Ben Freeman is a Jewish leader, a Jewish thinker, and a Jewish educator. Born in Scotland, Ben is a gay Jewish author, internationally renowned educator and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion specialist focussing on Jewish identity, combatting Jew-hatred and raising awareness of the Holocaust. His first book,Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People, was released in February 2021, to great international acclaim. He is currently working on his much anticipated follow up, focussing on internalised anti-Jewishness, due to be published in 2023.
As a specialist in the field for over a decade, Ben is a prominent thought-leader on Jewish education, history and identity. He is a trained teacher and experienced lecturer designing and facilitating unique learning experiences for both his students, the general public and global organisations. His work also includes consulting for Emmy Award winning directors on documentary projects, such as Jews of the Wild West. Currently based in Hong Kong, Ben now heads up the Humanities Team at an American International School and lectures on antisemitism at Hong Kong universities. Through his work, he aims to educate, inspire and empower both Jewish and non-Jewish people from all over the world.
Follow his work across all major social media platforms through @BenMFreeman.
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Ashley Rindsberg: So, Ben Freeman, we're here today on the Burning Castle Podcast. And we are going to talk about some pretty interesting and challenging ideas in the world of Jewry. But I think also far beyond because as we all know, Jews are canaries in the coal mine, and in this case of progressive ideas of identity, of politics, of power. So, I wanted to hear from you what your take on things as an educator, as someone who has done a lot of work in the field of Holocaust education, and as a teacher yourself. But let's just start with some of the basics, your name, where you're from, where you are now, which is probably pretty interesting to a lot of people and what you're doing.
Ben Freeman: Sure. My name is Ben M Freeman. The M stands for Maxwell. I was born in Glasgow, Scotland, which is a very small Jewish community. The Jewish community in Scotland is very small, but there's one Jewish elementary school, which I attended, no Jewish high school. And I currently live in Hong Kong. I was a full-time professional Holocaust educator, but now I head up the humanities team at an international school here.
Ashley Rindsberg: And how did you get there? What brought you to Hong Kong of all places?
Ben Freeman: It's a really good question. I started my own nonprofit in 2012, and it was called From Yesterday For Tomorrow. And it was very successful in terms of its aim. So, we worked with thousands of students in Scotland and the US, you know, working to raise awareness of the Holocaust to combat prejudice. But in all honesty, I did that for about three years and it made no money. My phone was being cut off and I was really sick of being broke. So I Googled Holocaust education jobs because at that time that was my primary focus and some in America came up and one in Hong Kong came up. And I applied for them all, and the American ones, unfortunately, all said to me that they weren't going to be issuing visas. And I got the Hong Kong one, so I moved out here in 2015 and I was here for a year only initially.
And my father was sick. He felt ill before I moved here, but his condition worsened when I was here, so there were times I had to travel home at the last minute to see him. So I left after a year and I returned to Glasgow in Scotland to help take care of him alongside my mother and he, unfortunately, passed away in February of 2017. And by that point, you know, Hong Kong kind of was my second home and there were multiple options of places to move afterward. So I could've gone to London. I interviewed for a job in Los Angeles, actually my partner at that time, well, still my partner actually, but he lived in Hong Kong. So, it kind of felt like this was the natural place to come back to, which was quite wild. I mean, Hong Kong being home was kind of a strange concept, but I guess it was.
Ashley Rindsberg: And you know, here's sort of a truism about what we could call maybe incorrectly, but what we call the Far East: China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, which is that these places, for whatever reason, haven't produced the kind of anti-Semitism that we've seen in other parts of the world and in Europe, of course, in North America, in the Muslim world. So what's that been like, because you came there as a Holocaust educator to a place that traditionally hasn't seen... it doesn't have that kind of context. You know, it's not in the forefront. It's not in people's minds, I imagine and correct me if I'm wrong. But what was that like, almost coming to a clean slate to talk about these issues.
Ben Freeman: It was incredibly refreshing because you're right. It's not in the cultural context, which is actually really interesting because Hong Kong was a former British colony, and you see anti-Semitism being exported through colonialism also. You know, it was exported in parts of Africa through colonialism, but it didn't seem to... whether it was exported here and it didn't take root or whether it never really arrived; I don't know. But yet, there isn't very much. I mean, there is some Philo-Semitism, particularly in China. There is Philo-Semitism in other parts of Asia, and then there is definitely anti-Semitism here with Indonesia and other places, but it's not the same really. And in Hong Kong, it's very easy. It's a very easy place to live. You know, I wear a kippah every day as part of how I express and embody Jewish pride and I've never had any comments. But the only time I have experienced anti-Semitism is shockingly from other expats, which, you know, maybe not surprised actually. But I guess that's kind of also interesting that people bring their own preconceived ideas with them. So I have experienced quite a lot of anti-Semitism here, but not from people who were born in Hong Kong.
Ashley Rindsberg: And in those cases, when you say you've experienced anti-Semitism, what do you mean? Like, how do you... because I think for a lot of people, they don't necessarily know it when they see it, even when they're Jewish or especially when the Jewish. They just think that's just kind of life and they haven't been able to register it. And I think that's a lot of what your work is focusing on first is how to be able to identify it, anti-Semitism even the sort of kind of negative space of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism sometimes presents where we don't speak the same way about Jews as we would about others or react. Maybe it's not an aggressive act that we're seeing, but it's something that's almost not there. So in those cases that you feel like you did see anti-Semitism or experienced it from expats in Hong Kong, what were those experiences like or what happened?
Ben Freeman: I will answer that question but I want to ask you to just go back to something you just said about not recognizing or understanding it or realizing it. That was my mother's experience. And she and I talked a lot about this, that she has experienced kind of shocking anti-Semitism throughout her entire life. She was born in Northern Ireland. She went to a Catholic school. Then she moved to Scotland where she met my father and she'd never really knew that what she was experiencing was antisemitism. But she never really understood that when people hated her it was because she was Jewish. My mother is very likable, so there was no reason for someone to hate her other than, you know, what it's kind of crazy. And I think you're so right that so often we don't recognize it. And that was certainly my experience at uni when I was experiencing a lot of left-wing anti-Semitism.
However, in Hong Kong, I mean, it's kind of run the gamut in all honesty. Some of it has been macro-aggression. Some of it has been micro. I've been told by colleagues at school that the Jews should have learned from the Holocaust. When I was here in 2015, I was consulting with a very prestigious school, like one of the most famous schools in the world; perhaps they have a Hong Kong version. And I was there and a teacher accosted me and was unbelievably anti-Semitic and said that if people were going after Nazis, people who perpetrated crimes in the Holocaust, then they should be going after the Israelis in the same way. And this was very shocking and this was really an unbelievably prestigious school. So it has, I've been told that Jews are wealthy. I've been told that I've had my Jewishness to fight for me by non-Jews, by people from Scotland, from the United States when I tell them, you know, we're an ethnic-religion, our identities are complex. In the next sentence, they say, "So as a faith-based group or as a religious person." And they refuse to see it and I do consider that to be a micro aggression because it's defining my identity.
And I have another interesting perspective, which is, I'm also a gay man. So I see how the world treats LGBTQ+ people. People say to me, "What are your preferred pronouns? Would you like to be called a gay man or queer or LGBTQ+?" And everyone is so careful and actually, they fall over themselves to try and be accommodating, but I also see how the Jews are treated, how we are treated. So it really runs the gamut. I didn't think it would be a problem when I moved here. As you said, Asia is not known for anti-Semitism. So when I did experience it from expats, it was incredibly disappointing and it still hurts. It hurts just as much as if I had experienced it in the UK or the US.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, of course. I mean, it's probably even more so because you would assume that it's not there, but that's one of those peculiarities, which there are many concerning anti-Semitism, which is that it's in all the places, including those you would least expect. And also in places that there aren't any Jews or haven't been Jews for a long time, which is one of those things, or in some cases, there have never been Jews in those places. And there are still those attitudes and prejudices for whatever reason. The question I would put to you is why do you think it is? You know, why do you think, and not to explain the totality of anti-Semitism, which I think is like explaining the totality of evil. But to explain the experiences that you've had, what do you think was motivating that kind of animus? Was it ignorance? Was it hatred? What was the feeling that you got accompanying those experiences?
Ben Freeman: And I think it was both. It was not both necessarily in all circumstances, but I have felt hatred. I felt ignorance. But you know I think this is one of the most curious things about anti-Semitism or I mean, actually, I'm now calling it more often than not anti-Jewish racism. I'm trying to kind of move away from saying anti-Semitism, although it is difficult because I'm just so in the habit of saying it. But, you know, whatever I hatred of Jews, I think the most curious thing about it is it is so deeply embedded. It really is so, so deeply embedded and actually, of course, it is. And there are some people who argue against that, which is in my perspective, just fantasy. It is not possible for one type of prejudice to have existed for so long targeting one specific group if it isn't deeply embedded. So it is systemic, it's institutional and I think also the reality is it's not about us as individuals. This is about the concept of Jews. What do Jews represent?
And the way that I understand it and the way I explain it to my students is, tomorrow I'm starting my annual class on the Holocaust. Every year I teach a three-month class on the Holocaust to non-Jewish students and we use this idea to help them understand the exact question you asked. And it's for everyone who has read Harry Potter and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we meet a magical creature called a Bogart. And no one knows what this creature looks like. The creature is always in dark, dank spaces, and in the third book, we meet this creature in our wardrobe, in a cupboard or closet. And when an individual sees it, this creature the Bogart takes the shape of whatever that person fears most. So for me, I hate spiders so it will turn into a spider. Actually, for you, it would look like something different. And I say to my students; that is the purpose that Jews represent to the non-Jewish world. We represent their biggest fears. And I do think and it’s kind of amazing when you see it when you see that idea, that theory manifest in real-time. But that is my experience that we, to the right, are not white and we're trying to destroy the white race. To the left, we are white, we are kind of the apex of whiteness and we are responsible for all the crimes that whiteness is held responsible for. I think that is the way to understand that and it's the way that I understand it, and it also is the way; in a way it makes me feel better.
In some ways, it's scarier, actually that we serve this purpose to the non-Jewish world. That's very frightening. But when I experienced anti-Semitism, I find great comfort in naming it and be like, "Okay, this is racism." This has nothing to do with me. This is about this person's racism and their bigotry and their indoctrination, their socialization, which all of us have. It's not actually that they're a deeply hateful person, but for sure they have absorbed hate around them. So that to me is what it's about. It's about we represent whatever the non-Jewish world fears most, which is why it shapeshifts. So, you know, there is a specific flavor that anti-Semitism kind of has regarding in which context.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. That's fascinating. I have never thought of it in that way. You know, I think it's still kind of begs the impossible question of why us?
Ben Freeman: Yeah.
Ashley Rindsberg: Of all the people.
Ben Freeman: It's crazy. Especially you know there's 14.7 million of us. And that's when I say to my students, you know when we go through the labels and the tropes, it's like 14.7 million people controlling the weather, and this is also another facet. And this is actually not just with regards to anti-Jewish racism or whatever, it's all hate. None of it is rational. But you know George Orwell who actually himself was racist against Jewish people, but he seems to be quite self-aware of it though. He wrote this essay in 1945 called Anti-Semitism in Britain. And he says something which is so true. And he says, people often try to, we often are rational and when we try to understand anti-Semitism, we fail to start in the one place where we should, which is in our own minds because if we all assume we're rational, then we couldn't possibly fall victim or fall prey to this irrationality. But it is irrational. And actually, it's also contradictory and it's almost inherent.
You know, the Nazis were very comfortable with contradiction. Jews were blamed for both capitalism and communism. We were both on the one hand, very, very rich and on the other hand, very poor. And there was no discomfort. There was no like, hey, wait a minute. How can these things, these polar opposites be true at the same time? But I think it's ultimately it's not about us. It's not about the things that we do. It's about the purpose that is imposed on us by the non-Jewish world, which then I think is interesting when and people have said to me about my book, you know, "What happens if Jewish people walk about with their heads held high? Like, won't that bring on anti-Semitism?" And it's like, well, has anything we've ever done brought on anti-Semitism. If we're proud they hate us. If we're not proud they hate us. If we hide the hate, you know, it's not about us. It's got nothing to do with us.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. That's a very interesting take on it. And I think it's the one that makes the most sense when you think it through. But I've also had this kind of growing intuition that, or let's call it a supposition that maybe there's a metaphysical character to anti-Semitism, which is if you're reading the Hebrew Bible, the Torah it's certainly is presented that way. That there is a moral, an eternal war between forces of good and the forces of evil and the evil hates good. And that's what we've also seen from books like Harry Potter and from Lord Of The Rings. And sometimes I feel that it defies rational expectation to the point that maybe we just think about it in a non-rational metaphysical way. But, you know, I don't know. But let's talk about Jewish pride and what that means in all of this, because I think a lot of what you're saying as well is that for a very long time, and maybe there was a before that long time where things were not like this. But for a long time, Jews had taken a very passive stance towards anti-Semitism. I think a lot of the time it was the keep your head down version of things for us and for good reason because it was that or have your head lopped off. But we live in a different world today and that's the world that you're addressing. And you know, before we dive into the topic, let's just talk about where the concept of Jewish pride came from in the first place.
Ben Freeman: So it really was born out of two journeys that I took. The first very simply was my journey to LGBTQ+ pride. I am gay. I was a gay teen in the early nineties when there was no LGBTQ+ representation. There was no drag race. There was no it's a sin. It was quite a lonely, isolated time in my life, or, I mean, that's me being polite about it. It was unbelievably awful actually. And I had very serious mental health issues as I talk about in the book and after suffering for a really, really, really long time. And I'm talking about like a decade and I'm only 34. So I actually a decade of my life is quite a long time. I realized that it wasn't my fault. I was like, Oh, I feel this way. I felt awful for so long, but I've done nothing wrong. Like I...
Ashley Rindsberg: What got you to that point to realize that?
Ben Freeman: I think it was, I got to the point where it's like, okay, so my mental health was so poor that the only other option I could see was out. So it was in that kind of consideration. I was like, well, I didn't do anything wrong. I'm just like, I was a child. I was a young boy and I felt so awful about myself. I hated myself. And that realization that was so unbelievably powerful because I was like, oh, well then this is not my fault. So I shouldn't feel like this. So it began again, the very long process of rejecting that shame and rejecting the trauma or I guess processing the trauma. And then the other journey I took was just my own Jewish journey. You know, I was raised in Glasgow, Scotland, which is the very smallest, as I said, very Zionist and very proudly Jewish community. And my parents worked incredibly hard to raise produce. And I think they did actually. As I said, my father passed away, but I said to my mom around the time the book was released, I was like, "You know, you did really well." Because my two siblings made [unclear 17:14] and I've written a book about Jewish pride. So it's, you know, well-done mum and dad.
So I've always been a proud Jew. But when I went to university, I was met with this barrage of intense, aggressive left-wing anti-Semitism. And that didn't actually make me feel ashamed but I certainly felt the shame the non-Jewish world was trying to impose on me. And then fast forward to 2018. So as I said, my father passed away in 2017 and in 2018 it was kind of just perfect, I guess the stars aligned. I began to come back to myself because I left this work while my father was sick, after his passing when I was trying to heal essentially. And when I came back to myself, Corbynism was kind of at its peak. It was at its height. And I...
Ashley Rindsberg: So just give people context to what Corbynism is.
Ben Freeman: So Corbynism is named after Jeremy Corbyn, who from 2015 to 2020, I believe was the leader of the Labour Party and he occupied the official position in British Parliament, which is her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition. So he was at the center of British political life and he was an aggressive anti-Semite. And he ushered in aggressive anti-Semitism to the labor party and as I said to the heart of the British political system. And it was unbelievably frightening, and it was a massive wake-up call to British Jews who I think kind of drunk the Kool-Aid a little bit like our American brothers and sisters that, you know, we're totally fine here. Yes, there's anti-Semitism, but it's the fringes. It's not a big deal and it made us realize actually maybe our position in this country is not so secure. So I joined Twitter to help join the fights against Corbyn and what I saw in the British Jewish community was just remarkable.
You know, Jews who in any other circumstances wouldn't have spoken to each other, wouldn't have acknowledged each other, signing letters together, standing together, going in marches together. So it really was an embodiment of incredible Jewish pride. However, I also saw certain high profile Jews suffer from what you refer to as to keep your head down policy that they were not able to stand up. They were not able to recognize the problem, and they were not able to raise their voices when we were facing an existential threat. I mean, it was quite unbelievable and that realization just made me understand and made me reflect on my own journey. And I think it made me see that the Jews were crying out for pride. And I thought, well, we talk about all of the shame and the trauma in the gay world, so the LGBTQ+ world, but we don't talk about that in the Jewish world. We talk about the Shoah, we talk about the pogroms, we talk about expulsion, but we don't talk about the emotional, psychological impact on us. The pain, the shame, the trauma, and I think that's to our detriment. So I kind of started to conceive a Jewish Pride Movement as not only an antidote to this shame and trauma but also as a kind of inoculation for it going forward.
Ashley Rindsberg: And what does it mean? How do you see it? Because it's we know that the word pride can be used in a number of different ways and in a lot of cases it's used in very damaging ways. And in a lot of ways, it's used in very, as you say, healing ways. How do you conceive of that almost in a practical sense? What does it mean to develop Jewish pride collectively and in an individual? How do we nurture it? How do we express it on a daily basis?
Ben Freeman: Well, I think what you said there is really important. It is a collective thing and an individual thing, first of all. I've got three main aims. One is to help Jews reject the shame of antisemitism, anti-Jewish racism. The second is to help Jews reject non-Jewish definitions of what it means to be a Jew. And the third is to begin the journey of defining our own identity as proud Jews, but through an exploration of Jewish history, tradition, and values. And I think that you know, in the last chapter of the book, that's kind of like my blueprint to Jewish Pride. And I think that it will look different for everyone. And there's beauty in that, you know, we are an incredibly diverse people and I think it's only right that people have the ability to kind of pick and choose how they express it. However, there are boundaries to that. The way I see it as there's kind of a hat. You know I'm thinking of being in school with my students, there's an upside-down hat and there are lots of different, you know, pieces of paper with something written on the inside. And sometimes we get our students to pick something out. And for us, that is Jewish tradition, Jewish values, history, all of our, and everything that makes up our peoplehood and everyone is free to kind of select whichever things they best identify with from the hat.
And that is the tricky thing because there are rules which govern who is a Jew I should say and there are laws that we're instructed to do. But I think it's okay that we express our pride on an individual basis in whichever way we see fit. But at the same time, it is collected. So I think it's important to connect with other Jews. It's important to connect with the wider Jewish experience. I think Zionism is an absolutely integral part of Jewish pride. I say it quite clearly in the book; it is not possible to be a proud Jew and to be an anti-Zionist. It's just impossible because Jewish anti-Zionism is an expression of internalized anti-Semitism. And, you know, it's also about having conversations and dialogue. And there is an old adage, which says you have three Jews, you have 15 opinions. That's kind of true but the conversations that we have to have, and ensuing arguments, debates, whichever you want to call them, they're ours to have. And it's not about the non-Jewish world telling us what we are or what we should be.
You know, when Britain at the beginning of March, there was a BBC panel on the question on the screen was, should Jews be counted as an ethnic minority? And I was just insane. I was like, and I tweeted and I was furious about it. And I tweeted, and then the editor of the show tweeted me back saying, "Did you even watch the show?" There was one Jewish person there." And my response was like, "Oh, thank you. Thank you so much for including one Jew in a conversation about Jewish identity." It's really about advocating for ourselves. With regards to the non-Jewish world, it's about understanding that we're allowed to put up barriers or impose boundaries. We're allowed to advocate for ourselves and in terms of ourselves, it's about engaging in Jewishness and Judaism whilst also beginning this journey of processing the pain and the trauma. I mean, it's many things. It's complicated and the book aims to begin a conversation. The book does not claim to be kind of the feel-safe guide to Jewish pride. It's the book on Jewish pride, but it's the book that aims to begin the movement - begin the conversation.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, that to me is really the essence of what you're saying is, is the conversation among and between different Jews and individuals, of course. But you know, one thing I've noticed at least among certain Jewish communities is the willful ignorance and maybe that's not certain Jewish communities, maybe that's all Jewish communities. They're just willfully ignorant about different elements of Jewish life. But that to me is one of the most damaging things because people just say that's not me. That's not who I am and that's completely not true. Maybe that's not all of who you are. Maybe religious Judaism is not all of you, but part of you came from that, it may be even a small part. And the same thing goes with secular Judaism and religious Jews who would just want to kind of blank it out as if it's not a thing, as if they're not Jews. You know that kind of thing, it's like Jews have already faced enough outside persecution and then this kind of internal dissension obviously doesn't help things because it prevents us from speaking loudly.
Ben Freeman: Absolutely. And I think it's really damaging. And I think that again, there are conversations to have and there are disagreements to have. But I think that we should really be considering how we have them. And I think you're right. We often try to be the good Jew, which is I'm Jewish, but I'm not that type of Jew. Or I'm a Zionist but I'm not that type of Zionist. And this qualifying of our experience, I think is deeply inappropriate and it's deeply rooted in shame. You know, I'm not, I went to a Reform Shul growing up and I'm a member of a Reform Shul in Hong Kong.
Ashley Rindsberg: The word shul for anybody is sort of an internal code or term for a synagogue, a place where Jews [crosstalk 25:41] worship.
Ben Freeman: It's a Yiddish, right?
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah.
Ben Freeman: It's a Yiddish term and it comes from, I mean, my family, my recent ancestors were Ashkenazi, and the community in Glasgow, I think in most of the UK is pretty Ashkenazi I have to say. So that is the predominant culture, the Jewish culture anyway. But yes, you know, there are definitely Orthodox Jews who would look at the way I live my life and just be horrified, but I'm aware that they are still Jews and I'm still Jewish. So when they're attacked that is my problem. Even if, actually we couldn't really even sit down to have a conversation. It doesn't matter. There are some things which are greater than us and I think that is being lost at the moment. That actually it's not always about us and I think that people need to really take a step back and understand that; that there are certain things which are bigger than us and visibly Jewish Jews, which actually I am one of them because I wear a kippah every day. But you know visibly Jewish Jews are most likely to be the Orthodox are the most likely to also be physically attacked. And that absolutely is my problem, even if I am a reformed gay Jew. I believe that we have a responsibility to one another. I mean, in the Talmud it says, you know, I can never remember that I quote this in the book and I can never remember it in Hebrew, but the English translation is all Israel is responsible for one another. The reality is when we start to demonize specific Jewish groups because we're embarrassed by them because we see them as [unclear 27:02] or obstinate, then we are failing in our responsibility to one another.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. You're blanking out the Jew by doing that.
Ben Freeman: Yeah.
Ashley Rindsberg: That's the essence of, the opposite of Jewish shame, basically. It's the shame of that part of who you are. How do you see this process in terms of non-Jewish people? How do you see Jews relating to progressive communities or political communities or even elements or individuals that are anti-Semitic maybe not in a rage about it because that might not be productive? But how do we have that conversation with others who are not part of the Jewish community?
Ben Freeman: So in my introduction and conclusion, I have a question or a note to my Jewish readers and also my non-Jewish readers because I do want to bring non-Jewish people along on this journey. But I want them to understand the space that they occupy and the space that they occupy is one of listening, one of asking clarifying questions. It's not necessarily one of taking space. But absolutely as I kind of mentioned with regards to my journey to LGBTQ+ pride, as that, as the homophobia that I experienced was not my fault. Neither is the anti-Semitism or the anti-Jewish racism that we experience. It's not our problem. It's not our fault. It's one that impacts us. But for it to be combated in any meaningful way, it has to be done by the non-Jewish world. So we absolutely have to kind of empower them to be allies.
We do have our role to play in combating of anti-Jewish racism and that would be to dialogue, share our experiences, raise our voices, advocate for ourselves. But that pretty much is the extent to which we're actually able to kind of, I think, make any meaningful impact in this thousand-year-old hatred. So absolutely non-Jewish people have a place and listen my partner is not Jewish. We're all interacting with non-Jewish people all the time. So it's not about rejecting. It's not about segregating. It's about integration but doing so as proud Jews. And I also think with regards to there are big conversations right now about the progressive world and should we just cut our losses and run or should we still try and fight for it? And I have to say that I'm not entirely sure what the best option is.
I can say that I am very angry at the progressive world, and I think that whatever kind of path you choose, it has to be rooted in advocating for the Jewish people and understanding that we're allowed to advocate for ourselves. And I think that is something so damaging. It's one of the hangovers of this keep your head down policy that we kind of believe that actually our experience isn't as important. We're not allowed to raise our voices. You know last summer during the Black Lives Matter protest; there were Jews who were speaking about anti-Semitism, some of which was emanating from those protests. Obviously not to say that you know, every single person involved in these protests was racist against Jewish people, but there did seem to be elements of anti-Jewishness within pockets. And we were told, keep your head down, and now is not the time. And it's like, we were told that by non-Jews, but also other Jews, which I find to be just so rooted in shame.
We're allowed to advocate for ourselves and we're allowed to call out anti-Jewish racism whenever and wherever we see it. That is the responsibility we have for one another. So even though there may be Orthodox Jews being attacked and they may not be people that I see very much or have a huge amount in common with on the surface, they are still Jews and I have to defend them. I have to call out the attacks that they're experiencing, regardless of where these attacks are coming from. And I think that this is a major component of pride. It's about understanding that we are worth something. We have to have individual and collective self-esteem.
Ashley Rindsberg: I want to go back to something you touched on, which is the incident with the BBC because I also saw that was kind of popping up on Twitter. And it was one of those moments where you're watching it, and you can't believe it's real. And you also can't believe that the response from them is real because it almost is worse than the initial event. So that makes me ask and wonder what role has the media played in all this? What is the role the media is currently playing? And what role should it play?
Ben Freeman: I mean; I think the media has played a really significant role. I think the media has played a really significant role in the disseminating of anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish racism throughout the generations. You know it's the portrayal of Fagan, is the portrayal of Shylock. It was the description of Jeremy Corbyn, who we mentioned earlier, who was the leader of the opposition party, targeting a tiny ethical religious minority of about 300,000 people being described as a row. You may not understand what a row is. I said this to my class, which is mostly from American students and they had no idea. A row is a quarrel. It's what we say in the UK is like a quarrel, kind of a fight. This was not a fight. They were targeting us. This was a direct racist attack and we were being targeted. But describing it as even today, you know, The Guardian, which is a well-known left-wing newspaper featured Orthodox Jews on the cover when talking about COVID and there have been certain controversies and scandals regarding Orthodox Jews in London and other places following lockdown.
But it's like, again, where it's at like, we're a tiny community and they're a tiny part of a tiny community. So, why are those the pictures you're leading with? And this debate was just unbelievable. And I think it really points to something incredibly significant, which is the renormalization of anti-Jewish racism and it's totally normal at this stage. It has entered the political and the social, the cultural mainstream, and the fact that they had five non-Jewish people, one host, four participants in this debate, and one Jew or only one Jew thinking this was an appropriate conversation to have. But it wasn't even are Jews an ethnic minority? It was should Jews be counted as an ethnic minority, which is astonishing. It's absolutely astonishing.
And to the response, as you say, was to double down and they basically said to us and the guy Rob something, I forget his name. He said, "You know this is government. So if you have a problem, you should speak to the government." And it's like, "Who the hell do you think you are? You are racist. You're a racist person." And the reason I described them as racist is if one makes a mistake, if they had led with this thing and it was, you know, they didn't understand and it came from ignorance, which let's be honest, all prejudice does come from ignorance. And if they had apologized, if they had made amends, if they had a program the next day, just with Jewish people, then yes, perhaps it could point to a situation where we could move forward from. But they double down, they defended their position, and he [unclear 33:53]. And it really does point to this very significant renormalization about Jewish racism. The taboo that emerged after the Shoah, after the Holocaust, with regards to [unclear 34:06] to Jew-hatred is over.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. You know, and sometimes I wonder if that taboo was ever there because there was so much anti-Semitism in the media years after the Holocaust, including a real concerted effort to make it seem as if the Holocaust hadn't happened just 10, 20 years after the fact. But that is something, you know, to me the media, of course, bears responsibility. They bear responsibility at all times for everything they do because that is part of their job, is to take responsibility for the information they put into the world, in this case in particular, because there's such a clear history. I am in a couple of months of launching a book about the New York Times and cases where it has failed in its journalistic mission. And one or two of those major cases were directly related to Jews, namely regarding the Holocaust. They chose not to cover the Holocaust and that was a very deliberate decision. There were stories of Jews, you know, 700,000 Jews. That was a story. 700,000 people were murdered in Germany or in Europe and that story would be on page 10 in a three-inch column. And on the front page, you would have stuff about, you know, society, weddings or whatever. And that kind of thing, I think it's almost ingrained in media culture for one reason or another, which is very difficult to explain and to understand, especially because you have Jews in prominent positions in these media organizations.
Ben Freeman: Well, I think that is something that's really interesting like the prominent Jews. And I think we have to understand that we have to look to the court Jews of the 17th, 16th centuries are that these were Jews who run the finances of the European Lords and Kings and even a little bit earlier actually and they could achieve some power. They certainly could achieve some financial wealth. But I say to my students, they were still Jews living in a non-Jewish world. What does that mean? And they start to then understand, oh, they were protected only so far. And it also means that when you, as an individual have battled against the system and anti-Jewish racism is systemic. It's institutional, it's deeply embedded. So when you as an individual have battled against the system and achieved something, you are often primarily concerned with keeping that, keeping the resources you've gained, keeping the possession, sustaining the possession.
You know, we have that. We had that during the Holocaust in America with FDRs Jewish aids who Samuel Rosenman, I believe, I write about him in my book. I forget his surname. I think Samuel Rosenman was a Jew who advocated against Jewish refugees from Europe coming to America and it's very easy to judge him. And I actually believe that we should judge him but we also have to understand why he did that. And he was a Jew living in a deeply racist world. And that is the reality, that's the wider context. And I think that we fail to understand, again the psychological impact that this racism, this bigotry has on us as individuals, even if it allows, we are allowed in that system to achieve a certain amount of power and financial wealth. And it's also, you know, we're talking about the New York Times, which is an American Newspaper, obviously and I have to say, I'm not entirely sure that there are, I'm not entirely sure that the majority of the American Jewish world really understands anti-Jewish racism because of the experience they've had and because of the experience they think they've had.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, that's a great point. And something that I've thought about in terms of the American Jewish exceptionalism, they have had for the last few decades, at least quite an exceptional experience of life as a Jew or as a community of Jewish people compared to the rest of the world, wherein the UK, in Israel. And the UK, my wife is British and so when we're in London, we go to synagogue in London and invariably you're passing through layers of security. You've got these guys standing outside in green high visibility vests, and they're volunteers, a mix of volunteers and professional security people. And that is the reality of going to a place of worship in a modern European capital and for American Jews until very, very recently; that was unimaginable. I mean, grew up in the US you would never think that there would be security in your synagogue unless you're in an unusual situation, but that's over. I mean, we've seen with Tree of Life massacre, with the Poway shooting at the Habbat in San Diego, with the spate of just almost daily certainly, or weekly certainly of anti-Jewish violence, including in very Jewish places like Crown Heights of New York, that exceptionalism is gone. And American Jews have kind of joined the rest of the world in that [crosstalk 39:09].
Ben Freeman: Yeah. I actually don't think there was American Jewish exceptionalism. I do think that it was certainly a more exaggerated version, but it was not totally dissimilar to other experiences in Jewish history. You know, pre-Dreyfus in France, you had unbelievable levels of acceptance. I mean, Dreyfus' trial, so the trial of Alfred Dreyfus took place at the end of the 19th century and he was a captain, I believe in the French army and he was accused of selling secrets to the Germans. He was framed and it was discovered that he was framed. He didn't do it and it unleashed this wave of like anti-Jewish violence. It was an orgy of violence. The only reason that could have happened in France was because he was a captain and because in no other European country could a Jew become a captain in the army. So in France, pre-Dreyfus, there were huge levels of acceptance.
And I think that and I actually talked about this in my third chapter, it's a touch on acculturation and look at the German Jews before the Shoah. They, my family included, Jews went to Germany because they saw it as a safe place to live. They also called their synagogues temples because they had Germany who needed Israel. They were more German than the Germans, but actually even for them and actually like America, there was never a time in German history without anti-Jewish racism and there was never a time in American history about that. I just think that people felt because acceptance was growing, they felt that the small examples were not, they didn't define the situation. It was like, okay, they were the exceptions. But actually, I think that these feelings clearly never went away. What we're seeing now it doesn't come from anywhere. It is rooted in what has come previously. So I think that that to me is part of what I see in my mission in terms of when I speak to American Jews. And I want to obviously be very respectful. I'm not American. I'm obviously Scottish, but I think sometimes having space and distance allows you to see things maybe in some ways, a little clearer.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. I think that's generally the case. I mean, when you're in the forest, you can't see the trees, that's sort of a truism. So what do you say to people who are listening? What do you advise them? I mean, of course, I think your book is an important one and it's important even when we just think about the concept. That no one had ever put those words together or has at least I have never heard it in this way and to take this concept and to hold onto it and integrate it. But, what would you give them as guidance to say, going forward, start today? What do I do? What steps can I take to make a change for myself and for the people around me?
Ben Freeman: I think it really involves active work. And when I thought of the title, the title of the book is Jewish Pride, Rebuilding a People. And when I was thinking about the title, which actually came at the very end of the book, I wanted to select something which implied active work, which is why I chose the word rebuilding because it really is active. We have to look into ourselves. We have to think about the bias that we perhaps have against our own people. We have to think of instances of shame or embarrassment that we have failed, unpack them but unpack them without judgment. This is not about people feeling bad about themselves. This is about people's understanding, as I mentioned with the court Jews, we're Jews living in a non-Jewish world. I begin the book with a quote from my late father, which is the non-Jewish world hates Jews. And he was right.
And it's not to say that every non-Jewish hates Jews. Of course, that's not the case, but the structures, the societal and cultural norms of the non-Jewish world do seem to be geared against us and have been for thousands of years. So understand that. I also want to help validate people and say, the hurt that you've experienced is real. When they tell you that you haven't experienced racism, they're wrong, you have. You've experienced bigotry and it's painful and you should have your feelings validated and you are allowed to feel upset. You're allowed to feel distressed. So I think it's about validating people's feelings in that regard, and also encouraging people to begin the process of defining their identity. What does it mean for them to be Jewish? What does it mean for them to be a Zionist Jew? What do they want their Zionism to look like? What do they want their Jewishness to look like?
I believe part of Jewish pride is about active work, as I said, and being actively Jewish. So it's not just an idea. This is about something we live and breathe and do. So maybe someone wants to start lighting the Shabbat candles. Maybe if they feel they're physically safe, they can start wearing a kippah, maybe not. Maybe it's just about putting up a mezuzah. Maybe it's about starting to read books about Jewish history. Maybe it's about starting to have conversations with other Jewish people about their identity, conversations with themselves. There are so many ways that someone can embark on this journey, but I think the first step is about looking inside themselves because there's a fundamental difference. One thing I really want people to take away. There's a fundamental difference between shame and feeling ashamed. And while the non-Jewish world will continue to try and shame us as they have done for thousands of years, what Jewish pride does is builds up a barrier. So we do not absorb that shame on becoming ashamed and instead, we become proud. So it's about looking inside yourself because it is collective, of course, it is. But as individuals we have work to do on ourselves as well, I believe.
Ashley Rindsberg: And let's say, I mean, once people are at the point where they can identify instances of anti-Semitism that they're experiencing, and maybe that's even in sort of a real-time case where someone says something to them such as, "Oh, well, you know, Jews aren't a race or a people or whatever they are." Or maybe it's more aggressive than Jews are, you know, this or that, whatever epithet that might be cast.
Or maybe they're put in a position that they really shouldn't be in. Like, I spoke recently with Isaac DeCastro, who's at creating an organization for young Jews on campuses in the US. What language, what even, you know, for getting like a fully formed monologue to respond with, you know, Shakespeare and eloquence? But what's something that can help them start a response? What words can they use to even begin to respond? Because I think what happens for people is they get paralyzed in that moment understandably. So, how can we take that moment and say, you know, have a word, a phrase, an idea ready that they can begin to respond in a way that they might find appropriate to themselves?
Ben Freeman: I think you're right. I think people do become paralyzed and that's even something I have experienced, but I think it's not so much a word, but a feeling it's about understanding that you're allowed to advocate for yourself. So though you may... and often these instances of anti-Jewish racism set out to define either identity or our experience. It's about understanding that, no, that person does not get to do that. And you're allowed to advocate yourself and if you feel physically safe to say something. And it's really difficult to know what exactly one should say in those circumstances, but I definitely think it's about knowing that you should say something. For me, it's just about, I always say to people, like, "Do you think you know more about being Jewish than I do?" Like, not only is this my work, this is my lived experience.
And you see the people start to be like, oh. Sometimes they fight back and sometimes they say, "Okay, you're right, I'm sorry." But it's fundamentally about understanding that we're the masters of our own destiny. We are the experts in our own experience and the only people who get to define our own identity. So, I really believe that that knowledge, that self-esteem is the most important thing. And it's difficult because you know what, while I believe that we should understand our own history, and I actually believe that understanding your own history and teaching it correctly is integral to the continuation of our peoplehoods. It's quite difficult because not everyone is a historian nor everyone wants to be, so not everyone can answer every single charge made against a Jewish person. You know, that definitely is tricky, but I think it's just about understanding at your very core that you're allowed to advocate for yourself, and you're also allowed to leave a conversation. So I would just say, it's not each individual person's responsibility to stand and fight and educate. If they feel unsafe, whether that's, you know, physically or emotionally, you're allowed to leave a conversation, say, you know what, I'm not continuing this, which I know isn't necessarily... some people see that as courageous; I really don't want to. Our main responsibility is to ourselves, not to educate, you know, people who are attacking us.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, I agree. But I also think that as we are allowed to advocate for ourselves, I think we're allowed to turn tables on that person. And that's something that you did talking about the BBC producer, where you feel that calling him a racist is legitimate. And I think we see that in a lot of other instances with a lot of other communities where terms are flung, you know, sometimes a little too casually, but people feel that they are well within the rights to use those kinds of terms that put the onus on the other person where I think Jews always don't feel that they have that ability or that power. And I think that's the other thing to say; if they feel that that is the case in that situation, to be able to say, like you said, "No, what you're saying makes you a racist, or it makes you sound like a racist. Maybe you're not one, but it certainly makes you sound like you are one or a bigot or that you're using prejudice or that this is discriminatory. Which what that really means is that you're not exempting Jews from the category of people who are entitled to certain kinds of rights. We are participating in that category. We do have those rights. And when you violate them, that makes you something, it doesn't make me anything. It makes you that thing." And I think that's an important thing for people to understand is say, you're allowed in advocating for yourself. You can choose however you want to, but part of those choices are to be telling that person what they're doing in that moment, which is committing an act of whatever it might be.
Ben Freeman: I think that's excellent and kind of genius and I think it's really important. Yeah, and it also puts the onus on them. And often what we see then, which actually even further proves our point is that people are more offended at being called a racist than they are with being the racist; if that makes sense. So the label is more offensive to people, than actually participating in prejudice. Which again, you know, if someone said to me, you're being prejudiced, my first response would be like, "What? Am I? Tell me, explain to me, Oh my God, I'm so sorry. That was not my intention? But that is often not the case, especially in my experience. But you're absolutely right, and that's what I do. I call people racists. I call people... I'm always a little bit nervous because in Britain, the libel laws are, I think it's different in America, but no, I think you absolutely should be able to call.
Jeremy Carbon is a racist. The editor of the BBC program is a racist. You know, whoever else, Louis Farrakhan is a racist. If you're going to continuously persecute, antagonize, demonize us, we're going to call it what it is. And that's one of the reasons, you know, I've had to quite a lot of people message me recently about why I use the term anti-Jewish racism or anti-Jewish and not antisemitism. And say, first of all, antisemitism was a word created by racists. You know, it was not a word that we created. It was created in 1879. It was coined by Wilhelm Marr and in Germany, and it was an attempt to intellectualize Jew hatred. So I think there's something to be said, even on a self-esteem basis but rejecting term. In Europe and in Britain, we are considered to be an ethnic minority legally, and so racism is something that we experience. And I also think that part of the issue is that people say, you know, racism and antisemitism, anti-black racism, anti-Asian racism and antisemitism. And it's like, no, actually it shouldn't be anti-Jewish racism because I think that sometimes the, almost... I don't know what's the word. The fact that even it sounds different helps people distance themselves. And they do that away for a variety of reasons and how it is expressed that we're powerful; we're rich, blah, blah, blah. But yeah, I think that we are able to define our own identities and our experience and not exactly as you said, involved, sometimes calling people what they are.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah. And I think the, you know, the last thing I would add is from my point of view, as a storyteller, is to tell your stories. Tell the stories and it doesn't mean you need to position yourself as a victim in those stories, but you can tell that story of what happened to you. Maybe it didn't come out in the moment you experienced it, but it's often more important to tell the story afterwards because that way other people share that experience and can understand what you feel. And it could be as simple as writing it on Facebook and not being embarrassed and not being ashamed by that moment, but saying, "Look, what happened. Not look at what happened to me necessarily; look at what's happening in this world and look at what's happening in our community." And to be able to take that step, I think that's an important part of being proud of who you are as feeling entitled and empowered to make those experiences clear to others as well. Yeah, go ahead.
Ben Freeman: I totally agree with you. And it's not that we're victims, we're not victims. We have been victimized. And again, they're very different things. We are part of an incredibly rich, beautiful and diverse culture, we're each an individual thread and a greater tapestry of Jewishness and we're not victims, but we are victimized. And we have a right to tell our experiences and our stories. I absolutely agree.
Ashley Rindsberg: Yeah, and as we've seen, so many of those stories have become works of priceless literature in terms of understanding our common... not our Jewish history, but our common history, whether it's Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi or Anne Frank. I mean, you would not as heinous as what they suffered is, we would not want the world to be without those works because they enrich our experiences as human beings, whether they were Jews or not. So, you know, I really urge and encourage everyone to go out, buy the book, Jewish Pride by Ben Freeman. It's available where?
Ben Freeman: It's available on Amazon, on Book Depository, it's available on Kindle. You know, it's kind of wonderful. I've put this piece of work into the world, which is a very vulnerable thing to do. It is part memoir, so that kind of adds to the vulnerability, but it really has resonated with people. I'm living in Hong Kong. I'm in a separate time zone, obviously to Europe, Israel, the United States, many other places, but every day I wake up to messages of people saying thank you. "Thank you for validating my experience. Thank you for explaining to me what I've been experiencing and helping me understand the kind of greater Jewish experience." And I think this is a book that all Jewish people need, and I hope that it's going to change the Jewish world for the better.
Ashley Rindsberg: Certainly. And I would add to that, that I also think it's a great book for people who are not Jewish to read and to experience because it gives them insight into something that's one of the same time particular to Jews and the Jewish world, but also to the world in which we live. And these are issues that everybody is facing and all communities are having to deal with at this point in time. So, I think it's adding to that rich literature about identity and about community struggle in the face of, you know, whatever people might be facing and how anyone can respond regardless of who you are, where you come from. So thank you, Ben. We will be posting this with show notes and links to the book and thank you for the work you're doing, and we look forward to seeing more of it.
Ben Freeman: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. This has been wonderful.
Ashley Rindsberg: All right, Ben, bye-bye.
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