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Lieutenant Aston Bright on Fighting Fires in Israel and Black Antisemitism

“These are my people”

As Jews, we often feel like we are fighting fires. Whether it’s advocating for truth in the media or literally defending our lives, something is always ablaze. If we’re going to clear the air between us and the rest of the world, we’re going to need some help.

Enter Aston Bright. A Black man born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, he is an ally, advocate and protector of the Jewish people. He is a firefighter who worked to put out major fires in Israel — real ones! — and now travels around the world speaking to both Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike spreading truth about who we really are (putting out another kind of fire, one could say).

Because of the color of his skin and the fact that he isn’t Jewish, many take him more seriously. “The attacks people will usually use against a pro-Israel speaker don’t work on me,” he says. “I can do some good.”

Let’s backtrack though.

Bright grew up going to school with many Jews — his Florida school had nearly a 40% Jewish population so he befriended many all the way from kindergarten through high school. He also went on to go to the University of Florida with several. These are close friendships he holds onto to this day. “They’re mishpacha basically…these are my people. I have a deep connection with the people I grew up with,” he shares.

Because of these friendships, his eyes were already open to aspects of Jewish culture early on. He knew about all the holidays and was amazed at the traditions.

Post college, a good friend of his called and shared that the Jewish Federation was looking for firefighters to work in Israel. Bright said yes immediately. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just knew I wanted to help.”

 

Turning Stereotypes to Dust

Like many tenuous places, Israel was nothing like what Bright imagined it to be. On the news, he only heard the words terrorism, bombings and war zone. When he got there, he saw the country as more of a full picture — a beautiful home for Jews. Between the outpouring of love and support he felt from Jews around him to the unbelievable cuisine, he was hooked.

In that same breath, he shares that it was also one of the hardest things he’s ever done. The firefighters are brought in from America because occasionally when there is a national crisis or natural disaster, Israel doesn’t have enough resources to handle the situation. The program — which is a nonprofit based in Jerusalem called the Emergency Volunteers Project — has about 400 American firefighters that can be deployed to Israel within 72 hours.

On his first trip there, he was trained on how to deal with devastating fires in a new country. At the training were Israeli firefighters, government representatives, the military, even some Mossad members. They learned practically how to operate the Israeli equipment and were educated on the truth about what was going on in the land.

“The first time I got in the fire engine, I noticed the officer was carrying a 45-magnum handgun on his belt,” Bright shares. “I said, ‘Hey, Cap, why do you guys carry guns?’ He looked at me and just said ‘terrorists.’ He didn’t need to say anything else. I totally got it.”

Bright brought his grit to fight fires in the country while defending Israel at the same time. He has been deployed twice since his initial trip. One of those times, in 2018, he had to go to the Negev when there were balloon fires along the Gaza strip. They had an army-plated bulletproof engine and bulletproof helmets and vests. “I had never seen anything like it.”

Then, the IDF spotted some possible Hamas snipers so they had to take cover behind the firetruck, which is “basically a tank,” he says.

When you don’t put water on a fire, he shares, it doubles in size every 90 seconds. So as the group was shielding themselves behind the truck, the fire was starting to grow even larger and the wind was blowing — throwing smoke and ash everywhere. “It was really hot,” he says. “We’re huddled behind this fire engine and I just looked over at my buddies from Texas and said, ‘This was not in the brochure.’ In those moments I was not sure what I got myself into, but it was an incredible experience.”

 

Spreading the Light

After that experience, the commissioner of the Israel fire rescue services had a big meeting with the team. As they were getting ready to leave Israel, he asked them to share about their experiences back home. “I really took that to heart,” Bright says.

Before he even got back to the States, he was interviewed on Israeli television. Some organizations in America saw those interviews and reached out to him asking to meet when he got back. From there, things snowballed. He started speaking for Jewish organizations like AIPAC, the Jewish Federation, JNF, UJA and more. 

He credits the antisemitism Jews often experience to ignorance — to be honest, he knows more about the history of the Jewish people than many Jews themselves. “Ignorance is seen as a bad word a lot of the time, but it really means lack of knowledge,” he says. “People have to [educate themselves]. They have to know and understand the amazing things Israel has done for the world.”

He fights accusations with facts. Regarding Israel being referred to as an apartheid state, he explains, “It’s a very disgusting accusation to make. If you know anything about apartheid, you’ll know that it doesn’t even come close. You have Palestinians and Arab Muslims who are citizens of Israel,” he goes on. “They’re in the Parliament and the Supreme Court so the idea that Israel is an apartheid state is completely ludicrous.”

“I’ve also been in the West Bank and other mixed neighborhoods where there are Palestinians and Israelis living together peacefully. If you ask a lot of Palestinians coming in where they want to live — in the Jewish controlled areas or Palestinian controlled, they’ll tell you Israeli. There’s transportation, healthcare, safety, jobs.”

He has a friend in the IDF who shared a point with him that really drives it home. “‘The IDF is about protecting anyone who lives in Israel,’” he explains. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s not the Jewish Defense Forces, it’s the Israeli Defense Forces — it’s to protect the State of Israel and anyone who lives there.’”

Once you learn the facts, they speak for themselves. This is Bright’s mission. This information just scrapes the surface of what he knows and shares with others. He hopes to speak at universities where he can talk to youth of all races and religions. 

He wants the Black youth specifically to understand the beautiful history Jews and Black people share as they’re being influenced from outside sources (ahem, Kanye West) that are just not accurate — and it’s dangerous. 

“[The Black youth] are believing the crazy and nonsensical antisemitism and stories they’re hearing about things like starting wars in Africa. It’s absolute madness,” he explains. “We have to continue to push back against that.”

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