An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
Ben M. Freeman is a renowned thinker, educator, and writer who focuses on Jewish identity, Jew-hatred, and the Holocaust. Freeman — a citizen of the United Kingdom born in Scotland 35 years ago — came to prominence during the UK’s Labour Party antisemitism crisis, which began in 2015 under then party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Both a proud Jew and a proud gay man, Freeman is founder of the Jewish Pride Movement and author of the movement’s manifesto: the 2021 book Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People. His next book, Jewish Pride: Reclaiming Our Story, is slated to be released in October 2022. He plans to write a third volume in a trilogy, to be released in 2024.
Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People explores the many impediments created by an often hostile world that keep Jewish people from developing healthy self-esteem. The work includes inspiring case studies of diverse individuals who describe their own struggles — ultimately successful — to accept and love themselves as Jews. Perhaps most important, Freeman outlines a multi-faceted foundation on which Jewish pride can be built.
Currently, Freeman teaches Jewish studies at the Harbor School, a progressive, inclusive international school in Hong Kong. He also speaks on the subject of Jewish pride all over the world. His aim, he says, “is to educate, inspire, and empower both Jewish and non-Jewish people.”
In our in-depth interview with Freeman, we began by exploring his views about the hated of Jews and its connection to Jewish shame.
You write a great deal in your book about “Jewish shame.” How does that manifest itself?
I’ve observed it manifesting itself in a huge variety of ways and a huge variety of Jewish people. It makes a lot of sense that we would have shame because shame is a trauma response. We’re a tiny minority living in a frequently hostile world, so we have trauma from our past experience, we have inter-generational trauma, and we have trauma from what’s happening to us currently.
You also write about the importance of Jews not allowing the non-Jewish world to define who we are.
One of the narratives about Jewish people since the Enlightenment is that we have to be Jewish in a way that’s acceptable to the non-Jewish world. They crate categories of “good Jew” and “bad Jew,” and they shame us when we act in a way they deem to be unacceptable.
It doesn’t make Jews feel very good to think about this, but I do believe being Jewish in non-Jewish world is a disadvantage. It’s not a disadvantage because there is something inherently wrong with being Jewish, but because of our historic position as a tiny, oppressed minority existing in a malevolent world. Only Jews get to define Jewish identity. Not only are non-Jewish definitions of our identity wrong, but they also harm us.
Can you give an example?
Here’s just one: The shame manifests itself when people say “I’m Jewish” rather than “I’m a Jew.” Sometimes people qualify their Jewishness… “I’m Jewish but…” or “I’m a Zionist but….” It can manifest itself in people altering their Jewishness — whether their names, their noses, their hair, and so forth
Many non-Jews want to define Jewishness only as a religion because that’s what they understand. But that’s too limited. We are a distinct people, a nation, a multidimensional culture. Shame can also lead Jews to out-and-out deny who they are. Sadly, some even use their Jewishness to harm other Jews.
We need to understand that all the persecution over two millennia has had a major psychological impact on us. That’s something we don’t talk about very much. We don’t talk about internalized anti-Jewishness, which leads to a tragic situation in which we are wounded and experience pain, yet we don’t name or examine it. We just pretend it doesn’t exist.
Is that why you decided to write your book?
Yes, because I saw Jews struggling with shame, especially a number of British Jews during the Corbyn experience. Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the British Labour Party at the time and an anti-Jewish racist. Although I saw the majority of British Jews rise to the occasion and defend our community with pride, I also saw Jews struggling with how to talk about it. They were having a hangover from what I call the “keep your head down” doctrine, which tells Jews, “You’re not allowed to advocate for yourselves. Just be quiet. Advocate for other communities.” That type of thinking really has done a number on us.
Many people — including some Jews themselves — think the term “Jew” is a dirty word. I remember back in junior high school I once said, “Oh, he’s a Jew.” The non-Jewish girl sitting behind me told me, “I don’t think we should call them that.”
That’s an example of what’s behind the trauma response. So much of our identity is shaped by how we’re treated by the world. And, yes, “Jew” absolutely can be used in a kind of offensive way. I personally have been called a Jew in an offensive way. But I also refer to myself as a Jew because that’s what I am. I’m Jewish, I’m a Jew, and I’m part of the Jewish people. I’m very proud to be a Jew. We have to start reclaiming our identity and not allow the non-Jewish world dictate who we are and how we feel about ourselves.
My rule of thumb is that “Jew” as a noun is not necessarily derogatory — although as you say, it can be used that way. However, if it’s used as an adjective — “He’s a Jew lawyer” — the intent is antisemitic. The same is true when it’s used as a verb — “She Jewed him down to $1,000.” Interestingly, regarding the same girl I just referred to, I later asked her “Why do you think the Germans did such terrible things to the Jews?” Without missing a beat she said, “Because they killed our Lord and Savior.”
Along the same lines, you related in your book an incident that happened in school when you were 11. When a kid in your class found out you were a Jew, he said, “Oh, I thought you were normal.” Coincidentally, I clearly remember that when I was 11, a classmate came up to me, grinning, and said, “You know why Jews have big noses? Because the air is free.” I believe psychologists call those kinds of incidents microaggressions.
Some people might say, “Big deal! A kid made a nasty remark to you. So what?!”
We’re being targeted because of this or that characteristic — real or imagined — that we’re not able to change about ourselves. That’s a mistake a lot of people make. For example, the FBI and other law enforcement organizations — including in the U.K. — categorize Jew-hate as related to religion. But crimes of anti-Jewish hate are not taking place because of our religious beliefs. They’re taking place because of who we are.
What all of this does is slowly chip away at our Jewish self-esteem until we’re left as husks of our former selves. I am a teacher and I see this with my Jewish students: I see young Jews trying to change themselves to be accepted by their peers. I say to them, “Be yourselves. You will find people who accept you. It may not be these people, but you will find people who accept you.”
Jewish adults are no different, by the way. At our core, we all just want to be accepted. We don’t want to be made to feel different, to feel “othered.” We as a community have a huge amount of work to do in addressing the feelings we experience because of how we’re treated. The truth is, none of this has to do with our Jewishness. As I say in my book, hatred is not a Jewish problem, it’s a problem of the non-Jewish world.
Of course, it is our problem if it leads to low self-esteem, violence, and ultimately gas chambers.
It’s a non-Jewish problem that definitely impacts Jews — whether it’s the Holocaust, the Russian and Eastern European pogroms, the Farhud [a 1941 pogrom in Baghdad], the Inquisition, or microaggressions targeting us as individuals. But it’s not a problem that originates in our community. That’s vital to understand because we search for the answer to this question: “Why do people hate us so much?” Unfortunately, there are Jews who find the answer inside themselves as opposed to saying, “Actually, this is their problem even though it impacts me.”
In your book, you talk about going through a period when you wanted to change yourself so you would appear less Jewish.
I used to dye my hair blond. Looking back, I really had internalized the idea that to be blond and, I guess, Aryan-looking was more attractive. There was a period when I even considered getting a nose job.
Of course, there is no such thing as a Jewish nose. However, we are indigenous to a specific land and we married only each other for a long time, so there are physical characteristics common to people from that land.
By the way, we also see those characteristics in many other people from the Mediterranean region. It’s not just Jewish people. Still, there are many Jewish people whose indigeneity is reflected in their physical appearance — whether it’s the color of their skin, their noses, their bodies, their hair, whatever. Just as there are people whose Jewish indigeneity is not reflected in their physical appearance, and they are as Jewish as any other Jews.
As Jews, we encounter standard Euro-centric beauty standards, the way many other racial and ethnic groups in the world do. It’s the framing of Jews as ugly. People say things like “You’re attractive for a Jew!” Or “I didn’t know you were Jewish. Why do you look like that?” All of this seriously impacts our self-esteem and makes some Jewish people want to change how they look.
Non-Jews sometimes respond by saying, “Oh, you Jews can get nose jobs.” It’s like… I need to be put under anesthetic, have someone break my nose and reshape it so I can feel I might be accepted. Then I’m wounded psychologically anyway because I know what I’ve done. No thank you!
I’m very fair-skinned and when I was young and had hair, it was red. All my life people have told me “You don’t look Jewish.” My standard answer has been “If you go to Israel, you’ll see that Jews look all kinds of different ways.” But I have to say — and it’s embarrassing for me to admit this — on some level I’ve had a sense of satisfaction that they thought I didn’t look Jewish.
You shouldn’t be ashamed about that because we live in a world that tells us to be Jewish is to be ugly. That’s what we’re told every time we see the stereotypical physical depiction of Jewish people, especially in hateful, exaggerated caricatures. We don’t name it, we don’t talk about it, but we continue to suffer from it. Sadly, there are no conversations about Jewish people being beautiful, that Jewish features are beautiful.
This despite the fact that there are many Jewish actors in Hollywood, for instance, who are absolutely beautiful people physically speaking.
Indeed. Unfortunately, many are not all that proudly Jewish. Many have had cosmetic surgery. Barbra Streisand was groundbreaking in that she refused to get a nose job. Yet she’s always been considered to be a stunning woman.
She has said the two things she’s very proud of are that she didn’t “fix” her nose and didn’t change her name after she came to Hollywood.
A lot of Jews in Hollywood have not followed Streisand’s lead. They’ve tried to make themselves over in order to “pass.” In my view, many of those folks are dealing with their own internalized anti-Jewishness.
Back in the day, a huge number of Jews in the entertainment industry changed their names, sometimes on the order of the old Jewish movie moguls.
Famously… or infamously… actress Hedy Lamarr, who was a highly successful and popular Austrian-American, not to mention a brilliant inventor, was told by a Hollywood executive that “nobody wants to f**k a Jew, so hide your Jewishness.” These Hollywood executives took part in what we call ethnicity scrubbing. Maybe not all of them, but many were ashamed of their Jewishness.
The good news is that’s changing. I think of Jeff Goldblum, as just one example. His last name hasn’t kept him from being a movie star for decades. Any many of the younger Jewish actors these days are also keeping their original names.
In you book, you talk about the difference between “self-hating Jew,” a term you don’t like, and “Jews who have internalized antisemitism.” What do you see as the difference?
The difference is one of nuance. Self-hatred implies there’s a problem within us and we’ve responded to it. That is not nearly nuanced enough and it’s not necessarily accurate. The concept of internalized anti-Jewishness acknowledges that the problem begins outside of us and we bring it into ourselves.
We have to recognize the nuance. It’s not that we hate ourselves; it’s that we’ve lived in a world that has told us over and over again that to be Jewish is not good, and we have absorbed that message. It’s when we’ve allowed the non-Jewish world to define who we are, and we’ve brought it into ourselves from the outside, like osmosis.
Actually, since I wrote the book I’ve stopped using the term “antisemitism.” It was coined in 1879 by a Jew-hating German named Wilhelm Marr and used as an attempt to legitimize the antipathy toward Jews. In fact, it was inherently racist because it was based on a pseudo-scientific idea that if you spoke a different language or looked different — if you were “the other” — you were biologically inferior.
In her book Antisemitism Here and Now, historian and Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt discussed this. She said she uses “antisemitism” but without the hyphen, because according to her, hyphenating the term implies there’s something called Semitism, which there is not.
I agree with that but I think it’s almost immaterial. If you’re vocalizing it, no one says “anti-hyphen-Semitism.” They say “antisemitism” regardless. While I agree with the sentiment — and for a while, I also wrote “antisemitism” with no hyphen — now I just don’t use it at all.
I do understand that antisemitism has become the word people use, but I think part of Jewish pride is reclaiming our narrative and our experience. Using a word created to justify and legitimize the hatred we experience seems a little off. I use “anti-Jewishness,” “anti-Jewish racism,” “Jew-hate”… a number of different descriptors.
This concludes Part One of our in-depth interview with Ben M. Freeman. Look for Part Two in the next edition of AntisemitismExposed.org.
An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor