I started reading David Baddiel’s book Jews Don’t Count determined to pan it. He blocks me on Twitter (no idea why) alongside (they tell me) many other pro-Israel activists. My hackles rose still further on reading Keren David’s opening paragraphs in her JC report of her interview with Mr Baddiel:
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 hate that word ‘progressive’. Progressing to what? They never answer. And it’s so sanctimonious and proscriptive: the Liberal and Reform synagogue movement in the UK call themselves ‘progressive’. I’m not a member of those movements, am I RE-gressive then? It’s often used by the acceptable (ie non-Corbynite) Left to describe themselves. Those of us not in that category but who take identity politics seriously – are we proscribed from the magic ‘progressive’ circle? Those who deem themselves ‘progressive’ do not have a monopoly of virtue – far from it.
I’m not a Baddiel fan. I am a Spurs fan. He is a Chelsea fan and putting the boot into us for calling ourselves ‘Proud Yids’ therefore serves as a double whammy for him. Jewish Spurs fans are proud that when fans of other clubs (Chelsea included) began to abuse Spurs supporters in the late 1960s as ‘Yids’, the response of our fellow fans was not to disown us but to join us as ‘Proud Yids’. There is nowhere in London where I feel safer with an Israel flag than at White Hart Lane (sorry, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium). Certainly not at Stamford Bridge and certainly not at a Stand Up To Racism rally.
Another reason I’m not a Baddiel fan is because I was sickened by his autobiographical play My Family Not the Sitcom. Sickened by the tasteless revelations about his mother’s sexlife: call me old-fashioned maybe but there are some things about a mother that a son/daughter should keep private. Had I been on my own I would have walked out.
A third reason is his attitude to Israel. Of which more later.
So my expectations on opening the book were not exactly sky high. Plus the theme – that Jews don’t count in what David Baddiel calls the ‘sacred circle’ of minorities for whom the ‘progressive modern left ‘ are prepared to go into battle – is hardly a revelation.
But contrary to expectations, the book DID hold my attention in its 123 pages. It’s a polemic not a textbook; the ideas are not original; it’s riddled with inconsistences; but it’s beautifully written (Mr Baddiel has a double first in English from King’s College, Cambridge), well researched and there’s plenty to hold the attention even of a seasoned counter-antisemitism activist. I loved the description of Jews as Schrödinger’s Whites (Mr Baddiel is honest enough to say it’s not original); his tip to look for the word ‘always’ when trying to decide if someone is an antisemite; and his knowledge of TV and film, particularly of the number of films where Jewish characters are played by non-Jews. And although Jews Don’t Count has a familiar theme – at least to me – I welcome Mr Baddiel’s extensive documentation of examples – for example an astonishing memo distributed by the British Ministry of Information in 1940 (which also featured in his BBC TV programme about Holocaust Deniers). I also welcome Mr Baddiel’s inclusion (p96) of a slam-dunk antisemitic Facebook post of Jenny Tonge which I hadn’t seen before – perhaps because she’s deleted it – something she hardly ever does – even she, it seems, had second thoughts about that one.
Jews Don’t Count may be about second-order antisemitism – the ‘antisemitism of the missing’ –but nevertheless it holds the reader’s attention and Keren David’s advice to those of us who are excluded (or self-excluded) from the sacred progressive circle to ‘forget the book exists’ does it a profound disservice.
But …. (yes there are quite a few ‘buts’)
The biggest ’But’ concerns Israel. The elephant in the room. And it’s a massive one. Israel Doesn’t Count. Mr Baddiel self-describes as an atheist and a non-Zionist. That’s different from an anti-Zionist. It’s not antisemitic. It just means he doesn’t care about Israel (or at least if he does he keeps it (somewhat uncharacteristically) very quiet). 93% of British Jews say that Israel forms some part of their identity as Jews. Mr Baddiel is in the 7%. Israel means no more to him than Belgium. Possibly less. But that’s OK. But the way he puts it on Twitter is NOT OK. If he ‘doesn’t give a fuck about Israel’ then he does not have licence to badmouth it (‘fucking Israel’) because someone who ‘doesn’t give a fuck about Israel’ would not have bothered to interrogate the usual leftist lies about Israel (eg ‘settler colonial’, ‘apartheid’) so if they do not ‘give a fuck’ they should refrain from comment.
But Mr Baddiel cannot resist going with the leftist flow. It’s like a membership badge.
Here he is on Labour List. ‘…as all Jews have to say now’ … One, he’s wrong. Two, since when is it mandatory for Jews to diss Israel? Is that what being ‘progressive’ is about? A political test? As I said, a membership badge, certainly for the Jewish Left who stuck with Corbyn but also for most of the Jewish Left who didn’t. Will it change with the new Labour leader I wonder?
Here in the book: ‘I’m not suggesting that the state of Israel hasn’t done many things to be ashamed of.’ And he says that Miriam Margolyes ‘like many left-wing Jews carries particular shame about Israel’ – Where’s the evidence, not about Margolyes but about ‘many left-wing Jews’? And here on BBC Radio 5 on Thursday “Not for not good reason, on many occasions Israel has become pariah in terms of the behaviour of the Israeli State, for that part of the political community“. If you don’t ‘give a fuck’ about Israel then you don’t care enough to do sufficient due diligence to merit respect for your view – and it would therefore be best if you kept that view to yourself.
And another thing about Israel: Mr Baddiel’s maternal grandfather Ernst suffered terrible persecution in Germany – he was stripped of his assets and was a victim of Kristallnacht. Ernst’s wife’s brother (Mr Baddiel’s great uncle) died, either in the Warsaw Ghetto or in a concentration camp or in the Warsaw Uprising of 1943. It is surprising that someone doesn’t ‘give a fuck’ about a country which – had it been created ten years earlier – might have protected and saved their family members – and about a country which is his best safeguard of ‘Never Again’.
Incidentally the “I don’t give a F about Israel’ stance is not too dissimilar to the stance of many counter-antisemitism activists on the Left. I saw it most in the runup to the 2019 election, the fight against Corbyn. If it’s Holocaust denial or relativism, Rothschild Conspiracy, Soros allegation or Jewish Control allegation, they will fight it. But if it’s ‘Israel steals land’ or ‘Israel expelled 700,000 Palestinians in 1948’ they don’t want to know. I really hope this changes with the change of Leader. If they really don’t think that Israel is at the centre of leftist antisemitism, just look at the identity of the Super Spreaders of the Vaccine Libel !
The second ‘but’ is about stereotyping. Mr Baddiel correctly says ‘To assume that I have to have a strong position on Israel either way is racist’. OK. It’s stereotyping. But what’s sauce for the non-Zionist goose is sauce for the ‘frummer’ gander (‘frummer‘ in Yiddish means highly observant Jew). The highly observant Jews whom I know are all observing the lockdown. It is some (not all) Haredi Jews who are ‘stupid fucking’. At an informed guess maybe 5% of ‘frummers’.
And while we’re on the subject of stereotyping … Mr Baddiel apologises for mocking the appearance of footballer Jason Lee in his Fantasy Football show on BBC in the 1990s. But what about his Phoenix From the Flames show with Avi Cohen? It features an actor dressed as a Chassidic Jew wearing a Tallith (prayer shawl) to emphasise his Jewishness (prayer shawls are generally only worn when or around time of prayer) with a running joke about a Volvo. There is even canned laughter to tell the audience when to laugh! No way would that be acceptable on the BBC today. Why no expression of regret from Mr Baddiel for that? Don’t Jews count?
‘But’ #3 (not really a ‘But’): He should give the full source of the Table on page 111
But #4: As part of the #JewsDon’tCount argument Mr Baddiel writes about the cultural appropriation of food. He means when people who are not Chinese cook and sell Chinese food, or mutatis mutandis non-Indians or non-Chinese. He points out that many ‘progressives’ call out these culinary cultural appropriations, whereas for appropriation of ‘Jewish’ food (eg bagels and chopped liver) there is silence. Er … perhaps that’s because both Ashkenazi and Sfardi foods (which he doesn’t mention) were themselves drawn from the places where Jews lived before they had to move on.
‘But’ #5 is quite a big one. Mr Baddiel says (p105) that there were examples in the back-and-forth about Labour antisemitism where the ‘Jewish community overreacted’. ‘Jewish community’ must mean Board of Deputies or Jewish Leadership Council – the only community umbrella organisations who negotiated with Labour over antisemitism. Marie van der Zyl leads the Board and Jonathan Goldstein the JLC. I challenge Mr Baddiel to find one example of them ‘overreacting’. He can’t – because there isn’t one, they were remarkably restrained. (Remember that the EHRC ruled that denial of the claim of antisemitism is an illegal act of harassment).
Mr Baddiel goes on to state ‘No doubt also there was much weaponisation, by Labour Party enemies, of the issue [of antisemitism].’ Unlike for his disparaging of the Board and JLC, here Mr Baddiel does give an example:
Matt Hancock, the British Health Secretary, was filmed speaking before the 2019 election at his own constituency. He got into some trouble over the Conservative manifesto pledge to supply the NHS with fifty thousand new nurses. The crowd became restless. Desperately he reached for a trump card: Labour Party antisemitism. It was a cynical, panicky move. But the crowd’s reaction is, to my ears, astounding. On hearing Hancock’s pledge to ‘fight the antisemitic racist attitudes of Jeremy Corbyn’, the crowd boo him, they swear, they get up and take the mike from him.
Mr Baddiel’s point is that when he expressed shock on Twitter at the crowd’s reaction to the word ‘antisemitism’, he received abuse.
He’s actually ‘weaponising’ the incident himself to smear the Conservative Party. First Matt Hancock wasn’t just ‘speaking’, he was at a hustings with the other candidates. There is a big difference. Second, the Conservative manifesto pledge was NOT (as Mr Baddiel says) fifty thousand new nurses, it was fifty thousand more nurses. The figure included successfully encouraging nearly 19,000 existing nurses to stay.
Third, it was the chair of the meeting who tried to take the mike from Hancock, not ‘the crowd’. Fourth, the video shows that Hancock points with his left hand and addresses the antisemitism comment to the Labour candidate, Claire Unwin – who had never made any attempt to distance from Corbyn’s antisemitism nor to criticise it. Fifth, Unwin herself grins at the mention of antisemitism.
Sixth, it’s perfectly obvious that ‘the crowd’ who jeered Hancock was not a representative cross-section of West Suffolk voters. They were hardcore Labour activists, there to jeer at a Cabinet Minister and to film. Hancock had a 17,000 majority in 2017; hustings in constituencies with that size majority simply do not generate either numbers or excitement.
And finally, read this. The intimidation at those hustings in Haverhill obliged Hancock to pull out of a subsequent hustings in Newmarket. However his campaign manager Bobby Bennett (a woman) did go and was subjected to so much abuse that he reported it to the police. He alleged that Unwin and the other candidates did nothing to try to stop the abuse.
So just who is the one doing the ‘weaponising’ here?