The modern Left has a bit of Jewish problem. That much is obvious at this point, at least to anyone who watched the rise and fall of Corbynism. It was also obvious to anyone who watched Whoopi Goldberg’s attempt last week to claim that the Nazi genocide of Jews had no racial component, which she said (twice) on American television.
Goldberg was patently wrong, but her cretinous observations didn’t come from nowhere. It is common on the progressive left to identify Jews as white, which means crimes against them take on a different valence: they are diminished. This is one reason why the spate of violence against Charedi Jews in New York over the past few years has received so little attention in the American media.
Modern progressivism creates a hierarchy of victimhood which generally puts the Jews on the privileged side of the ledger, not least because of their connection to Israel and Zionism. This both discounts and in some cases even legitimises antisemitism. It’s a world view that originates in America but has spread to Britain and beyond.
The problem is clear. But what to do about it? The most elegant solution thus far has come from David Baddiel in his now totemic book Jews Don’t Count. On today’s left, Baddiel argues compellingly, Jews have been routinely neglected in discussions about representation, inclusion and discrimination. In his book he hoists the contemporary left by its own petard, exposing a quite staggering array of double standards and hypocrisy. For the many but not the Jew.
Maureen Lipman took a similar approach recently, when she played the progressive left at its own game by complaining about “Jewface” and the casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in the upcoming Golda biopic. “I’m sure she will be marvellous but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela,” Lipman argued. “You just couldn’t even go there.”
Baddiel supported this position in a Guardian, op-ed, writing: “You may be one of those people who say actors should be allowed to act – but in the offices of casting directors, the progressive argument has been won.”
Here’s where I diverge. The Jews Don’t Count analysis is spot on, which is why it has already achieved hashtag status. But the conclusion, that Jews need to be readmitted to the left’s hierarchy of victimhood, is misguided.
I don’t think the answer to the modern left’s obsessive, at times illiberal, policing of identity and representation is to re-establish Jewish victimhood and our place in the hierarchy of suffering. I think we should reject the premise altogether, no matter what the casting directors think.
Let’s not make Jewface a thing and start building thick walls around our identity. Within reason, actors should indeed be allowed to act, as anyone who saw David Harewood’s superb portrayal of white conservative William Buckley in James Graham’s Best of Enemies, recently on at the Young Vic, can attest.
Attempting to insert Jews back into the progressive framework, which is what the Jewface critics are doing, means emphasising and amplifying every aspect of Jewish victimhood. Because to earn one’s place anywhere close to the top of the progressive hierarchy, alongside the BIPOCs and the BAMEs, would require a level of self-imposed martyrdom that simply doesn’t align with most contemporary Jewish lives. Nor would we want it to. If we accept this framework, which views any wealthy or powerful Caucasians with profound suspicion, then Jewish success will continue to be weaponised against us.
Rather than accept and negotiate with this world view, as Baddiel and Lipman are doing, we ought to repudiate it. Jews are more likely to flourish in a classically liberal world of toleration, with a diminished focus on race, rather than in the race-obsessed, identitarian morass that is modern progressivism. Or if classical liberalism isn’t your bag, then perhaps through a leftism that promotes class solidarity and doesn’t seek to manically divide and classify its adherents according to skin colour.
This doesn’t mean downplaying antisemitism or racism more generally. It’s important that Jews are not treated with double standards and we should certainly engage with wider conversations about representation and fairness. But Jews not counting is a feature, not a bug, of modern progressivism, as Goldberg’s snafu so clearly demonstrated. As long as that’s the field we’re playing on, the game will be rigged against us.