It’s that rare thing — something new to say on antisemitism

He’s not religious and is not a Zionist, but it is precisely this that gives David Baddiel the space in which to take on antisemites and powerfully expose their deep bigotry, writes Daniel Finkelstein


ER24PW Hay-on-Wye, Powys, UK. 25th May 2015. David Baddiel, English comedian, novelist and television presenter, in conversation at the Hay Festival 2015. Credit: Graham M. Lawrence/Alamy Live News.

February 26, 2021 11:40

Have you had a chance to read David Baddiel’s new book Jews Don’t Count? I think you ought. You might think you have read everything about antisemitism that you can be bothered with. But I think you should nevertheless bother with this.

Over the last few years Baddiel, already a comedy star, has emerged as something quite significant for all of us — an artist able to capture a certain type of Jewishness and convey it to other people. He’s not religious and describes himself as a non-Zionist, yet he is outspokenly Jewish. And he suffuses his work with the flavour of his Jewishness.

On the surface, for instance, his brilliant show My Family not the Sitcom was about his mother’s marital infidelity and his father’s dementia. But everything about it, from the life it portrayed to the shocking honesty of the revelations, was Jewish.

Jews Don’t Count is impressive for three reasons. The first is that he appreciates that the fight against antisemitism is his fight, when he could just leave it to others. To an extraordinary degree, he has been willing to stick up for his fellow Jews and spend some of the capital of his celebrity status. He has endured a great deal of online abuse which he didn’t need to endure but has done so on behalf of the rest of us.

The second reason is related. The fact that Baddiel is non-Zionist and is not religious might have allowed him either to just walk away from the antisemitism problem or to feel he didn’t have much to add. Instead he has rather brilliantly appreciated that these positions are actually assets.

I find it annoying when someone makes a point about Israel in response to an article I have written about, I don’t know, the rate of corporation tax or regression to the mean in football. I might object that Israel has got nothing to do with the point I am making and the person is only making the point because I’m Jewish. Yet in response they can always say, no, they are making it because I’m a Zionist.

This might be obviously disingenuous but it is hard to disprove.

David Baddiel is not a Zionist. I may disagree, but the power of this in the debate on antisemitism is immense. The same person replies to him about Israel after he makes a joke about corporation tax or mean reversion in football and he is able to — and does — expose the true antisemitic nature of the comment.

This makes him a hugely valuable part of the resistance to Jew hatred. It wouldn’t, in my view, be enough by itself because I think Israel is vital and David is wrong about that. But the breadth he provides is very important.

The third reason that Jews Don’t Count is impressive is the most significant one. It is intellectually creative. On a subject where almost everybody seems to have written almost everything, he has found something new to say.

In essence he argues that the progressive left has adopted identity politics but many don’t then count Jews as an identity. People who say racist things are “cancelled”, but not if they say racist things about Jews. People who play ethnic roles as actors are excoriated if they don’t come that ethnic group themselves, unless they are a non-Jew playing a Jew. People who use ethnic influences in cooking from groups to which they don’t belong are accused of cultural appropriation unless they are appropriating Jewish food.

One or two critics have argued that none of these progressive rules are all that sensible and that the problem is with identity politics. This, however, is to miss Baddiel’s point. His book is addressed to progressives who accept identity politics. He is pointing out — and in a way that is startling and stark — their exclusion of Jews.

In a way achieved by almost no other argument, he leaves you with the inescapable conclusion that this exclusion is antisemitic. It must owe itself to stereotypes about Jewish influence and power, it must involve ignoring Jewish experience of racist oppression.

I have rarely seen a difficult argument cracked open in the way Baddiel succeeds in doing. Do read it.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times.

February 26, 2021 11:40

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