Conversation with local leader in Jewish community about far right

News 6 interviews Ben Friedman of Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando

By Donovan Myrie - Special Projects Producer

In our occasional Q&A series, we reprint selected portions of interviews we feel will be of interest to our audience.

For our recent story "Hidden hate in clothing: Decoding the symbols and the brands," we interviewed Ben Friedman, the director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando.

WKMG: What exactly does your job encompass?

Friedman: In that capacity I administer what's called the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is a committee of the Federation that represents the Jewish community as a whole in advocacy, political affairs, government outreach and interfaith engagement.

WKMG: How big is the Jewish community in Orlando?

Friedman: That's a great question and that's something that is often difficult to determine because a lot of that is based on what is Central Florida. We include Orlando and Seminole and Orange counties. When necessary, we reach out as far as we need to. I think we've estimated in the 35,000 range.

WKMG: We're talking about some of the clothing that Amazon has on its site that might be deemed offensive to not just the Jewish community but to many other people. So my first question comes in two parts. Are you surprised that hate clothing is available online from Amazon? And do you think Amazon can keep up with all the products that they offer?

Friedman: I am not surprised that you can find articles of clothing like this on Amazon because Amazon is enormous. They have millions of products. So it's not surprising something like this slips in. It's disappointing that it's unsurprising; it's a reflection of the world that we live in. Any particular instance is disheartening but unsurprising.

I'm not surprised that Amazon has a hard time keeping up with this because of the sheer volume of the products that they deal with. I don't know what Amazon's policies are for finding and taking down this material, so I can't assign blame to them for its existence. I only hope that when alerted to it that Amazon responds quickly to remove it.

WKMG: We have an idea of what the Jewish community feels are messages of hate and hate rhetoric. What defines hate rhetoric or hate symbolism toward your community?

Friedman: I don't necessarily know that everybody defines it the same way. I think there is certainly a fine line between art and history and present-day hate. There are certain images and symbols which are appropriate to use in certain ways and inappropriate to use in other ways. So say for instance if you are using some sort of Nazi imagery as part of history or as part of how art plays into history, then that's appropriate. If you're using it to promulgate the beliefs behind that symbolism in today's society, that's not appropriate.

WKMG: And even Germany itself has done its best to distance itself from its Nazi history.

Friedman: I think it's important to recognize that while Germany has made an effort to distance itself from that ideology, they have not tried to hide from their history. For instance, in Germany, it's actually illegal to claim that the Holocaust never happened because they actually have put a considerable amount of effort into educating people so that it doesn't happen again. I think it's fair to credit them with making sure that history stays at the forefront of their education appropriately.

WKMG: Unfortunately they still have this neo-Nazi uprising and culture. It’s somewhat prevalent in Europe; do we see it a lot here?

Friedman: So there's no doubt in my mind that there's been an increase in white supremacists and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the last couple of years. I think part of that has been that those feelings have always existed and that they are not necessarily new feelings. It's just that the people who harbor those feelings are suddenly emboldened to be public with them in a way that they didn't used to be.

WKMG: Do you think the internet has a lot to do with that in the sense that messages can now be put forth anonymously and spread far and wide? What do you think about technology and this idea of the digital age of pushing this idealism of neo-Nazis and the far right?

Friedman: That's a fair point. I think that part of what has enabled the spread of hate rhetoric is probably that the internet is so ubiquitous today and that people don't have to say hateful things face to face where they otherwise might be unwilling to. On the internet, you can be a nameless, faceless commentator and spread hate without any fear of repercussions.

WKMG: One of the items offered on Amazon is the Reinhard Heydrich SS uniform. Why is that so offensive to the Jewish community?

Friedman: The reason why an SS uniform is so offensive to the Jewish community is that it carries with it a weight of veneration that there's really no reason why something like that would be publicly available unless it was in support of that ideology. People don't dress up as those characters for fun. People don't dress up as Nazis for Halloween. So unless you're using it in artistic ways, the only conclusion to draw from that is people are honoring this Nazi.

WKMG: In the sense like worshipping him?

Friedman: Yeah absolutely.

WKMG: Were you aware of this idea of Nazi fashion? Thor Steinar, which is a brand that we spoke about? Nazi symbolism? Were you aware of a lot of that?

Friedman: Absolutely. We've always known about the code words that white supremacists and neo-Nazis use. What is sometimes difficult to keep up with is that they often change once they're discovered. So the community will come up with a new code word and sometimes it takes a while to figure out what that is.

WKMG: Thor Steinar is a clothing company that supports neo-Nazis and the far right. Are you surprised that Amazon has Thor Steinar clothes?

Friedman: It goes back to what I said earlier about Amazon. I'm not surprised that anything in particular is on Amazon because their market is so enormous and unwieldy by its nature. I would be disappointed if after discovering this or after being alerted to it, that Amazon continued to allow their platform to be commandeered by these people who profit off of hate.

WKMG: One last question: We talked a bit about first the First Amendment vs. hate speech. Sum this up from the position that you're in and the seat that you're sitting in.

Friedman: We strongly believe in the First Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And there's no doubt that the clothing that someone wears is included in and protected by the First Amendment's freedom of expression. Freedom of expression does not mean that you have the right to use any particular marketplace like Amazon to sell those products. So while the First Amendment protects your right to create those shirts and it protects your rights to purchase and wear those shirts, it does not guarantee you the right to access a particular venue to sell those shirts to the public. And that's an important distinction to make.

WKMG: Anything else you'd like to add?

Friedman: An organization like the Jewish Federation and, more specifically, the Jewish Community Relations Council, does its best to respond to incidents of hate and anti-Semitism in the community and to be effective at that. We need people to feel comfortable reporting those incidents. So when someone experiences anti-Semitism or hate of any kind, they need to feel comfortable reaching out to authorities, reaching out to groups like ours to report that so that we can help be part of the response.

WKMG: If Amazon doesn't take down these items, as a representative of the Jewish community or in your role as a leader in the Jewish community, would you reach out to them?

Friedman: It will be very disappointing if after being alerted of the existence of some of these products, Amazon doesn't make an effort to take them down because they are so offensive in nature. I would certainly let them know that.

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