What British antisemitism on the left can teach us
Jews Don’t Count
By David Baddiel
TLS Books, 123pp, $12.99
Humans are complicated. What with our different colors, creeds and interests; our gender identities and sexual preferences, our life histories and varied politics. What with our insistence on speaking different languages and supporting different teams in different sports. And we Jews are complicated in the same way, as different and almost as diverse as the people around us.
Diversity is especially hard to grasp for the ethnocentric right. David Baddiel’s new book [“Jews Don’t Count”](https://forward.com/culture/465222/what-british-antisemitism-on-the-left-can-teach-us/ https://www.amazon.com/Untitled-David-Baddiel/dp/0008399476) is not intended for them: it’s not for America-Firsters, QAnon racists or CUFI Armageddonites, not even for conservatives. The book is intended directly for the British left and, by extension, for global progressives. The book is also not about Israel. Baddiel doesn’t care about the country one way or the other, “Meh,” he says – without even an exclamation point.
Finally, this book is also is not another mealy-mouthed example of whataboutism; it’s not another version of “yes, tens of millions of Americans believe in antisemitic conspiracies but whatabout Michael Che making a Jewish joke on SNL?” Everyone — including Baddiel — knows that the vast preponderance of antisemitic threat comes from the explicitly racist right stretching from the right wing of the Conservative and Republican parties directly to neo-Nazis. Other people can fight the actual Nazis; this book is a live, angry question from Baddiel to his “woke” allies — “Why aren’t you on our side?”
He’s asking that because from his point of view we British Jews don’t seem to qualify to be part of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities (the umbrella term of choice for Britain’s minority groups). Why does a minority community that constitutes barely half a percent of the population and that is visibly attacked for its perceived difference not simply “count” as the “minority ethnic” part of BAME? He wants to know from the social progressives with whom he otherwise identifies, why the “Y- word was not as bad as the N- word.”
Baddiel is an established comedy star and writer in Britain. After graduating with top honors from Cambridge, he made his name in sketch comedy in the late ’80s then sold out huge comedy tours with Rob Newman in the ’90s. After that, he developed live shows and TV programs with his friend and flatmate Frank Skinner in partnership with whom he also recorded the enduring, iconic soccer song, “Three Lions.” He has created, written or appeared in numerous films and television shows. He is, in short, very famous (and quite short). He’s a household name in Britain who just happens not to have done much work that has crossed over to the American market. His Twitter bio reads, simply, “Jew.”
His visible Jewishness, in a country that doesn’t generally make a fuss of identity, (“until very recently — being British and Jewish wasn’t really a thing”), makes his active Twitter account a regular address for discussions of antisemitism, as well as, unfortunately, for the thing itself. As he puts it, “I am one of the very few people in this country whose Jewishness is one of the principal things known about them.”
The larger context for this brief book is the antisemitism scandal of the British Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. Although Sir Keir Starmer has been the head of the party since April 2020, the aftershocks of the Corbyn era are still being felt and Baddiel fulminates about the attitude of the progressive left toward Jews in Britain in its ongoing wake.
In an almost unprecedented investigation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission were asked to investigate the Labour Party because the party, effectively, refused to do so itself. In October 2020, EHRC condemned the Labour Party and Corbyn for, as Baddiel puts it in his coda, “finding various evidence of anti-Jewish harassment and discrimination, and concluding that the party had failed to provide effective measures against ‘antisemitic conduct’ in general.” Baddiel is fascinated and angry about the blindness that allowed Corbyn to fight for the underdog and the oppressed for decades but to approve of Mear One’s anti-Capitalism mural that depicts capitalist bosses as “hook-nosed Jewish bankers holding the world to ransom [like those] published every week in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.”
Baddiel is at pains to note that he is not claiming that Jews should take others’ share of the BAME pie. This is not a zero-sum game: defense of vulnerable communities is a collective responsibility. When homophobes, racists and Islamophobes attack, we should all rise in defense. Likewise, the expansive joy of a diverse community should redound to everyone’s benefit — those identifying as non-heterosexual, non-White or non-Christian should be embraced by their country. And among those vulnerable ethnic communities who need respect, cultural embrace and, yes, defense, are Jews.
Despite rampant online antisemitism, two major English-speaking political leaders (Corbyn and Donald Trump) regularly supporting antisemitic tropes and the ADL (in America) and the CST (in the United Kingdom) reporting dramatic increases in antisemitic incidents, Jews don’t seem to get included as part of BAME. Baddiel notes the routine exclusion in the creative world in which he moves. Progressive movie producers who would worry about blind-casting other minorities blithely cast non-Jews in Jewish roles. Literary critics who would grant Muslim characters minority status, treat Jewishly identified characters as simply privileged and white. Boycotting consumers who will consider “cancelling” Charles Dickens or Rudyard Kipling for their anti-Indian racism will happily forgive Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot, Roald Dahl and Alice Walker for their obvious antisemitism.
Though Baddiel isn’t talking about it — and though it is actually more complex to talk about the bad actions of the Jewish state — anti-colonialist sentiment likewise often blinds progressives to antisemitism. Of Corbyn, Baddiel says: “When it is pointed out to him that sometimes anti-capitalism blurs into anti-Semitism, his first instinct is to protect the anti-capitalism and dismiss the anti-Semitism with irritation.”
It was not only a disgraceful state, but also a situation dangerous to democracy, when the progressive leader of Her Majesty’s opposition could not condemn the phrase “Rothschild bankers control Israel and world governments.” On primetime national BBC — while Corbyn was fighting and losing in the biggest election of his life because people thought he was incompetent and antisemitic — Andrew Neil asked him to condemn a phrase that, in different forms, was circulating in online Labour groups.. Corbyn refused, only going so far as to say that he could see how someone could perceive it as antisemitic. In other words, Corbyn was so blind and intransigent that he preferred to appear incompetent and antisemitic than condemn a blatantly antisemitic comment.
You can critique and vilify your opponents. But, if you believe in the dignity of man and the embrace of cultures, you must be responsible about the symbols you use:
The left, for all its anti-racist credentials, has never balked at that — the Jew face, the Jew hair, the Jew fat banker smoking his fat cigar — imagery. It remains the primary way in which to portray the scheming, evil, capitalist enemy. And if you can’t see a problem with this — if you just think, Well, that’s how our enemy looks — you are accepting it. It’s a default.
As a member of both British and American Jewry and a self-identified progressive, I feel seen by Baddiel’s book. I can pass as a white man and have enjoyed the double privilege of that, but I recognize that many of my fellow Jews enjoy no such luck. They suffer from what Baddiel notes is “the law of Schrödinger’s Whites, a brilliant conceit that I am not responsible for, in which Jews are white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer.” Progressives see Jews as privileged whites, racists see Jews as repulsive non-whites.
Even I, with my privilege, have had the Y- word thrown at me by teammates and teachers, by colleagues and employers. In America I have been mocked for identifying as a member of a minority and in England I have been in fist fights to defend my ethnic identity.
Between our scant numbers, our diversity and our similarity to the general population, we Jews are deeply misunderstood. In fact, we’re not understood at all. We really don’t count. Non-Jews routinely guess our numbers in the billions but in Britain there’s somewhere near 300,000 Jews, in the world perhaps as many as 15 million. If we all lived in a single city with only Jews — heaven forfend — that city wouldn’t even make it into the world’s top ten largest cities.
The visible success of a fraction of Jews in Western society may suggest to people that they know Jews. That they are familiar with the great Jewish success story. But for every famous, privileged Mark Zuckerberg or Jared Kushner there are many transgender Jews of Color struggling with online and physical hate. Or Ultra-Orthodox Jews struggling with food insecurity. Or Holocaust survivors dealing with old age and abject poverty. Or Iranian Jewish social workers struggling against a myriad of stereotypes to help the abused of Los Angeles.
Just as any sweeping comment about Blacks, Asians, members of LGBTQ+ communities or Muslims can be abusive and ignorant, so can such a comment about Jews. When Dave Whelan, the owner of Wigan Athletic soccer club, was confronted for his comment, “‘Jewish people chase money more than everybody else,” he didn’t really see why it was wrong. “Whelan, in fact, tried to suggest his was a compliment, by saying that Jews are ‘shrewd people.’” But, Baddiel notes, this is no simple praise, the “word ‘shrewd’ implies something else… a pinched, obsessive, inhuman ability to… grab and keep money.”
The diverse class, race and belief structure of Jewish peoplehood means that there are likely to be Jews acting in ways that you disagree with. It’s the old saw of the 20th century: anti-Communists blame the Jews for Communism, anti-Capitalists blame the Jews for Capitalism. But the stretch from saying “some Jews did this” to “the Jews do this” is the stretch from the suspicious use of an identification category to blatant racism. Individuals are complicit – Mear One for his Stürmer-like mural; Whelan for his unfortunate smear; Corbyn for allowing antisemitism to riddle the Labour Party. Baddiel finds most worrying, though, the possibility — borne out by the public and private ways that Jews are discounted — that these individuals are not bad apples, but rather samples of a bad barrel.
At just over 100 pages, “Jews Don’t Count” is intended as a polemical pamphlet or an extended lecture. Baddiel reads the audio book himself and, though the accent is different, the serious tone with dark jocular aside resembles John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” Baddiel sustains the energy and righteous indignation of a rant and, especially in the British context, it’s difficult not to agree with him.
In America’s long shadow of slavery where visible national white Christian racism feels to some like a recently re-emergent phenomenon, things are different. Everyone but the Native Americans can trace their foreignness, hyphenated identities are normal and all racism is dwarfed by the systemic anti-Black oppression that we now oppose with #BlackLivesMatter. But here in North America, we too often see people assuming, blindly, wrongly, that Jewish means rich, white and Ashkenazi.
So, although there is a glaring wrong to be righted — an elephant in the American polity — there are also a number of other things America needs to fix. Baddiel thinks that the problem for the British left is that championing Jews does not defeat colonialism or imperialism or color racism.
The problem is that Jews occupy a socio-cultural grey area. Jews, although marginal, are not thought of as marginalised. Which means Jews can’t be seen as representative of a modern Britain that is intent on shifting marginalised experiences into the mainstream. Jews, therefore, as far as progressives are concerned, don’t represent anything outside of themselves. No victory is claimed by championing their experience, and this leads to a subtle — and unconscious — exclusion.
I don’t think this is quite true of America. In America, there is actually a diversity project and a rhetoric of multiculturalism at the heart of this nation of immigrants. But, even without taking the whole royal family, there’s still a lot America can learn from Britain’s mistakes.