Ben M. Freeman’s message to the community: Be loud, be proud, be Jewish

Jewish Federation of Edmonton presented an engaging conversation with author / educator Ben M. Freeman on Feb 9. Before the event Freeman and Canadian Ambassador to Israel Lisa Stadelbauer met with Hillel Edmonton students. (Photo by Matt Levine).

By Matthew Levine

(AJNews) – Jewish Federation of Edmonton hosted Ben M. Freeman, a prominent thought leader in Jewish identity, at the Creative Hive in Edmonton on February 9 for a community conversation about developing Jewish pride as an antidote to antisemitism.

After an introduction from Adam Zepp, Freeman participated in a Q and A style interview. He was born in Scotland and lived in a similar community to Edmonton with about 5000 Jewish people. There, his parents worked hard to build his Jewish identity and he attended the only Jewish school in Scotland. At the same time, he was really struggling with his homosexuality. He eventually realized he had done nothing wrong and learned to be proud of his sexual orientation. “Jews also deserve to feel proud,” says Freeman. “We must reject the shame imposed on us.” This idea is what lead to his first book.

Freeman’s first book – Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People – is centred around the idea that, as Jews, we absorb shame from the non-Jewish world. Furthermore, we must address issues like shame and internalized anti-Judaism in order to build pride. Ben claims that anti-Jewish sentiment is the biggest threat facing Jewish people. He insists that one of the main reasons that young Jewish people are shedding their Zionism is because they do not realize they can be Zionists and still disagree with the Israeli government. Ben continuously emphasizes that we must be authentically who we are, and celebrate that.

Assimilation as the number one enemy. Ben argues that being proudly Jewish was seen as encroaching on universal boundaries in the 19th century. He also brings up the point that we are the only minority group that does not always play themselves in movies, and he insists that we should. He says that intersectionality is key, and that we as Jews are made to feel as if we must choose between being Jewish and our other identities. However, he says that we must embrace our dual identities, and hold on to our Judaism through a Jewish anchor.

What is a Jewish anchor? Ben describes it as an object or action that allows for our individual connection to Judaism. He claims that we work harder to be Jewish in the diaspora than those in Israel because people in Israel are constantly reminded of their Judaism. They get the Jewish holidays off work for example. This is why we must know who we are and live it, using an anchor as a reminder. Ben uses a Kippah as his anchor. This is interesting as he is strictly secular, meaning G-d does not play a role in his beliefs, but he says wearing it grounds him in his Judaism. His partner is also not Jewish so the Kippah works as a reminder for him. He contrasted being marked as Jews with the “Jude” star in the Holocaust, with being proud to be Jewish now, marking himself with a Kippah.

Anti-zionism as a post-holocaust form of Jew hatred. Ben argues that people telling us who we are is completely unacceptable and that we must not let it happen. We have to reject these ideas and find comfort in ourselves. He furthers this point by saying that we must not debate who we are. Ben tells us that if you find yourself inside a space where someone is making you justify your Judaism, you can leave that space or block whoever you need to. You can be a proud zionist and have an interest in social justice, and you can disengage from negative discourse without changing who you are.

Ben leaves us with three main points: Reject Jew-hatred, define our own identity, and we must go on a journey to find our personal Jewish identity. He asks if you have ever spoken the words “I’m Jewish but.” Freeman tells us that as long as we feel physically safe and the issue is comfort, we need to accept who we are and not be afraid to show our Judaism. He wishes to change the phrase “We survived, let’s eat” into “We survived, we thrived, let’s eat” because our commitment to Judaism is what allowed us to thrive and not simply survive.

This event was informative, well-attended, and incredibly thought-provoking. Ben Freeman’s parallels between being gay and Jewish were quite interesting and provided an alternative perspective on Judaism.

 Matthew Levine is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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