Blake Flayton started campaigning for Democrats when he was still a student at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. In 2016, he knocked on doors for Hillary Clinton, and in 2018, he worked for local Democratic candidates Aaron Lieberman and Kelly Butler. He represented his school at the High School Democrats of America Summit in Washington, D.C., where he fell in love with the city and decided George Washington University would be a perfect fit for a political future.
Growing up in Scottsdale, he followed “the usual routine” for a Jewish kid in Greater Phoenix — attending Temple Chai’s preschool and Hebrew school followed by classes at Hebrew High. His Jewish identity is essential to him, and that, coupled with his passion for Democratic politics, helped him understand his place in the world.
But at GW he became painfully aware that his insistence on wearing his Jewishness openly occasionally clashed with the preconceptions of some of the more extremist elements of his progressive coalition. The tendency to flirt with anti-Zionist ideas and anti-Semitic tropes wasn’t the exclusive domain of Republicans as he once thought.
Eventually the dissonance led to frustration and became the impetus for a burgeoning writing career.
After emailing his thoughts on the anti-Semitism he experienced to then-New York Times columnist Bari Weiss one night on a whim, she encouraged him to write his first column for the paper in late 2019.
Now 20, he’s also written for Jewish publications such as Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, The Forward and Tablet Magazine. In December he was part of a Zoom webinar panel hosted by Hillel at Home initiative about anti-Semitism on college campuses. It was moderated by Weiss.
While the coronavirus pandemic ensures that his college classes will continue to be virtual next semester, Flayton is taking the opportunity to move to Brooklyn, New York, where he hopes to learn about minority communities living side by side, write and keep his hand in progressive politics where he hopes his voice will make a difference.
How much of your time do you spend on politics?
My freshman and sophomore year of college were so politically active — every single weekend was spent at a protest, at a rally, at an event. I did a lot of work for the [Elizabeth] Warren campaign. I was very active in protesting the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. A lot of different political opportunities presented themselves freshman year, and I got really involved in progressive liberal circles and was very active on social media advocating for progressive policies.
In 2020, I was hired as a senior organizing fellow for the Jewish Democratic Council of America. From June to November, I was working upwards of three to four hours a day making calls for Mark Kelly in Arizona and Joe Biden. I was very committed to seeing Democrats win, and I still am very committed to Democratic politics.
What happened to give you pause about campus political work?
The breaking point was an incident on campus where a girl in a dorm room was caught on Snapchat while intoxicated, saying, “Yo, we’re going to bomb Israel, you Jewish pieces of s**t.”
It caused this uproar on campus — this explosion of debate. At first, condemnation of the incident from all organizations across the political spectrum was very nice to hear. But then this debate started about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism — how does Israel factor into all of this, who should be allowed to hate Israel without saying we hate Jews — it created this horrible campus environment.
I knew I had to write about this, and I wrote about all of the things that I experienced not only during that week, but also throughout my entire time at GW.
I have been accused of terrible things by fellow progressives, because I refuse to say that Israel is the source of all evil in the world. I felt excluded and isolated from specific progressive organizations and groups, because I was pro-Israel and didn’t really want to apologize for being pro-Israel. I wore my Jewishness openly in these conversations.
You take issue with some of the extreme elements of progressive groups?
I have some grievances with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I am an advocate for things like criminal justice reform and police reform and standing up for Black Americans in regards to everything that BLM advocates for on paper. However, the attitude that some prominent BLM activists were expressing — specifically about the falsehood that Israel has something to do with training American police officers to be racist towards Black people — really rubbed me the wrong way.
There are a lot of problems in this way of thinking about race that puts everybody at a certain power position in society. That sort of thinking often puts Jewish people at a place of immense privilege and immense whiteness, and that’s super problematic because then we feel a little bit excluded from the fight for social justice, and that creates an environment where people can say anything they want about Israel, Jews and Jewish organizations — no matter how offensive or over-the-line or off-putting it is.
It is framed as punching up or as speaking truth to power. And that is how anti-Semitism infects these progressive movements. If the Jews are framed as powerful, then speaking ill of them and demonizing them is seen as speaking truth to power.
Extreme views aside, are you still invested in progressive politics?
The vast majority of [non-Jewish] Black Americans and Americans of color and all people in the struggle against oppression, whether it be racism or any type of discrimination or bigotry, are not part of this very radical movement. There’s a much stronger force and a much stronger front, that is looking toward a future that is centered around dialogue realistic policy and practical progressivism — abolishing private prisons, chokeholds and qualified immunity; legalizing marijuana nationwide and decriminalizing drugs; and funding inner city public schools better.
Those are the types of policy initiatives that are really effective at reaching across the aisle and bettering society. These are things that we all agree on, because as liberal-minded, progressive-minded people, we all want to come together around policies that will make society better.
What we don’t agree on, and unfortunately what is now becoming the face of racial justice, is this view that says that America is inherently racist, and there needs to be a violent disruption of the “system,” and taking down of all the people who are perceived to be in power.
That kind of radical populism, more often than not, places Jewish people into the powerful and protected category, which is why anti-Semitism seems to flourish.
I like Bernie Sanders and think Bernie Sanders is an inspiring person, but as soon as the primary was between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, I did not hesitate to work for Joe Biden. Bernie’s supporters, especially his younger supporters on college campuses, ascribe to this really problematic ideology that says that certain people can’t be involved in social justice movements, and it places a lot of rules and red tape on how we’re supposed to work to make our country better.
What made you decide to go public about this?
What sealed the deal was the DC Dyke March. They made the decision to ban all displays of the Star of David if it looked at all like the Star of David on the Israeli flag. That is a very popular flag of choice among queer dudes, myself included, to wear a rainbow flag with the Star of David in the middle. It was not allowed because it was nationalistic iconography and it made Palestinians feel unsafe.
No other nationalist iconography or symbol was specifically condemned nor disallowed. The rage, the embarrassment and the confusion and mortification that I felt was ridiculous. It incited something in me, because these types of sentiments in queer progressive spaces are just getting a lot worse.
How did you come to be published on the New York Times opinion page?
I finished “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” by Bari Weiss during all of this craziness at GW with the Snapchat video and the whole rigmarole. My op-ed started off as an email to her explaining everything I had experienced and saying thank you for writing this book that really spoke to me.
I did not think that she was going to email back at all. I sent her this stream-of-consciousness email that was not edited and was all over the place. I woke up the next morning and she emailed to say, “This is amazing that you’re brave enough to put these stories out there, and would you consider turning this into an op-ed in the New York Times?”
Have your politics changed in light of what you’ve witnessed among fellow progressives?
It’s really my purpose to remain active in the progressive movement in the Democratic Party. But in order to do that, we have to make sure that it doesn’t turn into the British Labour Party, and cause 40% of the Jews in America to want to emigrate, which is what happened with Jeremy Corbyn when he ran for prime minister in 2017.
That is a situation I think is fast approaching. All of the warning signs are there, all of the red flags are there. And we really need to work to root it out and nip it in the bud before it becomes any more of a problem.
Can you imagine a time when you don’t feel at home anymore in the Democratic Party?
Being politically homeless is something really common in Jewish history. Actually, it’s the rule and not the exception for us to be politically homeless, because so often as our political parties polarize there is no room for us. I unfortunately see a reality in which that happens, but right now I’m devoting all of my energy and time to trying to prevent it.
Now you’re moving to New York. What do you hope to find there?
I‘m moving to Crown Heights, because it has a really rich Jewish history. And there’s also a lot of really interesting inter-community dynamics that have happened and are happening in Brooklyn right now, specifically in the Crown Heights area. I figured that there would be a lot to lot to learn and a lot to write about.
There are inner communal relationships between more religious Jews and [non-Jewish] Black people and the [non-Jewish] Black community. It’s fascinating and it gives us a lot of insight into how the Jewish community reacts to other communities today. It’s not just something that happened in the ‘90s. It’s the constant dialogue between communities.
Anti-Semitism is not confined to one community and it’s not confined to just one side of the political spectrum. Racism is not confined to one community or one side of the political spectrum.
There are initiatives bringing leaders of the Jewish and [non-Jewish] Black communities to the table to talk about shared values and shared ideas and shared goals for their specific neighborhoods and communities. That’s great because it’s the only way forward. JN