Life & Culture

Review: Jews Don’t Count: How Identity Politics Failed One Particular Identity

Feeling something is true doesn’t make it so, writes Rabbi Howard Cooper


Jews Don’t Count: How Identity Politics Failed One Particular Identity

David Baddiel

TLS Books, £9.99

David Baddiel is a very funny man and, as a comedian, he has never hidden his Jewishness. Indeed, in Jews Don’t Count, he declares himself “one of the UK’s very few famous Jews”. Lest anyone should imagine that this is just a narcissistic boast, he’s quick to explain what he means: “one of the very few people in this country whose Jewishness is one of the principal things known about them”. Move over Howard Jacobson, Melanie Phillips, Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon Sharma, Esther Rantzen, Emma Barnett, Miriam Margolyes… 

So we get it. Being Jewish is very important to David Baddiel. It’s at the core of his identity. And this existential reality makes him particularly sensitive to the antisemitic tropes, rhetoric and activity he detects all around him. That, and the fact that his mother was born in Nazi Germany and whose scarring experiences are an acknowledged part of the author’s psychic inheritance. 

Interestingly, in a book detailing his finely tuned alertness to antisemitic undercurrents in the arts, the media, on football terraces and across the political spectrum, the word “paranoia” never appears. It can’t, because Baddiel’s fundamental axiom is, in the light  (or perhaps darkness) of the Holocaust, “how scared, at base, Jews are.”  

In this book, Baddiel’s vitriol is aimed particularly at left-leaning “progressives” who seem to care about every other ethnic minority but Jews. At the heart of this passionately felt polemic (which leaves no room for nuance) is a question for the reader: Do you think of Jews as part of the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community? Baddiel argues that, if you don’t, you should. 

The problem with this is that feeling something is true doesn’t make it so. BAME was an invented analytic category, originating in the 1991 census to assist government policy-making. 

Its usefulness has increasingly been contested over the years, often by specific minority groups (the Chinese community, for example) who don’t feel they fit into this artificial framework. Baddiel doesn’t discuss this – nor does he mention that Jews have never been included as a sub-community in the official BAME category. 
Objective analysis of antisemitism — and the conscious and unconscious antipathy he describes is, of course, real – is of no interest here but, like the antisemitic discourse he decries, priority goes to the inviolable supremacy of personal feeling. And in “identity politics” nobody is allowed to argue with that.  

Baddiel shows how Jews are stereotyped by racists in contradictory ways: they are thieving, deceitful, dirty – and privileged, rich and powerful, an accurate though not original insight. What is novel is his capacity, in the solitary sentence in the book that describes any aspect of the Judaic heritage — “The Talmud is a book of exegesis of the Old Testament, codified in the fourteenth century and containing the basis of all the archaic rules and laws of Judaism” — to generate a quartet of errors.  The Talmud is not a book of biblical exegesis; it is a multi-volume compendium of law and lore, theology and story-telling. “Old Testament” is a Christian, not Jewish term, one redolent of old-style antisemitism. Talmud was codified in the sixth century. And to say it contains the basis of all the archaic rules and laws is a pejorative formulation carrying its own, unconscious antisemitism.

There’s no shame in being a self-confessed Jewish atheist but it is a shame, while defending the integrity of Jewishness with such vigour, to present such an ignorant interpretation of it.

Howard Cooper is a rabbi, writer and psychotherapist

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