatred.
Jay Ruderman: I am Jewish. My relatives came from Eastern Europe. I look white. My wife is Middle Eastern from Iran and from India and looks Middle Eastern, like anyone else in the Middle East from any country, you know, would look, friends of ours are Black, uh, and African any mix of colors, what is a Jew? Are we white? Are we not white? Are we, you know, because we seem to be a mix of all different, uh, you know, races and, and, and people from different parts of the world.
Ben Freeman: Well, number one, races don’t exist. So there’s no biological basis for race. It’s a social construct. Number two, we’re not from all, all over the world actually. We’re all from one place, and that’s the Levant, and we were dispersed, as you said. And we lived without our homeland for 2000 years. And in 2000 years, skin color can change.
And the Jewish people saying that the Jewish people are diverse people, we have people from all over the world, and we should celebrate our diversity, but we cannot celebrate our diversity at the expense of, kind of reimagining Jewish identity. So it’s important to talk about diversity, but it’s really important to talk about diversity through the lens of Am Echad, which is one people. So in terms of whiteness, I do not believe Jews are white. Some Jews do not pass as white. That is clear. But there are Jews like me and like you who would pass as white.
Now, sometimes this conversation refers to Ashkenazi Jews. They say Ashkenazi Jews pass as white. That is false. It’s incorrect to define it that way. You know, my brother, same parents, Ashkenazi, he looks Middle Eastern. We look nothing alike. So the reality is much more complex than just Ashkenazi equals white.
Now, there are, as I said, there are, however, Jews who pass as white. But I’m using the word pass there because I don’t believe that Jews are white. Why? Because when we discuss whiteness, we’re not talking about skin color. If the conversation was solely about skin color, then yeah, sure, whatever. But it’s not, it’s about the position that Jews occupy in a specific hierarchy of power or oppression, because Jews have been considered not white in the last century. Actually in this century, the far right still doesn’t see Jews as white. So we have this situation where the far right doesn’t see us as white, and the left often sees us as white.
For me, a Jew is a, a member of a Middle Eastern diasporic community, some of whom pass as white, or some of whom benefit from the advantage of being perceived as white in certain circumstances. But for me my primary identity is Jewish. In Britain, it’s quite common on the census form for when you have to tick your kind of ethnicity for Jews to tick other. I would always tick other and write Jewish. I would never tick white. And this was before this kind of conversation really emerged. And it’s not really a European or British conversation. It’s very much North American that’s being, or American and being exported. But I will say Jews are not white, but some can benefit from the advantage of being perceived as white in certain circumstances. We have a distinct civilization. We have a distinct culture, we have a distinct religion, and we are to be respected as much as any other civilization or society is, is to be respected.
VO Reading of selection from Ben Freeman’s work: Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People
As a Mizrahi Jew, Hen identifies as a ‘Jew of colour’. This term originated in the United States and is used to describe Ashkenazi Jews who do not pass as white, or Jews who are specifically Beta-Yisrael, Mizrahi or Sephardic or who have other minority ethnicities for various reasons. Hen explains why he uses his label: ‘I don’t think any Jew is white, which obviously shapes their experience, particularly in the US. The label [Jew of colour] makes it clear that not only am I not white because I am Jewish, but I do not even pass as white, which of course, particularly in America, changes my lived experience.’
As Hen explains it, Jewish pride is about empowering Jewish people to celebrate themselves while also offering tools to address important internal issues within the Jewish community. ‘No community is perfect,’ he reiterates. ‘People are people, but we have to recognize our failings and work hard to better ourselves.’
To me, this is also real love – to love in spite of imperfections while working hard to improve. He describes his Jewish Pride being centered on history, culture and resilience of the Jewish people – specifically his Mizrahi community, but also, of course, the wider Jewish community. The history of the diverse Jewish communities, Hen argues, also contains a common thread, no matter where they were, no matter what was done to them, they kept their Jewish identity.
Hen’s eyes shine with pride when he says this, and it is true. It is remarkable that despite everything that we’ve been through, we are still two proud Jews sitting in different countries with different time zones, discussing how much we love being Jewish. ‘One of the ways I express my Jewish pride is through the work that I do,’ he explains, ‘I want to show young people that – despite what many on the left say – you can be progressive and proudly Jewish and Zionist, I want them to be proud and not ashamed.’
Jay Ruderman: You know, I look at my, at my grandparents and great grandparents who grew up in, um, in Eastern Europe, in what was considered Russia back then which was probably Lithuania. We were never part of general society, we’re always in a shtetl, a separate community. We’re always seen as the Jew. America as a melting pot, started to redefine them. Obviously they were Jews, but, uh, you look like you are, you know, part of the white society. But I identify with what you’re saying that Jews are, are not really white. We are a separate people. And, I do think because of many, many, many generations we’ve come to take on the aspects of the culture and look like the people amongst, you know, who are living. But we are really, you know, a separate group. I will tell you, and you know, in many societies that we, we end up in. We are not seen as separate. As part of the diverse community. Why are we not seen as diverse as, as someone from a different part of the world?
Ben Freeman: Well firstly it’s cause of Jew hatred, and we’re now perceived as being part of the white majority, which is really a fairly recent concept considering, you know, the length of Jewish history. But, there we are. So we are considered white. We’re considered powerful. We’re considered privileged. So that’s one of the reasons. And then also we have, I think the Jewish need to be accepted. So my second book, Reclaiming Our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride, talks about internalized anti Jewishness, and it’s the struggle that Jews have with being accepted, and we warp and we change ourselves to be accepted. And I think that Jews were happy and were eager in a sense, in different societies to join the majority because they wanted to escape persecution. This eagerness and desperation to be accepted is totally understandable given our history.
I actually wanna challenge something you said earlier. You said my, my grandparents were eastern. Eastern European Jews, and I would say that that’s probably the wrong descriptor. They were Jews, from my opinion, who lived in Eastern Europe because exactly as you said, they were excluded from Eastern European society. So thousands of years of trauma and hate and in the United States, they get to go to this place and they get to have the possibility of escaping everything that they have experienced. Who can blame them? So I think that’s part of the problem. And this is not to blame Jews for it at all. The primary reason is Jew hatred. But because of Jew hatred and cause of our experiences, Jews are willing to, to warp and change themselves to be accepted. And because of the trauma we’ve experienced, we might not raise her voices up. We might not advocate for ourselves. We might accept that, okay, we’re a white privileged group of people and it’s our job to help others, whereas of course, we should be helping others, but I believe primarily we should be supporting our own people, because the more negative aspects of our experiences are not historic. It’s happening today. This is what. Happened in North America or in the United States, is that Jews were kind of forced to forget or, or put aside their historic experience, because where does that fit in a racial binary?
We have to acknowledge the reality in which we live. So a light-skinned Jew in the United States certainly has advantage in that context, so we should not, for one second, deny it, However, there always must be room for us to define our own experience and identity, that is what was taken away from us in America. You know, kind of Jews had to see themselves as white, and in many ways they wanted to because I said they wanted to free themselves from persecution, but it has not been, my opinion, a successful rebranding of identity, and again, it’s not to blame them or to criticize them. I understand why people did what they did. However, we’re dealing with the ramifications today.
Jay Ruderman: And I, and I think that the ramifications are not just being uncomfortable and not, and, and, and being attacked verbally, but you know, as we’ve seen in America, with the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the synagogue in Poway, you know, people act on these beliefs. Jews are attacked physically. There’s a heightened sense of, you know, we could face further attacks. And things are changing here. Part of your identity is definitely aligned and feels possibly attached to that community. Part of you feels ostracized from that community. So where are you? Like what? What, what do you do in terms of the progressive community?
Ben Freeman: I would say I’m no longer a member of the progressive community, but my values remain the same. And other Jews have different opinions about whether they stay in these spaces or don’t stay in these spaces. My perspective is I’m not gonna go to a party I’m not invited to. For me, I, I want to feel comfortable. I want Jews to feel comfortable. I want Jews to feel safe. And so I would no longer consider myself a progressive, although my values are still progressive, my values have not changed at all. There’s a cost of living crisis in the UK and I’m appalled and horrified by the kind of reality that families are going to be going through. So it’s not that I have actually become right wing, although that is something people describe me as. Because I’m a Zionist, and it’s really unfortunate because they’re using it as a smear and actually listen. People can be right wing if they wanna be right wing, whatever, right? Like who, who are we to judge the political opinions of our fellow Jews, but it’s used as a smear. So when people call me right wing, they’re saying it to try and de-legitimize me to say that I’m a, an imperialist, a colonizer, a fascist, which is, hideous demonization of, of Jews and is in line again with what we’ve seen happening to Israel since, you know, the 1960s. And as you say, Jews are being physically attacked. I’ve not been physically attacked, thank goodness, but I now live in London. I just moved here from Hong Kong, and I have had things said to me in the street because I wear a Magen David, I wear a kippah. This is my reality. I’m aware of my Jewishness all the time. Not just because I put on a kippah, but because I know that putting on that kippah makes me vulnerable.
Jay Ruderman: Let me ask you about the warning signs, what were the experiences in Great Britain that, you know, are warning signs to other Jewish communities?
Ben Freeman: Well, I mean, really what, what I was referring to when I said that was Corbinism, was left wing Jew hatred, espoused by Jeremy Corbin, who was the former leader of the Labor Party, who was at that time her Majesty’s most loyal opposition. So he had an official role to play in the, in the British state, the British institution. And I said at the time, and, and I believe I was correct, it was coming for the United States. It wasn’t just a British problem, the radicalization of left wing politics, the, the mainstreaming of this Soviet anti Zionism has taken place in American politics as well. And because of that, um, it’s in American society and the warning signs where having high profile individuals talking about Israel in a way which was anti-Jewish and no repercussions taking place, And also the volume. There were always people saying things about Israel, but it’s the volume of people and the boldness of them. That is something that was very striking to me. It wasn’t just about people using code words or dog whistles. This was very overt language and, and they were talking about Zionism and sometimes even they would talk about Jews.
VO Reading of selection from Ben Freeman’s work: Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People
In different places and times different forms of antisemitism, pose different threats. What is certain, and proven historically time and time again, is that all forms of antisemitism endanger the lives of Jews. Despite there being differences to each specific manifestation, they all share the same roots: the economic libel, blood libel, and conspiracy fantasy.
These libels and fantasies, all frame Jews as a perverse, inhumane, supranational evil group who are often wealthy and powerful, and who maliciously and immorally manipulate and exploit the non-Jewish world. The racial libel as these tropes come to life in the physical depictions of Jewish people. One crucial aspect of the Jewish experience today is that these specific framings of Jews as an all-powerful group make it difficult for some, particularly on the left, to recognise and address antisemitism. Because they perceive Jews to be powerful and privileged, it also shaped the manner those on the left express their own antisemitism. In other words, antisemitism ‘punches up.’ Jews are hated for their perceived power.
Jay Ruderman: Ben, I wanna thank you for your activism, for your education, for what you’ve given, the world and for your courage at standing up and talking real issues that many people are afraid to talk about. Thank you for being our guest on All Bbout Change and I wish you to go from success to success. So thank you. It was a pleasure meeting you.
Ben Freeman: Thank you so much, Jay.
Jay Ruderman: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Mijon Zulu, and Rachel Donner.
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