Provocative, but pertinent?*
Why are you reading this blog? Did the headline capture your attention? Was it the word ‘Jew’ that drew you in with its accompanying but, let’s be honest, strange and provocative question mark? Maybe you’ve vaguely followed debates about anti Semitism in recent years, but it’s left you confused.
Because of its provocative title, I was likewise drawn to British writer and comedian, David Baddiel’s, new book – called Jews Don’t Count.
On one level the word Jew is innocent enough. It’s a dictionary definition for a person who follows the Jewish faith. But it’s so much more than that.
Once a non-Jewish guy I had started casually dating (I’ve only ever seriously dated non-Jewish guys, but that’s a blog for another day) texted me after a few dates and totally out-of-the-blue, greeted me with the words, ‘Hey Jew’ as a deliberate word-play on the rather more regular greeting, ‘Hey You!’ I chose never to see him again, but that’s not my point.
The word ‘Jew’ has historical and social significance beyond its narrow dictionary definition. Uttered in a particular way, by particular people, it has properties that make it a weapon, a word intended as a form of dismissal, or worse, assault.
I’ll never forget my Year 8 English literature teacher who had a particular dislike for a Jewish boy in my class whose surname was Klein. The teacher would make odd and unwelcome remarks referring to this classmate’s Jewishness. My point here is that the teacher never mentioned the word ‘Jew’, but stereotypes of Jews fuelled every prejudicial comment he made about gas chambers and the holidays Jews apparently take in Miami.
The word ‘Jew’ can be used to hurt people both when it’s uttered – and when it’s used as a hidden cudgel.
Jews Don’t Count
Jews Don’t Count will be the focus of this first blog in a new series of blogs I’m writing this spring on my Jewish identity, both the joys and the complications.
My initial reaction on hearing about ‘Jews Don’t Count’, Baddiel’s new book, was to think, ‘oh gosh, I really want to like the book’. After all I like David Baddiel. However, I wondered, ‘is this going to be a nuanced account of anti Semitism in the 21st century?’
I feared that it wouldn’t be subtle or nuanced. That’s to say, I was worried it would be a heavy-handed account of the issues facing Jewish people in Britain today.
I’ve now listened to two events where David Baddiel’s been interviewed. In the first interview he was questioned by Toby Lichtig from the Times Literary Supplement. In the second, he was in conversation with author, Howard Jacobson. I think I now agree with Baddiel’s basic analysis.
I think I agree with his overall diagnosis that there’s a problem that needs highlighting: in some cases, Jews don’t count as much as they should in contemporary identity politics.
In an age of ‘what-about-ery’, those who think they’re on the ‘right side of history’ and ‘progressive’, seem less concerned about Jews than other minorities, largely believing Jews to be white, rich people and therefore not a typical ‘minority’.
What’s the argument?
Let me be clear what I think David Baddiel is and isn’t saying.
- He’s not saying Jews don’t count in terms of numerical representation within British life and society. Let’s be clear. There are around 250,000 people who identity as Jewish in the UK (the 2021 Census may revise this figure downwards). The Jewish population represents less than 0.5 per cent of the total British population. If there’s anything to be concerned about in terms of numbers, it’s not the old anti-Semitic trope that Jews are somehow over-represented in commerce, politics, business, or the media, but rather, they’re diminishing in size. Our population – okay, ‘my community’ – is shrinking in size. There’s no getting away from it, and some British progressives may not agree, but Jews in Britain are a minority.
- Baddiel is saying that in the past fifteen or so years, there has been a significant societal shift. In public life and politics, this has seen a greater focus on people’s identities and how historically, and until to the present day, certain communities have been discriminated against and marginalised (‘identity politics’). For good or bad, the rise of identity politics seems to be a real phenomenon. Among other things, you might argue identity politics understands some communities need some form of protection against hatred. Further to this, Baddiel’s saying there’s been a peculiar and damaging rupture in recent years; there’s less recognition and acceptance that Jews are a minority, not just a religious minority, but an ethnic minority that can and does face racism. What one might go on to say is that, consequently, the Jewish community needs some degree of protection, but making this case has become increasingly difficult. Sadly for some in British politics and society, particularly for some on the Left in politics, muddled thinking, ignorance and even the re-emergence of ancient anti Semitic ideas means there’s less acceptance Jews are a minority in need of protection.
You can also look at Stephen Bush’s ‘take’ on Baddiel’s ambivalence towards discussing Israel (Baddiel argues it’s racist to expect him as a British Jew to have a view on Israel, or more precisely, to feel somehow responsible for the State of Israel’s policies and behaviour). Baddiel has questioned whether Muslim people are similarly treated, whether indeed they are asked to share personal responsibility about human rights in, say, Saudi Arabia.
Illustrating the argument
This following sections featured in quotation marks are taken from the New European article. I cannot paraphrase any of this, so with complete acknowledgement this is someone else’s writing (Keiron Pim, February 26 2021), here are some of the more detailed points being debated and raised in Jews Don’t Count.
I include these sections because they sharply illustrate what has already been written about Baddiel’s book.
- “When polls during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour consistently showed that almost nine out of ten British Jews consider him anti-Semitic, too many socialists’ response to this consensus was not to pause for reflection, but to reject the charge with an insult: it was not only wrong, but a ‘smear’.”
- “For people who aren’t Jewish to dismiss this overwhelming view, which derives from a litany of moments spanning his (Corbyn’s) advocacy in 2011 for Sheikh Raed Salah – a hate preacher already notorious for spreading the blood libel that Jews make bread with children’s blood (which would have repulsed any true anti-racist) – to his remark about Zionists who “don’t understand English irony” despite “having lived in this country… probably all their lives”, is itself dubious. There are only two possible conclusions: they think most Jews are liars or delusional. Well, there’s a word for such negative generalisations about Jewish people…”…
Inconsistencies and flawed assumptions
“This 144-page polemic scrutinises the ways progressives discard their principles over anti-Semitism and lays out an irrefutable charge sheet of oversights and inconsistencies, (some of which include)…
- “The actress Seyi Omooba is fired from an adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for posting homophobic remarks on Facebook – but, in an era when artists are routinely ‘cancelled’ for prejudice, Walker herself is not despite her track record of anti-Semitism. Her 2017 poem To Study the Talmud drips with loathing for Jews, whose central theological text she libels as sanctioning paedophilia, slavery and murder of gentiles.”
- “The actor and left-wing activist John Cusack fails to see the anti-Semitism in an image he retweeted of cowed people smothered by a giant hand protruding from a sleeve bearing a Star of David, captioned: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.” This line is attributed to Voltaire; it was actually coined by an American white nationalist named Kevin Strom.”
“These are all sins of omission. Anti-Semitism, as Baddiel points out, is usually understood as active. It exists in things people do: in insults, propagation of hateful conspiracy theories, physical attacks, murders. Such things still happen with horrifying regularity. Less obvious, at least to many non-Jewish people, are its manifestations in the things people do not do; in conspicuous silences, failures to apply principles. Baddiel’s essay pinpoints these gaps and the flawed assumptions they rest upon, and explains their origins…
A racism that ‘punches up’
“A well-established reason is that anti-Semitism, alone among racisms, imagines it punches up (i.e. it affects people perceived to be upwardly mobile or at the top of the economy or society). It entails the identification and desired redistribution of power. This instinctively appeals to some on the left, whose raison d’etre is to create a fairer society…
- “If you’ve absorbed the ancient canard that Jews are rich, you’d naturally see them as lower priority than other minorities. But Jews aren’t rich, or no richer than anyone else. Baddiel cites the latest New World Wealth report: of the world’s 13.1m millionaires, 56.2% are Christian, 6.5% are Muslim, 3.9% are Hindu and 1.7% are Jewish. Nor does this alleged privilege prevent them from being the faith group second likeliest to experience hate crime in Britain today, according to Home Office statistics.”
“A related reason is that Jews are perceived as white, and therefore beneficiaries of white privilege. “But Jews are not white,” writes Baddiel. “Or not quite. At least, they don’t always feel it.” One of his first jokes as a stand-up was: “I’ve been beaten up twice in my life, once for being Jewish, once for being a Pakistani.””
“Jews are often off-white enough to be perceptibly ‘other’. Too ‘other’ for the racists, too white for the anti-racists; rich parasites, impoverished scroungers; capitalists to the far-left, fomenters of communism to the far-right… anti-Semitism’s endurance lies in the fact there’s a myth about Jews to appeal to every political persuasion.”
The crossover appeal of anti Jewish hatred, both on left and right
“Sometimes the same myths appeal to left and right alike; Baddiel identifies an overlap in ideas about Jewish power and mendacity at the extremes of the political spectrum. I’ve seen this in numerous social media posts by acquaintances. A football teammate ranting on Facebook about how “Jewish-American overlords” manipulate the media. A former newspaper colleague who tweeted that he blames Labour’s 2019 electoral defeat on “British Jewry”, who are overrepresented in the media and skewed the debate in their favour.
“A former friend who shared a meme that quotes a Holocaust survivor and pro-Palestinian activist named Hajo Meyer as saying: “An anti-Semite used to be someone who hates Jews; now it is someone who Jews hate.””
“This means that if Jews hate someone, we lie that they’re an anti-Semite. We habitually smear our opponents by crying wolf. It’s plainly an anti-Semitic sentiment, and no surprise: the quote was misattributed to Meyer, it originates from a far-right holocaust denier named Joseph Sobran.”
- “This crossover is a recognised phenomenon. One of the grimmest episodes in Labour’s anti-Semitism saga involved Liverpool-based activist Kayla Bibby visiting the far-right Incog Man website, finding an image of the Statue of Liberty being attacked by an alien creature marked with a Star of David, and sharing it with the comment it was “the most accurate photo I’ve seen all year”. Labour’s then head of disputes, Thomas Gardiner, decreed that it was not anti-Semitic and declined to suspend her.”
On being a Jew
On choosing to include the word, ‘Jew’, in his title, Baddiel confronts the question and effectively says ‘why on earth wouldn’t I shamelessly own who I am? Why wouldn’t I stand up and be counted as a Jew’. He points to the fact that in an age of labels, where everyone else seems keen to ‘essentialize’ who they are, why can’t he?
He worries the word has become, at least for some Jews, rather delicate . Not in terms of how we regard ourselves, but how we anticipate non-Jewish people’s reactions to us so proudly owning our faith and our ethnic identity. There’s a genuine issue here, I feel.
I’ve got a close friend who once told me he doesn’t disclose the fact he’s Jewish to new people he meets. His grandmother was a child refugee from Nazi Germany. The toxic politics that has surrounded Israel since at least the second Intifada in 2000, if not before, means some Jewish people do feel a sense of timidity or shame owning their full and complex identity.
Put it like this, Baddiel seems to understand the risks some Jewish people seem to anticipate on proudly stating they are a Jew: saying ‘I am a Jew’ to new people they meet. Baddiel tries to lead by example on the top of his Twitter page, simply introducing himself as ‘Jew’.
In my experience, the word ‘Jew’ can be uttered rather heavily and, I’d even say, harshly, in some news broadcasts. There’s an odd tonal quality to how some non-Jews now utter the word ‘Jew’.
The other day, I came across to a foreword to a book on Gertrude Stein, the Modernist art collector and writer, and she was introduced as the child of ‘wealthy Jewish parents‘. Mmmm…do we ever see texts on Vladimir Nabokov introduced as a child of ‘wealthy Russian Orthodox Christian parents?’ Or F Scott Fitzgerald introduced as the child of ‘wealthy Catholic parents’?
The Israel question
This is a blog for another day, but I’d say the State of Israel, that’s to say how it’s perceived around the world and how it is regarded as the one nation state in the world that is a Jewish State, colours this whole debate. It colours how Jewish people themselves come to think about their place in the world. After all, any good Jewish bar mitzvah boy can recall all the prayers they had to learn by rote which starts with the words, ‘Hear O Israel’. And yet, as they grow up they’re forced to confront the grim reality that what’s included in their prayers is a sullied, and for some, a sunken state.
My paternal grandfather’s birth name was Israel (it was later anglicised to Arthur, and that too is a blog for another day). To think the word ‘Israel’ – more potent and more toxic than the word ‘Jew’ – carries with it such hateful connotations for so many people in the world – well, yes, it’s of course upsetting.
The world’s one true Pariah State, Israel, faces near universal condemnation despite the many other human rights abuses that could be pointed to beyond the Palestinian territories (think of the plight for instance of the Uighurs in North Western China). And so my argument is that, Israel too – its contemporary pariah state status – affects many Jewish people’s self-identity and how they feel about proudly pronouncing their Jewishness. You might say, ‘and rightly so’. Again, a blog for another day.
Returning to Baddiel’s question – ‘do we wear our Jewish badge, our ethnic identity, and not just our faith (there are many atheist Jews) with pride?’ Baddiel fears some Jews don’t, at least not always, and there’s a significant degree to which British Jews in particular feel some conflict or shame about their Jewish identity. I don’t have statistics to quote, but I can only talk from my own experience when I say I think there’s an element of anecdotal truth to this.
I have “skin in this game”
Put it like this. I am an Ashkenazi British Jew, although I increasingly see my ethnic identity as Ashkenazi European Jewish. I have “skin in this game”. I think this is an important debate to have and I’ve been giving lots of thought for months now on how to participate.
This will be the first blog in a series to come where I plan to untangle, and tease out, what being Jewish means to me – both the joys and complications.
There’s not enough time to do justice to the thousands of issues I yet plan to highlight and raise in this single blog.
Moving on from Baddiel’s specific book, I want to participate in an enlightened debate. One that takes place in good faith and neither assumes Jews artificially construct grievances (as some on the Corbyn Left seem to think) nor assumes as Jews, we must obsess about the uniqueness or exceptionalism of our community. Nor indeed assumes our community is best-served by engaging in a debate about ‘what-about-ery‘, trying to prove our eternal disadvantage, i.e. to elevate the community’s concerns above any other community’s.
I like to think of myself as a social democrat on some issues, and a liberal thinker on others. I want the Jewish community to protect themselves from the anti Semitism that undoubtedly still exists and I do think David Baddiel raises pertinent questions.
Truth be told, I’m concerned that some British Jews might be at risk of becoming a little too fixed on the recent controversies that have dogged the Labour Party, even now that Jeremy Corbyn has left.
The best traditions
I see the best traditions of British Jewry as follows;
- Internationalist, not insular
- Focused on rooting out injustices wherever we see them and making common cause with other communities
- Communitarian, endeavouring to help one another and lift one another up through sharing skills, stories and resources
- Ironic, good-humoured, tolerant, healthily sceptical and questioning
- Challenging in terms of orthodoxies and rigid or conformist thinking, including any received wisdom we’re expected to follow in terms of our own scriptures…
…I want to think we can have this debate about the position of British Jews framed positively and constructively around how the community can use its ‘bridging capital’ – its links across society – to change hearts and minds if needed, to persuasively win arguments, and not just slur people we disagree with or throw easy slogans and insults that people are anti-Semitic or racist.
As I’ll say a million times, anti Semitism is a real issue and the statistics from the UK do suggest reported hate crime has been rising against Jews in recent years. One need only consider the murders of Jews in Toulouse, Paris, Brussels, Argentina, Halle, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Casablanca and many other locations besides to know anti-Jewish hatred still exists, both on the Far Right and in fundamentalist Islamism.
There was a bombing of the Israeli Embassy in London in 1994, I remember it well as a twelve year old. This occurred at the height of Yitzhak Rabin’s peaceful efforts to secure a two-state solution with the Palestinian authorities. It left me sad and confused.
And to illustrate that anti Semitism exists in all ages and in all global contexts, look at this recent article covering anti Semitic speeches a few weeks ago among a Hard Right meeting in honour of Franco in Madrid, Spain.
But since anti Semitism is so important we can’t cheapen it as a term by mixing up every bit of hostility towards the State of Israel, or every anti-Zionist proclamation, or plain ignorance about Jews and Jewishness as intended and rabid anti Semitism.
Let me end by citing a recent example. The Scottish Labour Party recently elected Anas Sarwar as its Leader. A Muslim man of colour, Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the British Labour Party immediate tweeted her congratulations on him being elected as the first ‘ethnic minority’ leader of a UK political party. A number of prominent Jewish figures including David Baddiel immediately tweeted angrily or incredulously at Angela Rayner and bemoaned the fact she’s too easily forgotten her own Party had only years before elected its first ethnic minority leader, Ed Miliband – a Jew.
Baddiel argued, quite opportunistically it felt to me, that Rayner was just betraying what many on the Left in Britain feel, which is Jews are not an ethnic minority. It’s not that they discount the idea. It simply never occurs to them. Whatever. I think the moment was Anas Sarwar’s to celebrate, and by jumping up and down and frothing and foaming about rather more trivial slips like this won’t help the Jewish community’s – my community’s cause – when we need to fight the big fights involved in challenging anti Semitism.
Moving the debate on
I’m going to be returning to this subject in the following blogs to come this spring;
Medieval to modern anti Semitism, how things have and haven’t changed
A history of my (and all Jewish people’s) neuroses – the real legacy of the pogroms, Nazism and cross- generational trauma
Being Jewish in literature and art and why TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Victoria Woolf and other modernists were anything but ‘modern’ on the question of anti Semitism
Cancel culture – the David Miller case and why what’s happening in Bristol today must be a lesson for us all;
Kaye or Kaufmann, or Kaufman? What’s in a name? Anglicising Jewishness and choosing to return to my roots
The Hidden Holocaust in Lithuania and Ukraine – how the banality of evil extended across ordinary populations
Dating Jews – why I haven’t, and what it might say about my own prejudices
I hope you’ll join me for at least some of the journey.
Now go congratulate yourself on reaching the end of this blog and pour yourself a stiff whiskey.
*A warning – this blog-post can’t do possible justice to the vast history on this subject of Jewish identity. It can’t do justice in fact to anything that’s been written on the subject of Jewishness and how Jews are understood, or indeed understand themselves, as a minority group. Please take from this blog what you will, please ask any questions, but please don’t criticise it for what it misses out.
It’s my initial set of views and reactions to a huge topic and one I plan to return to a few times in the coming months. It’s necessarily incomplete and partial, and I make no apologies for the fact none of my arguments or points have sources accompanying them. It is not evidenced. This is my blog and this is the privilege of having a blog, I can say what I want!