A little more than a week ago the BBC issued an apology. It had described its new chairman, Samir Shah, as the first such appointment from an ethnic-minority background. Now it wanted to make clear that he was not the first, because his predecessor, Richard Sharp had been Jewish. Michael Grade wasn’t mentioned.
The apology attracted criticism. First, from the former Labour MP Denis MacShane who described it as “odd”. He added: “Are Jews in UK defined as an ethnic minority not by religion? Does a non-observant Jew get tagged as ‘ethnic’?”
The respected journalist Michael Crick then joined in: “It was quite a bizarre apology, and I suspect the BBC will have to apologise for its apology. If we now include Jewish people among ethnic minorities then we are going to have to revise all our stats about ethnic minorities — in BBC staff, universities, and my own @tomorrowsMPs [the record of party candidates he is keeping].”
I don’t think either of them had a malign motive, and they are both generally pretty acute, but the confusion they were expressing was nonetheless startling. And, to be fair to Crick, as he points out, not a confusion they are alone in suffering from.
There are two ways of answering them, both of which they were promptly informed of.
The first is historical. It is certainly the case that the issue of whether Jews are an ethnic group or just a religion was once debated by Jews themselves. German Jews before the war often asserted that Jews were simply German, and had a different faith rather than a different ethnicity than their compatriots.
I suspect this argument was used less because it was true (it very obviously wasn’t) than because asserting a different ethnicity would be suggesting Jews were foreign, disloyal and not fully German. It was in some small way a protection.
But the Holocaust made clear that arguing that Judaism was a religion rather than an ethnicity was no protection at all. It’s therefore been decades since Jews seriously advanced this case.
There has also been a more general change. It is now widely accepted that there is no contradiction between being part of an ethnic minority and being a fully patriotic national.
The second answer is legal. As lawyer and academic Dinah Rose pointed out, the Supreme Court in the case of R (E) v JFS ruled that Jews are an ethnic group as well as a religion. She added: “Many Jews are atheists. They share a common history, culture and other markers of shared ethnicity.”
She added that it was a surprise to her to discover that some senior politicians and journalists didn’t realise that.
Whether she is right to be surprised (I rarely am when I find that there is something about Jews that people don’t know), she is certainly correct to be concerned and to try to amend the record. This isn’t a semantic row or even a minor difference of opinion. It has serious political implications.
As David Baddiel has shown so brilliantly in his path-breaking Jews Don’t Count, prejudice against Jews is often simply dismissed. The real reason for this is that Jews are considered by progressives to be too powerful and wealthy to require protection.
But few people are ready to make this argument publicly. Instead, they just ignore altogether the Jewish claim to be considered an ethnic minority. Judaism is just a religion and its adherents are white people with a particular take on the almighty. And it isn’t possible, they then argue, to be racist against white people.
One of the great strengths of Baddiel’s book is his title. He points directly to the issue of whether Jews are considered an ethnicity at all, and our exclusion even from the data. He understands that this is crucial.
So the apology by the BBC was an important one and we shouldn’t let it go. We should insist on every occasion that Jews be included in data on ethnic minorities.
Excluding us from this data is an argument based on prejudice, an argument that asserts that we don’t need to be considered because Jews don’t suffer from “real” racism.
This is not an argument that we can accept.
Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times