April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

We must take up the space that is owed to us at this time, at this moment when we are experiencing so much horror all over the world.

In the last four weeks, I, like the vast majority of the Jewish people, have gone through hell.

I can say with certainty that the week following October 7 was the worst of my life. If I wasn’t trying to provide pride and strength to Jews online I was crying or I was catatonic. I couldn’t clean my apartment or do my laundry. I was deep in grief. It was real grief, paralyzing grief. It was a grief I have never felt before.

During this time, I thought deeply about my Jewish identity and my relationship to the Jewish people. I repeated our catchphrases such as Am Yisrael chai and am echad, lev echad (one people, one heart) like a mantra. I was moved to tears by the immediate jump to action by Jews in the diaspora to donate money, send planes full of resources, and support our brothers and sisters in Israel. We saw a similar incredible coming together by Israelis, who just weeks before had been at each other’s throats over politics. Am Yisrael really is a family.

During this time, I have also thought a lot about my non-Jewish relationships. These friendships have developed over the course of 20 years. They have witnessed and been a part of the evolution of my Jewish identity.

While at university I wanted to be a “good” Jew. I didn’t want my friends to see me as different. I was proud of being Jewish on one level, but on the other I didn’t want to be defined as anything that would distance me from my friends. So, I diminished it. I became “Jewish, but…”

Then when I became involved in the fight against antisemitic British politician Jeremy Corbyn, these friends saw the evolution of my Jewish identity. Since then they have seen me embrace my Jewishness as a source of pride and never shame. They experienced the boundaries I put in place regarding things I will or won’t discuss or debate. I shared our specificity with them and invited them to experience Jewish civilization by teaching them about our customs and cultures.

 

Since October 7 My World Has Changed

The entire Jewish world has changed. Not just because of the horrific events in Israel but because of the Jew-hate we have seen storm around us in the diaspora. But I still want to maintain the non-Jewish relationships that I have built over the last two decades. Some friends I met at university have been let go. One in particular, despite being one of my closest friends for over 16 years, was silent after October 7. He had stayed with my family. He was welcomed into my Israeli home. But still, he was silent. And his silence was deafening.

But for those who have shown support and love over the last awful four weeks. How do I proceed with them? Even though we love each other, I still have to be mindful of how I move forward. Not because they have done anything wrong. They may be naive in some areas, but that is no crime. Rather, I have to ensure that I am prioritizing my heart and my soul at this awful time.

And it is how I have decided to proceed, and it is how I think all Jews should proceed. We must protect ourselves. We must put down or reinforce boundaries about things we will and will not discuss. We must not engage in debates regarding our humanity. If our friends try to engage in conversations about ceasefires or proportionality then end those conversations swiftly. I would also, personally, reconsider your friendship with someone who thinks those are appropriate conversations to have with you at this moment.

Some of us will want a break from the endless cycle of horror we are trapped in and will want to discuss anything else. Others also consumed by the pain will want to express it. However you respond, your non-Jewish friends should support you. This is about you.

Take up space and tell them what you need so they are clear on how to support you. Ask them to give you that space to discuss—or not—your feelings and your thoughts. And although their words of comfort and love can be appreciated, this is not about them. These conversations should be rooted in what you need and how they will help you get through another day.

When asked how we are, many of our responses are polite. We are asked: “How are you?” Many of us reply: “Oh, I am fine,” even when we are not.

During this time, we should not be polite. We should take up the space which is ours to claim.

When friends have asked how I am, I have told them. I have refused to sugarcoat anything—not that they would want me to—but I am in pain and I have told them that I am in pain. They know the knots my stomach has been in since that awful Shabbat morning, how my physical and mental health has been strained as I advocate for my people online and during my speaking tour that took me across North America the week after October 7. They understand that my world has changed.

I wish it hadn’t. They wish it hadn’t. But it has. I, a Holocaust educator, who has studied the brutalization of the Jews as history, has witnessed a Holocaust-level massacre in Israel. They know that my physical safety in London, especially as a visible Jew, has been greatly compromised. They love me and they understand—or try to understand—my reality and they wish to support me.

Again, we must take up the space that is owed to us at this time, at this moment when we are experiencing so much horror all over the world.

A note on those with particularly progressive friends who advocate for other communities. If they don’t also advocate for Jews; if they gaslight you; if they minimize your experience or diminish you, they are not your friends. Real friends want to love and support. They want to be there for you, regardless of how much they understand or not. Do not accept scraps. If your non-Jewish friends are ignoring the plight of your people, they are not worthy of your friendship.

 

What We Jews Need to Understand Is That We Are Our Priority

It is not our job to make anyone else feel more comfortable with our truth and experience. I will not make room for the thoughts and feelings of my non-Jewish friends. It is not that I don’t care about them, but at this moment, when my bandwidth is so limited, they are not my priority. I am my priority. The Jews and our grief is our priority.

We must be allowed to center ourselves on our own experiences. We have suffered a Holocaust. We have suffered pain of a greater magnitude than most of us have ever experienced before. We must be able to process it. We must be able to grieve.

It is the job of our non-Jewish friends to support us in that process.


Founder of the modern Jewish Pride movement, Ben M. Freeman is the author of “Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People” and “Reclaiming our Story: The Pursuit of Jewish Pride.” A Holocaust scholar for over fifteen years, Ben came to prominence during the Corbyn Labour Jew-hate crisis in the UK and quickly became one of his generation’s leading Jewish thinkers and voices against Jew-hate.

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