Who is Seth Freedman?
Five years ago, many British Zionists asked the question after he became one of the most popular writers on Comment Is Free, the online comment section of the Guardian newspaper. The London native, who had just finished serving in the Israeli army, used the website to document his increasingly antagonistic relationship with the Jewish state. The Guardian’s liberal readers loved him; in 2008 and 2009, when he was publishing up to three pieces a week, each post could generate hundreds of supportive comments. Much of the Jewish community, meanwhile, considered the Guardian the epicenter of Britain’s anti-Israel media, and bristled.
Now Freedman appears to be asking the question himself, albeit mischievously.
His new book, “Dead Cat Bounce,” is fiction, but heavily trades on Freedman’s own biography, and features a picture of him on the front of the British hardback, with a thin black strip over his eyes. Like Freedman, the unnamed anti-hero was brought up in one of London’s poshest neighborhoods, Hampstead Garden Suburb, becomes a broker at age 18 and develops a drug habit. After a stint in the IDF, the protagonist becomes a famous blogger for Comment Is Free, writing the exact columns Freedman did in real life.
The post-modern twist is that in this version, the Freedman character is planted at the Guardian by the Mossad, which wants to exploit his press credentials to spy on the Palestinian resistance.
Is the book a parody? A defense? An apology? Surely not a serious revelation?
“It’s like a schizophrenic voice,” he says in a coffee shop in London, where he has been living since 2011. “I went to the City,” London’s financial district, “as an 18-year-old and got disillusioned, went to Israel and got disillusioned, went to the Guardian and got disillusioned. There is always a second voice. I still remember why I loved drugs and money, being a trader — it’s still inside of me, and I have to get over it. Same with being a combat soldier. This gets the second voice out.”
Nowhere is this internal battle clearer than in the first half of the book, where Freedman launches a sustained attack on the bourgeois values of the community in which he grew up.
As the novel opens, his alter ego is on a downhill spiral, struggling to control his drug habit to appease his girlfriend. Without her, he believes, his parents will suspend his generous financial allowance.
Like his crowd of friends in “The Suburb,” as the heavily Jewish neighborhood is known, he is shallow and arrogant. Those living a less affluent life are referred to as the “NOCD crowd: Not Our Class, Dear.” The financial traders throw their money around on drugs, drinks and cars, swearing like only Brits can and using the “North London Ramp” — the Jewish grapevine — to get a share price moving. They are openly racist about the “Tony McCoys” — in Cockney rhyming slang, “goys.” Explains the narrator, “I don’t like goyim any more than [my father] does, and that’s both an ideology and a lifestyle choice in itself.”
Residents of the Suburb — generally regarded as a genteel kind of place — may dispute the ugly depiction of their area, but Freedman is adamant that this is the environment in which he grew up.
The racism, he says, is “just everywhere, but not overt. They’re cleverer than that.
“Why is the first question always, ‘Is she Jewish?’ It’s racism. Everyone’s a shvartze, a yok,” he says, using disparaging Yiddish terms for black people and non-Jews.
The community’s financial whizzes may appear polished, but within their firms, he contends, many are “swearing and racist.”
They are interested only in “what’s good for the Jews. I struggle with that. You can’t put one race or religion above another. You can’t say that my politics are driven by what’s best for the Jews and justify that to the outside world.”
When it comes to career choices, he alleges that the neighborhood is highly conformist, with “lots of talent but no flair. It’s so formulaic and rigid.” He is similarly critical of those who send their children to top private schools, which he calls “elitist” and “divisive” because students do not meet a cross-section of society. He himself went to Europe’s largest Jewish high school, JFS, which he has in the past criticized as “a model of exclusive, damaging social homogeneity.
‘If Israel wants more suicide bombers, carry on doing what you’re doing’
And yet, Freedman today lives in Belsize Park, another expensive, heavily Jewish neighborhood not entirely dissimilar to the one for which he expresses such distaste. Until a couple of months ago, he was working back in the City, in the commodities market. Clearly, something within him is still attracted to the lifestyle of which he professes to disapprove.
Freedman is open about what this may be: “I find the ostentatious Suburb repulsive, but a side of me loves it,” he says.
His parents tried to dissuade him from becoming a broker — it’s too money-driven — but at 18, the pound signs and wild lifestyle were too hard to resist.
“I could also have done the drugs at university,” he adds, “but here there was more money.”
In the UK, enjoying a comfortable material life while espousing political views that disapprove of wealth is often derisively characterized as “champagne socialism.” If there is an irony there, though, Freedman seems either unaware or entirely comfortable with it. He insists that it is possible to live the Suburb lifestyle while maintaining a critical distance from the attitudes of his neighbors.
“You can daven with these people without buying into the politics of it,” he says, adding that he is different from the average Suburb resident: “I resisted the Suburb script of going to be a corporate lawyer, and making money so I can send my kids to UCS,” a leading private school.
There are aspects of a suburban upbringing of which he does approve. One is family; his parents were an enormous influence on him, particularly politically. In the novel, the parents are absent because Freedman wanted to avoid skewering family life. The book also never attacks religion. Not only does he daven every day, “I wouldn’t be able to write books saying I don’t agree with kashrut, or with women and men sitting separately in shul. I’m uncomfortable with that.”
After Freedman developed his drug habit, while working in the City, he continued going to synagogue every week, chanted haftorah and went to his parents’ for Friday night dinner.
“I could be a hedonist the rest of the time,” he said. “It didn’t feel like a stretch. I was compartmentalizing.”
In the novel, this druggie lifestyle spirals out of the alter ego’s control when he causes a car crash, is swindled out money and discovers that his non-Jewish fling is pregnant. As for so many lost Diaspora youth, an escape to Israel is the solution. Two Mossad agents offer to make his problems go away, sending him to the IDF — where for once, he thrives — and ultimately moving him into the intelligence service’s operations, where he becomes bored and jaded.
Those on the anti-Zionist left ‘dispose with rationality. I can’t be aligned to them any more than with settlers’
In reality, Freedman was 24 when he decided to fight for Israel. The experience was not an entirely happy one. Freedman’s IDF service, between 2004 and 2006, in a combat unit stationed in the West Bank, moved him to the far-left of the Israeli political map. Freedman believes he did not act immorally, but he was disillusioned with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Once he was released, he started exploring the West Bank and documenting his experiences for Comment Is Free. The aim, he says, was not to write straight political pieces.
“I’m a total amateur when it comes to how politics work,” he says. “I told people what it feels like to go to a protest, or to get gassed . . . It felt like a diary.”
For the editors at the left-wing website, he was a good find: Not only did he have the “right” politics, he could speak with authority as a former IDF soldier — and, of course, as a Jew. Soon he was a hit, and for a while practically a cult figure. He says he enjoyed the attention — “like all writers” — and was not disturbed by the critical reaction of many British Jews.
“It was no one who knows me personally,” he says.
Among those who did, many “quietly” supported him, though he contends that the majority of young British Jews are simply indifferent to Israel.
“They are indifferent in general,” he explains. “I know lots of bright kids who have no idea about politics. In the stock market, anything that didn’t have an immediate impact on share price is seen as a waste of time. Israel fell into that.”
On one count, he claims his critics got him wrong: He has never been an anti-Zionist.
“I 100 percent believe in the Jewish right to live in Israel and to pray at our holy sites,” he says. “If someone says we should not be afforded that right, that is to get into bed with people who say a one-state solution is realistic. It’s insanity.”
His politics were also more fluid than many believed.
“You’ve got to be able to change your mind,” he says. “I could go out with ISM [the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group] one day, thought I quite liked what they stand for, then berate them.”
Today he talks about the ISM with derision.
“They think they’re in a James Bond film. They won’t tell you their real names,” he says.
It is symptomatic of the way his relationship with the anti-Zionist far-left broke down as he became concerned about what he perceived as the movement’s lack of intellectual honesty. Two incidents stand out. In one, he asked a foreign volunteer in Hebron what she would do if she encountered a Palestinian about to shoot an Israeli child. After initially denying such a scenario was possible, she said she would not defend the child.
In the area where Freedman grew up, ‘Why is the first question always, “Is she Jewish?” It’s racism’
“It was obscene,” Freedman says.
In the second, Freedman wrote that protesters in the Palestinian village of Bil’in were wrong to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, as it would inevitably provoke them.
His usual supporters attacked him, arguing that the protest was not violent, and that the protesters could not be stopped.
“If they say rock throwing isn’t violent, they’ve lost it,” he says. “The ISM says they’re not in the position to tell the Palestinians how to behave, but they’re watching them march into the abyss.”
Looking back, he says that these kinds of far-left circles “dispose with rationality. I can’t be aligned to them any more than with settlers.”
This does not mean that he is not firmly on the left.
“If Israel wants more suicide bombers, carry on doing what you’re doing,” he says. “All I know is that if you are growing up in a refugee camp, and your only experience of Israelis and Jews is down the barrel of a gun, you can’t stop and think about why you’re [acting violently]. You’ll be like I was, hot-headed, and want to go off and fight.”
But his basic sympathy for Israel puts him at odds with many pro-Palestinian activists, and ultimately hurt his relationship with Comment Is Free. In May 2010, following the Gaza flotilla incident, he wrote a piece arguing that the IDF had no choice but to respond with force when faced with violent activists.
“The Guardian said they would not publish it straight away. It was unheard of,” says Freedman. “They said it was sensitive and that it was unclear whether any Brits were involved. It was nonsense.
“I threatened to take the piece elsewhere and say I’d been censored, so they published it.”
When Freedman was taken to the Press Complaints Commission over the piece by a private individual who claimed that he’d been misleading, particularly in suggesting that the activists on the flotilla had initiated the violence, the Guardian was forced to defend him.
“I was cleared on everything, but it soured my relationship” with Comment Is Free, he says. “They kept on taking my pieces, but the atmosphere had changed, or maybe I just felt it changed. The veil lifted a bit. The number of pieces I wrote for them collapsed.”
Last year, Freedman returned to the UK, following his girlfriend, a human rights lawyer, whom he married in December. But controversy followed him. For several months he worked at ICIS Heren, which sets the price of gas nationally. In September, he noticed irregularities in trading that led him to believe that the price of gas was being manipulated, including by the large power companies. Freedman took the case to the Guardian, as well as to the Financial Services Authority, which launched an investigation, catapulting Freedman into the headlines and sparking parliamentary debate. For several days, he was advised not to go home for his own safety, and after six weeks of unpaid leave, he was dismissed from the company.
“I don’t want to look for scandals,” says Freedman. “This was bigger than me — it was never about me after the first day. It was a boil waiting to be lanced. I just didn’t know it. It struck a chord because the financial markets are already hate figures.”
At the end of his novel, his alter ego comes into a sticky situation, possibly dying (a twist a shrink might have some fun with).
If Freedman ever fancies extricating the character and writing a sequel, his experience as a heroic whistleblower provides a completely new angle. The complex question of “Who is Seth Freedman?” has plenty of mileage in it yet.