I am sure I wasn’t the only person whose heart sunk at the news of the publication of David Baddiel’s new book. Did we really need another re—run of the great social media battle of Labour versus the Jews? I reckoned the book would receive rave recommendations in the Times and the Spectator (it has). I thought that Baddiel would be critical of several prominent leftists, and some would deserve his criticism, and some would not. And yes, he does all of that.
What I didn’t expect was that at several moments Baddiel would prove to be sharper than most people who read the Labour crisis in similar ways to him. For example, friends with a long memory may recall the contributions made by Lisa Nandy MP. In February 2020, speaking to an audience of the (pro-Israel) Jewish Labour Movement she explained that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had been incapable of understanding antisemitism because the Labour left did not understand that “Antisemitism is a very particular form of racism. It’s the sort of racism that punches up, not down”. A report in the Jewish Chronicle noted after using this metaphor, Nandy “received loud applause” from her audience. Nandy then used the same phrase a second time later that year, in an interview on Radio 4.
Baddiel insists that this way of understanding antisemitism is wrong. He writes, “It is always dangerous, however cleverly you word it, to say Jews are rich. Jews aren’t rich, particularly. Some are. And some aren’t.” He cites figures to show that fewer than one in 50 of the world’s millionaires are Jews. He also points out, and rightly, that when the antisemites portray Jews as both rich and poor. “Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways that other minorities are – as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world.” Baddiel does a better job of understanding what antisemitism is than the people who are now rushing to congratulate him.
Or take the discussion, which came back into the news last year about Black Lives Matter and how Jews should react to it. The Spectator and the Telegraph commissioned articles insisting that BLM could not accommodate Jews and was therefore irredeemably racists: “the same unforgiving standards applied to racists by the hard left are never used towards antisemites”.
In contrast, Baddiel refuses to play the right-wing game of blacks-versus-Jews. He invites people to see Jews through the eyes of the far right. “Jews, for the racists, don’t have a skin colour. That’s part of their dastardly power.” He talks about the Great Replacement conspiracy theory which maintains that white people are the victims of a global genocide (in which they are unfairly made to share Europe and the US with other people who happen to be black, brown, etc), and that in this paranoid theory, “Jews are not white – they can’t be, as they are operating against the white races and they are whites’ main enemy – but they are not brown or black either, because they are utilising those races for their secret, world-conquering purposes.” Elsewhere he talks about Jews’ “flickering’ whiteness: that being white is not just about skin colour but security.
How can Jewish people feel safe when every few months there are antisemitic murders, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, and anti-Jewish talking points multiply online? (I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for myself what it’s like to have family members buried beneath Hebrew gravestones, and to find myself thinking – should I visit their graves? What will it be like, if I go to see them?)
I appreciate that to some readers it will seem strange to think of Jews as both white and non-white. But the ordinary racist imagination, shared by those one in six British people who tell opinion polls that Jews are clannish, obsessed with money, and that they wouldn’t let their children marry a Jew – loads onto the bodies of racialised outsiders a changing series of characteristics. At one moment the category “white” excludes, then later it includes, then later still it excludes again such common Jewish physical traits as big lips, big noses, or copper skin. Jews aren’t alone in this.
Are Italians white? They weren’t in America, or not uncomplicatedly so, 100 years ago. How about the Irish in Britain? How about Arabs in the US today? The census says yes, millions of people (both racists and anti-racists) would say no.
That takes me to the heart of Baddiel’s book. Jews Don’t Count is aimed at people who consider themselves “on the right side of history”, which means not just the left but liberals, and even half the people who vote Conservative. This majority, Baddiel argues, understand that anti-black racism is wrong, would frown at sexist remarks. But they have convinced themselves that Jewish people are outside history’s categories of the underdogs and must therefore be refused a sympathy which everyone else attracts.
Baddiel is not saying that Jews should win in relation to either antisemites, or non-Jews. He’s saying that Jews should be entitled to as much soft power, as much sympathy, as the victims of other sets of binaries. Jews should be loved in the way black people are for their struggle against racism, or the disabled, or lesbians and gay men.
I don’t know any more whether this idea is Baddiel’s or it’s the moment we’re all living through, but I find this notion that oppressed groups shouldn’t be looking at their oppressors but at the people each side of them, strange and depressing.
I wish someone could have said to Baddiel – before his book was written – can’t you see how odd this demand is? It looks at the past 100 years of organising and says, Malcolm X was wrong, Martin Luther King was wrong, Rosa Parks was wrong. People shouldn’t fight for justice for equality in relation to structures of power. What they should be doing instead is looking outside their own battle, and comparing themselves discontentedly to another group of oppressed people and demanding parity of recognition with them.
But there are plenty of groups out there who are, also ignored in the progressive imagination. When did you last see leftists campaigning against anti-Chinese or anti-Traveller racism?
If you think about why some part of the British left have decided in the last few years to take trans rights seriously, the answer is because that movement fixed on a great shared goal, the winning of self-id, rather than the present need to register with a gender recognition panel, which grants recognition to just 200 trans people every year. That goal was set, the government promised to legislate, and changed its mind. Hundreds of thousands of people were defeated – and parts of the left, however late, have seen and acknowledged their suffering.
One in four young trans people have attempted to commit suicide. When they try to talk on social media, a part of the British left has made it their business to seek them out, to misgender and to abuse them, and to do so gleefully in the name of another oppressed group, women. To demand, in that context, that Jews should receive as much sympathy as trans people seems not just misplaced, but reflective of a wilful ignorance of other’s people causes – a sheer, dogged refusal to look for nuance – that is every bit as annoying as the antisemitism Baddiel calls out on the left.
I agree that there is a phenomenon in which at certain times particular minority groups suddenly become loved. I don’t accept that Jewish people gain anything by worrying if we’re in this position or not, or by arguing at gentiles or left-wingers (in the manner of a spurned lover) that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t love us back.
For Baddiel, the story of the past five years is a story of disappointing leftists. Why don’t we spend our every day in the streets? Why don’t we talk about the workers, the way we used to? Why won’t the left organise mass movements of solidarity with Jews?
It’s as if Baddiel has in mind the left-Jewish relationship of 85 years ago, when tens of thousands of dockers, Communists and others occupied the East End of London to stop Oswald Mosley and he’s asking – why can’t we have another Cable Street?
That particular moment was not just the great moment of left-Jewish sympathy in all of British history, it was arguably the clearest instant of racial solidarity that the British working-class ever managed. So why doesn’t it happen again, every week?
Part of the answer is to do with how you mobilise people. Social movements arise in response to a threat. In the 1930s, it was the immediate reality of hundreds of physical attacks on Jewish bodies and premises, openly, in the daytime, and a global context was heading (however poorly anyone grasped it at the time) in a certain direction – genocide.
The instinct to help hasn’t gone away. But it comes back to life only in response to something truly shocking and obvious. When all our computer screens filled with images of crowds marching though Charlottesville and chanting “Jews will not replace us”, American public opinion turned against Donald Trump. When the Tree of Life shootings happened, the response was an outpouring of pro-Jewish solidarity.
Unlike David Baddiel, I don’t want the messages of solidarity. That’s because I don’t want the hate that gives good people a reason to send you their love.
If Baddiel is saying that non-Jews should try feel instinctive sympathy with the demands of British Jews, without needing there to be the threat of genocide to stir them back to life, then I’m with him. When he says that this is about British Jews, not Israel – I’m with him all the way. But I don’t see why the route to winning this argument should be by making comparison with other oppressed groups, whose lives and unfinished battles to win recognition are ones Baddiel barely seems to understand.