David Baddiel and the J word
Despite a few quibbles, Charles Harris finds David Baddiel’s new book a readable and well researched polemic
25 March, 2021 — By Charles Harris
David Baddiel. Photo: Ralph PH
I FIRST came out in my 30s. Not as gay – as Jewish. This is something many Jews will understand and most non-Jews will find incomprehensible, but it was a big thing back then to admit that I was Jewish to people who didn’t already know.
Being Jewish is that odd thing – a minority ethnicity that somehow got missed out of the Bame list; an ethnic group that’s never included in the tick boxes (do I check off “White British” or “Other”?); a race that is both white and non-white at the same time.
This is the central argument of Jews Don’t Count, the new book by David Baddiel, writer, comedian and Hampstead resident. Baddiel is, as he says in the book, the most famous Jewish person in the country. Not the most famous Jew, but the person most known for being Jewish, because unlike American Jews, British Jews tend to keep quiet about their Jewishness.
Someone once joked that each week the headline in the Jewish Chronicle is “They hate us.” “No,” replies Baddiel. “It’s ‘They hate us: and let’s not make a fuss about it.’”
Perhaps because Baddiel was born in New York – though he came to Britain at four months old – he is more than happy to make a fuss, and does so with characteristic satiric wit but a strong vein of underlying seriousness.
However, is he right?
It’s a short book. Originally commissioned as an article for the Times Literary Supplement at a mere 10,000 words, it ballooned to a slightly more massive 28,000. But unlike just about every other book about anti-Semitism, the main target isn’t the overtly racist alt-right. No, Baddiel is concerned with the progressives, the liberal thinkers, the nice people who would never use the N-word or tell jokes against gays. These are people who wear their anti-racism on their sleeves – sometimes literally. Yet one -ism gets forgotten.
The book works largely through accumulating examples. A small slight here, a misspeak there, may not mean much on its own, but they soon begin to pile up.
The owner of Wigan Athletic says “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else” and thinks he’s made a compliment.
Danish comedian Sofie Hagen gives a long list of “the most oppressed people in society”. And forgets the Jews.
Lib-Dem peer Baroness Tonge tweets: “Why have the Jewish people been persecuted over and over again throughout history?” Implying, Baddiel says, that it’s somehow the Jews’ fault.
The picture that comes rapidly into focus is one in which Jews are both white and therefore privileged and powerful and yet at the same time not quite “one of us”, not truly British, not to be trusted.
As he piles up the examples, Baddiel attacks the counter-arguments. Such as that anti-Semitism isn’t quite as important as racism against other minorities. That Judaism isn’t a race but a religion. And that Jews can “pass” as non-Jews. This might seem a strong argument, until he points out that gays can also “pass” as hetero, without anyone saying homophobia is somehow a lesser evil. And with respect to religion, the Nazis never checked if their victims kept kosher.
He also quotes statistics to show how anti-Semitism is on the rise from Alabama to Warsaw. In recent years, Jews have been shot at, firebombed and killed across the world. In 2018, anti-Jewish crimes made up fully 60 per cent of religiously-motivated hate-crimes in the US, compared to 18.6 per cent against Muslims.
This will be an uncomfortable read for many progressives, not least the sections on Corbyn and the Labour Party. Baddiel’s view is that the ex-Labour leader isn’t actively anti-Semitic. Instead, his priority is being anti-Capitalist but that the line somehow gets blurred. Yet surely that’s too kind. A blurring between money and Judaism is precisely what anti-Semites do all the time.
Another quibble: I have never agreed with Baddiel’s campaign against Tottenham fans calling themselves “Yids”. As a Spurs supporter, it doesn’t make me feel attacked, but empowered.
And a third: no index. I’m sure many readers will want to refer back to specific passages, and in a book like this, however brief, an index has to be a must.
However, one possible criticism doesn’t stand up. I could imagine progressives accusing Baddiel of focusing too much on the flaws of the left and giving the right an easy ride. I don’t think he does. There are enough examples of right-wing racism in the book. But they are not Baddiel’s theme. Instead, what he does most powerfully is show how easy it is for the “good” people to fall short of their own standards.
If more people began to realise this, then maybe something can be done about it. And this short, very readable, well-researched book is a vital step in that direction.
• Jews Don’t Count. By David Baddiel, Harper Collins, £9.99.
• Charles Harris’s latest novel Room 15 is out now, published by Bloodhound Books.