An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor
Ben M. Freeman is a thinker, educator, and writer who focuses on Jewish identity, Jew-hatred, and the Holocaust. Freeman — a citizen of the United Kingdom who was 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 the 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 in the works, and he plans to write a third volume in a trilogy.
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.”
PART ONE of the interview with Ben M. Freeman appeared in the most recent edition of AntisemitismExposed.org. To read it, click here. The following is the second and final part of the interview.
I’d like to get your perspective on Jewish humor and Jewish comedians — primarily in America, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. Traditionally, Jews have played an enormous role in American comedy, both behind and in front of the camera.
Back in the era of people like Myron Cohen, Shecky Greene, Jackie Mason, and many others, Jewish comedians frequently made fun of Jews and Jewish culture. In retrospect, I wonder whether the mostly non-Jewish audiences were laughing with us or at us?
I think by and large non-Jews were laughing at us. It’s absolutely true that Jewish humor is famous and outstanding. We’re a very funny people. One of the ways Jews have been accepted in American culture, especially in Hollywood, has been through humor.
[Novelist, essayist, and professor of literature] Dara Horn has written about dead Jews being acceptable, while living Jews not so much. We might say the same thing about funny Jews. Funny Jews are also acceptable. Why? Because both dead Jews and funny Jews are not perceived as dangerous to the non-Jewish world. A Jew telling jokes to a non-Jewish audience, making fun of Jewish people and “Jew-isms,” is nonthreatening. It’s a way for Jews to gain an acceptance of sorts.
I admit this issue is complex, and we need to make judgments on a case-by-case basis. However, I do think many Jewish comedians have utilized serious anti-Jewish tropes to make a career in the non-Jewish world.
Can you give an example?
I absolutely loved Joan Rivers, but she sometimes would say things like, “I’m Jewish… I don’t exercise. If God wanted us to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor.”
If a non-Jew said that, the Jewish community would be up in arms. Can you give another example?
Even Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm… there was a scene where he was wearing a wig and someone said to him, “Oh, you look good. It hides your Jew.”
I recall another scene on Curb Your Enthusiasm — a show I loved, by the way — where Larry and his father, played by the old-time Jewish comic Shelley Berman, visit Larry’s mother’s gravestone. To his dismay, Larry discovers that one of the words on it is misspelled. Larry’s father explains that each letter cost $50, so he deliberately left out one letter to save the money. The stereotypical cheap Jew.
We need to recognize that some of the ways even our comedy heroes have represented themselves and our people have reinforced negative stereotypes. Making fun of how we look, reinforcing the notion that we’re all wealthy, that we’re money-grubbing and cheap… non-Jews find that humor funny. They get and absorb those stereotypes. Again, when the tropes are used with humor, Jews don’t seem threatening.
On the other hand, having a sense of humor has been one of the great survival techniques of the Jewish people.
That’s true. Humor has been a major coping mechanism for Jews. But we need to look closely at the nuances involved in an objective, emotionless way. We need to take a step back from these performers, whom we admire, and analyze what the impact of their words has been.
Let’s move on to the subject of Zionism and Israel. I’m of an age where I remember when the movie Exodus came out in 1960. The movie filled Jews with an enormous sense of pride. That has turned around for a lot of Jews. Unfortunately, Israel and Zionism have become a source of shame for some of our people. What’s your take on all that?
It’s important to recognize that we are not a monolith. Not all Jews have to feel the same way about every issue. We’re a diverse group, so we’re going to have disagreements. That said, I think disagreeing with the fact that Israel has a right to exist is one of the clearest examples of anti-Jewishness today, whether by non-Jews or Jews themselves.
Zionism is a political movement that formed at the end of the 19th century based on the context of the time. Back then, Europe was all about nation-state building, and that’s what Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, wanted for the Jews. However, to ignore the two millennia of Jewish history that preceded Herzl is intellectually dishonest. Read Psalm 137 in the Book of Samuel.
Ed. note: Psalm 137 begins with the following…
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
We Jews have always been obsessed with returning to our indigenous homeland. It has been a fundamental aspect of our experience and identity ever since we were expelled in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, right up until 1948, when the rebirth of the modern Jewish state took place.
You certainly can disagree with Israeli government policies, just as you would disagree with any government’s policies. But the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist is anti-Jewish. For one thing, it’s anti-Jewish because it’s stripping us of our indigeneity, our indigenous rights, and treating us with a double standard.
When people excoriate Israel for “stealing” the Palestinians’ land, I think about American history. Jews have a solid, verifiable claim to the land; white Americans had no claim to the American continent… zero. By the way, that didn’t prevent them from committing mass murder and displacement against Native Americans.
Right. The same folks who call for the destruction of the Jewish state are calling for the creation of a Palestinian state. Clearly, they are not against nation-state building in general; it’s just the Jewish state they’re opposed to. Unfortunately, some Jews have adopted that position.
Most people chart the origins of anti-Zionism with the Soviet Union, the New Left, and the Arab world. They’re certainly correct with regard to the Soviet Union. Anti-Zionism was an official policy of that nation.
Regarding the New Left, its adherents have switched their focus from the global workers struggle to decolonization. They started framing Israel as a colonizer. Today, if those people want to continue their ties to the Left, they’re forced to accept the false characterization of the Jewish state. The same is true for the Arab world: They demonize Israel as an alien, colonial power.
I remember meeting someone and when the topic of Israel somehow came up, she said, “My God, you sound like a Zionist!” I told her, “Well, I am a Zionist.” She immediately called me a racist and a fascist. She didn’t even know me!
Of course, Israel is going to be targeted in this way because Jews are always targeted. It’s a continuation of a longstanding pattern. We have 2,000 years of Jew-hate that has played a foundational role in building many non-Jewish ideologies.
Now there is a Jewish state, and those 2,000 years of hateful tropes are being applied to Israel as the “collective Jew.” And again, that’s not to say we can’t criticize Israel. We can criticize Israel in the way you would any other country, but that’s not what’s happening. We have to be clear about that.
One more thing, while I’ve mentioned the three sources that gave rise to anti-Zionism, if we go even further back before the Holocaust, there were the Bundists, who were against the creation of a modern Jewish state.
Can you explain who the Bundists were?
They were members of a late 19th and early 20th century Jewish secular, socialist labor movement — the Bund — in what was then the Russian Empire. It included Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Belarus, where most of the world’s Jews lived at the time.
Why did they oppose creating a Jewish state?
They were desperate to be accepted in European countries. In my view, they were also suffering from internalized anti-Jewishness. Bundists were emphatic that they wanted to stay in Europe and be Europeans, but they never achieved the acceptance they sought. In essence, they were rejecting an inherent, core aspect of themselves: the peoplehood of the Jews.
I first learned about the Holocaust in Hebrew school at a very young age, and I’ve been haunted by it ever since. I don’t think I’m alone in this. We need to educate young Jews about the Holocaust, but how can we do it without leaving them traumatized and emotionally scarred?
That’s a very good question. Before we teach about the Holocaust, we must make sure young Jews have a strong Jewish identity, that they understand what Jewishness and Judaism mean, that they’re proud of being Jews.
It goes without saying that we cannot and should not avoid teaching about the Holocaust, but it has to be done sensibly and appropriately. It has to be done in the context of Jewish history. You can’t expect young Jews to have a proud, positive Jewish identity if the singular focus of Jewish education is the Nazi extermination of six million of our people and an entire European Jewish culture.
That would just make young Jews afraid. It would make many of them want to distance themselves from Judaism and Jewishness because they’d decide, “This is not something that brings good things to me. This is something that brings pain, murder, and destruction. I don’t want to be a part of that.”
We have to make sure that young Jews — indeed, Jews of all ages — have a grounded Jewish identity. It’s what I call a Jewish anchor. They need to have an anchor that holds them fast to their Jewishness, and that anchor is created through education and Jewish practice.
How do you evaluate our attempts to educate Jewish young people so far? Many young Jews abandon Judaism and Jewishness once they’re had their bar or bat mitzvah.
Well, we’ve failed. For a people so obsessed with education, we’ve failed to educate. And this is not to demonize those who came before us and are the ones who failed. They were responding to trauma, right? The trauma of the Shoah, the trauma of trying to process what has happened to Jews for millennia.
Now we have an opportunity to regroup, to rethink, to discuss Jewish education with a fresh eye. Being Jewish is special: We’re part of something that has existed for thousands of years. Many young Jews see being a Jew as solely a religious thing, as opposed to being something you’re inherently a part of — whether you like it or not — because it’s your ethnicity and your ancestry.
When I was in the fifth or sixth grade — this was more than 60 years ago — a classmate of mine came up to me on the playground and asked, “How come the Jews didn’t fight back against the Nazis?” I remember feeling great shame when he said that; it brought up the antisemitic trope that Jews are cowardly and don’t fight. Of course, I now realize he didn’t understand what the Nazi regime was like or that Jews had 2,000 years of being powerless behind them.
The myth that we went like lambs to the slaughter isn’t true. We did fight as best we could under horrific circumstances. That’s the amazing thing. The Jews were under crushing pressure, yet there were Jewish uprisings in the Warsaw ghetto, in the Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps, in other places. During the Shoah, whether by wielding a small number of clandestine arms against the massively armed Nazis, or finding scraps of metal to make a menorah and lighting Shabbat candles, they were forms of resistance.
So, too, was reciting the Kaddish on the way to the gas chambers. Think about it! Saying this ancient prayer in Aramaic to mourn Jewish death for yourself while you walked to the gas chambers — that was an act of resistance. It was a massive f- -k you to the Nazis.
We have been committed to Jewishness for thousands of years. We have not let it be destroyed. We have not let it be taken away from us. Our commitment is what has sustained us. Our survival is not an accident.
What does Jewish pride mean to you?
It’s Jewish self-esteem, Jewish confidence, Jewish love. It is not Jewish supremacy, even though some non-Jews try to frame it like that. It’s really just knowing who you are, where you come from, and being proud of that. That’s the beauty of it. I’m so happy my book helped start a movement that includes many different expressions of Jewish pride.
I have my own ways of expressing my Jewish pride, but there are Jews in different places who relate to it differently. That’s perfectly fine because there are different aspects of Jewishness and Judaism. As I’ve said, there is diversity among our people. Jewish pride is not about creating a monolith, it’s about creating many expressions of Jewish self-esteem. For example, one way I show my Jewish pride is by wearing a kippah every day.
Do you get any odd reactions in Hong Kong about that?
I don’t think most people know what it is. They think I’m just wearing a very small hat [laughs]. It’s nice to be able to leave my apartment wearing my kippah and know that most people don’t care.
What is your vision for creating Jewish pride?
It has to be multigenerational. It must encapsulate all Jewish people… the diversity of the Jewish world. And it must be sustainable, something that continues. The way we achieve that is by inspiring, educating, and empowering Jews all over the world.
I often think about what it means to be a Jewish leader. To me, leadership is about creating more leaders, and that’s what Jewish pride is meant to do. It’s meant to create Jews all over the world who are leaders, who can then educate and inspire others. It’s not about us as individuals; it’s about the continuation of the Jewish people. Judaism and Jewishness don’t belong to us; we’re simply their caretakers to ensure they live on in the future.
This concludes our interview with Ben M. Freeman. We thank him for sharing his knowledge and insights. Look for another in-depth interview on the subject of antisemitism in the next edition of AntisemitismExposed.org.