A look at anti-Semitism on the left – ‘Jews Don’t Count’ by David Baddiel

By Kit Roberts

DAVID Baddiel’s Twitter bio contains one word: “Jew”. Despite his successful comedy which has brought with it a public profile, that is the aspect of himself Baddiel highlights because that is how he is seen. 

‘Jews Don’t Count’ is not about what Baddiel calls the ‘explicit’ anti-Semitism seen in the far right, exemplified in things like the Charlottesville protests or the beating up of a rabbi in London by someone whilst they shouted ‘kill the Jews’. The racism of these is self-evident. 

Instead he examines how anti-Semitism is manifested specifically in progressive political camps, and highlights that for many, anti-Semitism has become a ‘blind-spot’, which is at best not acknowledged as ‘true’ racism, and at worst sees Jews as part of the problem. 

That there is a problem with anti-Semitism in some left-wing organisations is beyond doubt. You don’t need to go far into any social media platform to find accounts calling themselves ‘antiracist’ posting explicitly anti-Semitic content. 

One of the central ideas explored in David Baddiel’s book is what he describes as a hierarchy of racism. Racism, he explains, is often defined primarily by material privilege. 

Baddiel also describes his ongoing disappointment with certain parts of the Labour Party, such as how the Jewish community was permitted five minutes of relief and vindication after the publishing of the report into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party before Jeremy Corbyn once again thrust himself into the spotlight. 

Anti-Semitic tropes are also thoughtfully explored, such as the age old idea of Jewish people as sneaky or manipulative, exactly the sort of community who would exaggerate accusations of anti-Semitism in order to further their own political agenda. 

Baddiel argues this throughout from pained personal experience. Myths about Jewish identity, that it is a religion and not an ethnicity, are summarily debunked with the cold historical truth that a Jewish atheists were just as vulnerable to Nazi persecution as the most orthodox practitioners. 

One passage that sticks out describes exactly why anti-Semitism is not religion-based prejudice, but racism. Baddiel writes: “Racists who don’t like Jews never ask the Jew they are abusing how often they go to synagogue. They just see the Jewish name and they know. Which is why it’s racism. One’s Jewishness, just like one’s skin colour, is an accident of birth, and as far as the racists are concerned, – and they, sadly, are the people that matter as far as racism goes – you can never lose either.”

The experiences and fears that Baddiel describes ought to be received by progressives as a call to re-examine their own prejudices, an idea which should be at the core of any progressive movement. The unwillingness to do this on the grounds that antiracists by their own nature can’t be racist, or that Jews are white and therefore can’t experience racism, only exacerbates the problem. Instead of admitting fault, the conversation turns to whataboutery and indignation at the very idea that someone who has fought other forms of racism could themselves harbour their own prejudices. 

Indeed, the accusation of racism is treated more seriously than the racism itself. 

Another trope that Baddiel broaches is the idea that when faced by anti-Semitism, someone might proclaim that ‘of course anti-Semitism is bad, all forms of prejudice are bad’. Baddiel draws comparisons here with the ‘All Lives Matter’ theme. Of course all forms of prejudice are bad, but anti-Semitism, he argues, is not treated with the same severity as other forms of racism, and therefore we need to place particular emphasis on it to redress the balance. 

‘Jews Don’t Count’ asks difficult questions of progressives. It is one thing to proclaim oneself an ally and tweet solidarity, but quite another to confront ones own prejudices. That is not to say those things don’t matter, but why the double standard? 

Of particular interest is the in-depth look at how anti-Semitism presents itself. Most importantly, Baddiel highlights, is the idea that Jews must always be simultaneously low and high. So, the usual common racist stereotypes of being unwashed, ignorant, and thieving apply, but in addition Jews also control the world via banking and Hollywood. They are supposedly both detestably weak and impossibly strong, possessing distinctive features, big-noses, being overweight, unkempt facial hair, but are also sneaky and good at camouflaging themselves among ‘normal’ people to pursue their nefarious ends. 

The strong part of this, Baddiel argues, is particularly important with anti-Semitism in progressives, as if Jews are part of the establishment, then they are part of the problem.

Racism, Baddiel argues, is different depending on the community towards which it is directed. Small things like pronouncing a Jewish person’s name with a deliberately foreign twang, for example barrister Adam Wagner as ‘vagner’, has the subtext of seeking to make Jews foreign, the implication being that as a Jew your loyalties are divided and you are never ‘truly’ British. 

A common occurrence that Baddiel draws attention to is the misuse of the term ‘Zionist’. Zionism, though more recently co-opted by the Israeli right, is not itself a right-wing idea. In fact it comes from an immensely diverse history of philosophy that stretches from Communist Zionism to Orthodox Zionism. 

Here though, Baddiel highlights that ‘Zionist’ is simply a byword for ‘Jew’ that can also be used to push responsibility for the actions of the Israeli government onto British citizens who share nothing with the country besides their Jewishness. 

‘Jews Don’t Count’ is a book that challenges progressives to re-examine the way they approach racism, and anti-Semitism in particular. It is patient, thoughtful, and offers a plethora of insights into how anti-Semitism can creep into progressive organisations. 

The left’s ‘blind spot’ is well and truly illuminated. With a manual for identifying and confronting anti-Semitism such as this, any failure to confront it is seemingly an act of will that would only reinforce just how deeply ingrained the problem has become. 

Featured Image: Raph_PH @Flickr

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