Book Review: Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel

David Baddiel on antisemitism

In his short polemic, Jews Don’t Count, the writer and comedian David Baddiel argues that progressives have left out one identity in their commitment to anti-racism and identity politics. As will be obvious: this group is the Jewish people. Here Baddiel makes the case – with incisiveness, nuance, and even-handedness (in my opinion) – for the prevalence of passive antisemitism in contemporary society, with much of the focus being on the UK.

This passive antisemitism refers to the notion that anti-Jewish prejudice and hatred gets ignored, dismissed, or downplayed (active antisemitism would be the direct instances of such hatred – of which there are many today, which Baddiel also points to – whereas passive antisemitism is how individuals react to the hatred itself).

Baddiel maintains that anti-racist, leftist progressives have created a hierarchy of racisms, with antisemitism not being counted as egregious as other types. Thus it becomes a second-class racism, still bad, but not as morally urgent as hatred against other racial minorities. And this very discounting – this passive antisemitism whereby prejudice towards Jews is not seen as problematic as other race-based prejudices – Baddiel says is itself based on antisemitic attitudes.

I feel Baddiel makes many important points in this respect, some of which have crossed my mind before but which the author articulates with impressive clarity and much-needed seriousness (which is not to say the author misses opportunities to inject some humour and wit into the discussion).

This kind of passionate articulation of the problem comes at a time when antisemitism is rising in the UK, with Jews in the capital feeling the issue is worse than ever. To address these instances of violence, threats, intimidation, desecration of graves, vandalism, and all of the antisemitism beliefs that underlie them, Jews have to count; antisemitism has to matter.

Baddiel often uses social media as evidence to support them and concedes that a platform like Twitter is not the ‘real world’, but I think the examples he gives of Tweets (and reactions to said Tweets) are relevant and telling. And, as Baddiel says, Twitter “does, politically, refract a version of the real world”. Plus, conversations around anti-racism and identity politics often take place on social media, too, so Baddiel says it only makes sense, then, to see how the specific topic of antisemitism is handled in comparison to other kinds of racism.

I should emphasise, as well, that Baddiel does not solely rely on Tweets and Facebook posts to substantiate his argument that Jews don’t count; he also refers to real-life conversations, entertainment media, and the arts to illustrate the problem of passive antisemitism in a culture that is supposedly sensitive to racism.

I would like to share and summarise some of the main and most salient examples of passive antisemitism that Baddiel describes in this book.

  • When some people talk about the most oppressed, maligned, or marginalised people in society (those who need protection from discrimination), Jews are left out.
  • Antisemitic material from great writers, such as that found in T.S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion, can be disseminated (in the case of Eliot, recited on the radio) whereas other virulent remarks about another race wouldn’t be spread in the same way.
  • An author won’t get cancelled for spouting antisemitic stereotypes, such as in the case of Alice Walker’s poem To Study The Talmud, but he or she would (and does) get cancelled for promoting discrimination about another minority group.
  • Jews are excluded from the progressive modern left’s “sacred circle”, as Baddiel puts it – which contains the groups progressives are willing to fight for and champion – because Jews are seen as the only objects of racism who are both low and high status. They are stereotyped in the way other minorities are (e.g. as lying, thieving, and vile) but also as “moneyed, privileged, powerful, and secretly in control of the world.” This low-high perception turns Jews into a group that is both sub-human and dominating. If progressives see Jews as rich, comfortable, privileged, powerful, and in control of the world, then they aren’t an oppressed group, and so they are left out of the sacred circle. Baddiel makes two points in this regard: it’s factually incorrect to think of Jews as an especially rich minority compared to others and also, “money doesn’t protect you from racism.”
  • Antisemitic slurs, such as “Yid”, are not considered equally unmentionable and offensive as other racial slurs, to the point, of course, that Baddiel writes out the word Yid but would not do so with the N-word or P-word.
  • Some people think if you portray Jews as rich in a positive light, by claiming that it indicates some virtue like shrewdness, then this isn’t problematic, even though it still relies on tropes that connect Jews with money that have long been used to stoke resentment against this minority group. (On this point, see my previous post on Mark Twain’s essay that praises Jews but which is questionable for this very reason.) Promoting these stereotypes about Jews and believing they are complimentary is one other reason why antisemitism does not get recognised for what it is.
  • There is an assumption that because Jews are not immediately visible as a minority, they can’t suffer racism; they “don’t really suffer from being considered different, because they don’t look” Jews are white and therefore have that privilege. However, Baddiel pushes back on this assumption, holding that the privilege of whiteness entails a feeling of security and safety – and since Jews lack this feeling relative to non-Jewish white people, given the prejudice and discrimination they face, they therefore lack white privilege.
  • Progressives maintain that those who do not experience racism need to listen, accept, and not challenge when minorities speak about their experiences of racism. Except in the case of Jews. It seems that when Jews complain of racism, it is acceptable for non-Jews (including progressives) to tell Jews whether or not certain remarks are antisemitic and whether or not they have a right to feel validated about their lived experiences of racism. Some progressives and leftists are happy to deny, doubt, and dismiss those who claim to be victims of anti-Jewish bigotry, but they would not do the same in the case of other racial groups. Baddiel argues this is partly because antisemitism is not seen as real racism at all. People will claim Jews are not a race and hence cannot suffer from racism; any hatred against them can only ever boil down to religious intolerance, which is presumed to be not as bad as racism, so there is more lenience when it comes to antisemitism. The separation of antisemitism from racism (which is useful since not all racisms are the same) can reinforce this notion and create a sense that the former is completely different from the latter; however, even though they may be different in kind, Baddiel questions why this “should equate to a difference in significance.”
  • Jews are excluded from the category of BAME, a term used in the UK that means Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic. Those groups that fall under the umbrella of BAME can benefit from positive discrimination as a result of their minority status, but not Jews. Baddiel notes, “That’s because they don’t need it, I feel you thinking,” but then goes on to point out that those producing TV shows and films often aim for inclusivity and diversity but it seems Jews don’t count in this respect.
  • Jews are the only minority (not just racial) where it is fine to cast non-Jewish actors in Jewish roles in films, TV shows, and plays. There will be outrage casting a trans part to a non-trans actor (and this happened in the cases of Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry set to play trans people in films; both actors were protested against, with the film Johansson was set to star in being scrapped and Berry stepping down from the role). Yet non-Jews (such as Al Pacino in Hunters and Gary Oldman in Mank) can play Jews without a similar reaction. Baddiel is not personally against non-Jewish actors taking on these roles; he is merely highlighting a discrepancy in the way that progressives perceive the representation of different minorities on the screen. To the progressive, a non-minority portraying the experience of a minority is disrespectful, except in the case of Jewish roles.
  • ‘Jewface’ – a relatively new coinage that refers to non-Jews taking on stereotyped Jewish mannerisms, expressions, and voices (e.g. Pacino in Hunters) – is not seen as offensive as blackface. However, Baddiel contends that when non-Jews cartoon Jewishness, this is disrespectful; “what is that if not minstrelsy in another form?”
  • In asking for parity with other racisms, Jews are seen as minimising other racisms, which is not the case at all. To raise concern for one group need not lessen the oppression of any other.
  • There is, disproportionately, a lack of calling out active antisemitism, particularly when the latter casts Jews as powerful and controlling, as this is seen as punching up.
  • When antisemitism on the left is raised as an issue, like when Corbyn’s Labour Party faced these accusations, a response from some leftists takes the form of whataboutery (e.g “What about Islamophobia in the Tory Party?”), diverting attention away from the original issue.

Overall, I think this book from Baddiel is a very useful account of the phenomenon of passive antisemitism and how this exists as a blind spot for many progressives. Antisemitism is history’s oldest hatred and, as evidenced today, one that continues to flourish. To tackle it, as with hatred towards any minority group, the problem itself needs to be properly acknowledged, and not downgraded – and especially not downgraded by those who are fighting against racism.

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