Life & Culture

David Baddiel: Making Jews count

Comedian and writer David Baddiel - whose Twitter profile reads 'Jew' - tells Keren David about his new book about the invisibility of Jews in modern identity politics


If you are the sort of person who harrumphs about “snowflakes” or bangs on about “the woke brigade” then Jews Don’t Count, the new book by writer and comedian David Baddiel is not for you. Don’t even bother to read it. Forget it exists.

If on the other hand you consider yourself “progressive” — this is Baddiel’s preferred word and how he defines himself — and mix in circles where identity politics are taken seriously and discussed regularly — as he does — then do read it. I’ve already ordered a copy for my son, a politics student at Manchester University. It’s the perfect read for anyone who might need to explain or understand that racism can be suffered by someone who appears to be white, and that antisemitism isn’t a thing of the past.

“It’s about how there’s been a relegation of antisemitism into a second class of racism among the minds of those to whom anti-racism is really important, and to whom identity is a massive issue,” he explains. A polemic, it is brief and breezy, and although the arguments are serious, being David Baddiel, he can’t resist the occasional joke.

He’s in serious mode though for the start of our conversation. “I can’t imagine doing a comedy show about this. Even though it does have quite a lot of jokes in it. I can’t imagine doing a comedy show about it because you have to go into some abstruse and difficult arguments and I guess a book is still the best place to do it, or at least it is for someone who comes from my old tech background. If I were 23 I might do it as a series of really interesting YouTube videos.”

Jews Don’t Count was commissioned as part of a series of short books published by the TLS — “literary-ish, zeitgeisty” — and was originally meant to be around the 10,000-word mark, but as he wrote it became clear that Baddiel’s argument needed more words. But not too many more, it comes in at 28,000 words. He stresses that it’s not a “big book”, nor trying to compete with histories or analyses of antisemitism. “It’s a polemic… I use history and facts but essentially it’s an argument. No Jew is going to hold it up on a barricade, but in my mind it had to be that size.”

In the absence of actual barricades, he’s hoping it will become part of the Twitter discourse, perhaps with people adopting #jewsdontcount as a hashtag. On Twitter he famously has ‘Jew’ as his one-word profile, and he refers to the platform so often that I was tempted to suggest that he should perhaps spend a little less time there. It might also explain why he refers to feeling “old and decrepit” several times in our conversation (he’s 56) although lockdown can have that effect, of course.

Social media, of course, often shrinks arguments down to binaries, and Jews Don’t Count is an attempt to restore nuance and complexity. But will the people he wants to influence, the progressives, read it? He’s pessimistic. “I think people are more and more set in their ways, set in their arguments,” he says. “The shifting of political discourse into a public space, which is what social media has done is very bad for nuance, because people are acting out their positions rather than just talking about them, and become very dug into them and don’t want to change their opinions or suggest that they have ‘lost’ or ‘won’, which is very bad way of thinking about it anyway.”

He first wrote about the new “fashion” for left-wing antisemitism in 2010 — well before Corbyn’s ascent. “It’s not an active thing. It’s not Nazis saying ‘we hate Jews’ … it’s a much more subtle demotion, lack of concern… of antisemitism in a world that is obsessed with identity.”

It’s the binary notion of white and non-white in matters of racism, and the labelling of Jews as white — and therefore automatically powerful and privileged — that concerns him. To white supremacists, he points out, Jews are explicitly not white. But somehow, anti-racists have decided that Jews are white. “It’s really complex because it’s overlaid with the possibility of antisemitic tropes that Jews are moneyed and privileged and powerful” — but that’s not his primary concern. “If you map it on to another minority… if you make that person brown… if you make them Indian… then you’d ask, would the conversation have happened?” All too often, he says, the discourse about Jewishness is just missing, whereas for another ethnicity it would dominate.

His annoyance at the absence of Jews from the narrative of identity politics can lead him into quite convoluted positions. Take, for example, the question of ‘Jewface’ casting — the notion that a performer’s identity must match that of the minority they are portraying. Baddiel’s instinct is to disagree with this: “I’m not saying Jews should only play Jews… I personally think actors should be allowed to act.” But because it is such a dominant debate in progressive circles, he feels the need not just to discuss it in the book but to be the person on Twitter who flags it up when — as happened recently — a TV series with a very Jewish story announces a completely non-Jewish cast. “I feel bad about it,” he says, “but it’s a conversation to be had.” The question he asks all the time boils down to “Why is no one talking about this?”

By no one, he means non-Jews, of course. Jews talk about it all the time, but mostly with an eye roll and a feeling that there are more important battles to fight, and anyway we’d much rather not have any battles, thank you very much. But Baddiel is clear that the omission of the conversation, the lack of visibility, is very important. And equally important is the clarity that antisemitism is nothing to do with religion or the geo-politics of the Middle East. He is an atheist and not interested in arguments about Israel: “If you strip out those things — which is true of me, but also helpful for the argument, you come down to something which is very important, which is that Jewishness is an ethnicity and a hard ethnicity to pin down, but you can pin it down by saying it is an ethnicity — it’s not about religion, yes there is a religion and the religion is important in its own way, but it’s not for this discussion, because this discussion is about racism.”

“The majority of Jews are secular… the Nazis never checked if anyone was going to the synagogue or eating kosher… The book is about antisemitism. It might be about a very nuanced and subtle version of antisemitism, but at the end of the day it’s my belief that one of the things that contributes to actual antisemitism is this lack of care, this lack of concern, this absence of monitoring of Jewish things or whatever. As far as racism goes, religion is totally irrelevant, it’s a blood thing. And as long as it’s a blood thing it’s racism because anything that you can’t help, an accident of birth, that people discriminate against you for is racism.”

For him, it’s absurd and wrong that ethnic censuses don’t let him identify as a Jew — he cites a recent form he had to fill in to vote for the Bafta awards. He’d very much like to see more Jews speak up and be counted. “The book is a critique of progressives but it’s also a bit of a critique of Jews, I’d say, it’s a critique of Jews for being too quiet and — of British Jews, being too quiet and too accepting of antisemitism in the past, because they don’t like to make a fuss.” Among left-wing Jews, he says, “there’s this sense of deep Jewish shame essentially buying the racist myths that the Jews are powerful and privileged. And I think for some — they might disagree — but for some left wing Jews that shame comes with a kind of, you know, deep refusal to fight on behalf of this type of antisemitism, and be much more concerned about other minorities and all the rest of it.”

The Corbyn years did mobilise the Jewish community as a political force, which was good, he says, but it also created a strange situation in which anti-Jewish hatred was seen as a political issue first, with the feelings of actual Jews often left out of the conversation.

“A lot of the time left-wing Jews separate ‘real’ antisemitism from the sort they think is real … It’s like the only antisemitism is essentially Auschwitz. That’s antisemitism and below that, it doesn’t really count, to coin a phrase. The trouble is that there’s a continuum in all racism and small what are known as microaggressions are on a continuum with Auschwitz. A complex continuum… I’m not suggesting for a second that some of these examples in the book inevitably lead to Auschwitz, of course I am not, but there is a connection between them and in this case, with the progressive thing.

“I admire identity politics for raising the fact that there are terrible and constant microaggressions against all minorities. And I am not just talking about race here, I’m talking about disabled people, gay and trans people… it goes on all the time. And its good that identity politics has raised that because I believe that those things are a continuum with much worse things that happen to those minorities. But I think it’s very complicated how Jews fit into that, or maybe don’t fit into it.”

In lockdown he’s been writing another one of his popular children’s books — this one’s about an ordinary boy who wants to be famous, and gets his wish — and working on a memoir based on his hit show My Family the Sitcom which he toured for more than two years. He resisted the idea of writing it as a memoir while touring, because he didn’t want to give too much away, but now is looking forward to it because “it will sort out a lot of stuff in my head — I know people think I am over-honest anyway, but this book will probably be more so.”

Then there’s his show about social media Trolls: Not the Dolls, which was due to tour for most of 2020 but of course was put off, not once but twice.

He’s found lockdown hard and looks weary at the thought of picking up the show again whenever he can. “At some point… I will just think I’m too old to do this show… I was OK, two and a half years ago, but … I’m heading towards 60 and it seems to me that at some point I’m going to be too old to schlep my sorry arse around the country.”

But then again, as a social person he’s looking forward to getting out and about again. “So maybe it will be a positive thing.”

Jews Don’t Count is published by TLS Books

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