Ben Freeman says it’s time for Jews to reclaim our story

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Ben Freeman says it’s time for Jews to reclaim our story

The author's new book is a powerful look at the impact of internalised anti-Jewishness

When Ben Freeman was a young gay teenager, he was full of so much internalised hatred about his sexuality that he would self-harm. Gradually, he began to realise that the negative feelings he had about being gay weren’t his issue but that of the outside world.

Coming to terms with the realisation that he’d internalised the hatred of others helped him heal. And now he wants to use the lessons he learned to help his fellow Jews to start loving ourselves.

“Every community has a version of this, where we’ve internalised the things the outside world tells us about ourselves,” he says. “And we need to start talking about this internalised hatred because it does exist.”

Ben is a Glasgow born Holocaust educator whose first book was about Jewish Pride. When it came out, he realised one of the major problems with people feeling Jewish Pride was the complicated feelings they’d internalised about Jews and his second book, Reclaiming our Story, was born.

He’s leading by an example. Although he considers himself secular, he wears a tartan kippah and a large Magen David. In the four months he’s been living in London, since moving to the capital from Hong Kong where he was teaching, he’s experienced antisemitism several times, with strangers calling him a ‘dirty Jew’. But that external hate won’t change who he is.

“I am not going to allow racists to diminish who I am and what I wear,” he says, defiantly.

Ben started writing about antisemitism on social media during the Corbyn years. He saw Jews willing to stand up for themselves and that inspired him. But he also saw Jewish people happy to be tokenised for being pro-Corbyn and anti-Zionist and he was intrigued by them and the way there have always been Jews attempting to be the ‘good Jews’, palatable in the non-Jewish world. And he saw how it has almost always ended up badly for them.

“In my book I recognise three main manifestations of this phenomena of internalised Jewish hatred: diminishment, denial and deployment,” he says. “I would find myself doing that diminishing – ‘I’m a Zionist but….’ or ‘I am Jewish but…’ I wanted to be a good Jew, I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was someone who had a strong Zionist Jewish upbringing, who worked for a Jewish organisation but I still felt I needed to make myself, my Judaism, smaller in order to be accepted.”

Denial is the next step on; attempting to deny elements of one’s Judaism or even converting. While deployment takes this internalised hatred – what some call self-hating Jews – to another level, it is aimed at those who use their Jewish identity to make themselves the ‘good Jew’ – who point to all the rest of us as the ‘bad Jew’.

“It is not enough to simply call them evil, because they are experiencing a phenomenon,” says Ben. “I am not here to excuse them; they are dangerous and we should fight against what they say. But we should also fight against what causes them to be like that. That is why we need to educate with pride.”

Ben’s book looks at the story of those who tried to be the ‘good Jew’ through a historical lens; from the Jews who converted to Christianity in the Middle Ages to the Yevsektsiya in Bolshevik Russia who closed down Yiddish newspapers, burnt Jewish community centres and attacked rabbis. He looks at how the cosmetic nose job was first popularised by a German Jew in the 1920s and how the pre-World War Two German community had done more than any other to assimilate; but in every instance the fact that these people were Jews, and should be punished or even killed as Jews, did not make up for them behaving like the ‘good Jew’.

“If we look at the German Jewish experience with empathy, we see a people who really worked very hard to be accepted; they even created a new form of Judaism and some converted to Christianity, but they were still persecuted and murdered,” says Ben. “The reality is that changing yourself doesn’t make you more palatable. A Jew is a Jew to the person who hates you.”

The book features several testimonies from people who had fallen down that hole; anti-Zionists and Corbynistas who allowed themselves to be used as the token Jew for Jew hatred, but who have come out the other side and are learning the pride Ben wants us all to feel.

“When I was that kid hurting myself in my bathroom at home because of internalised homophobia I realised that I was being punished for a crime I had not committed; I had not done anything wrong,” says Ben. “It was the prejudice I was experiencing that was wrong.

“Other communities are ahead of we Jews in this; they are realising that they need to take pride in who they are and stop trying to make themselves something they are not. We can’t circumvent Jew hate; attempting to diminishes us.

“I want others to see that we should stop with the shame. And not being ashamed is not enough; it is time for us to be proud of who we are.”

Reclaiming Our Story; The Pursuit of Jewish Pride by Ben M Freeman is out now

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