Why didn’t Jason Lee forgive David Baddiel?


I waited six weeks before watching David Baddiel’s Channel 4 programme, ‘Jews Don’t Count’. There’s no good reason for the delay, but I’m glad I waited.

If I’d watched it immediately, I would spent too long worrying about how the exchange was seen on social media. Does David Baddiel have a problem with black people? Undoubtedly. If you’re going to make a 56-minute programme about how antisemitism is growing and the only three living example you mention are all black, then the problem’s not just them it’s you.

Is it good enough to say that Jews shouldn’t be caught up in the politics of Israel/Palestine simply because David Baddiel doesn’t identify with Israel? Not really, when there’s a state which defines citizenship in ethnic terms, which removed the people who lived there and invites Jews to “return” and replace them.

It’s odd that Baddiel’s programme occupies a transatlantic space, the first four Jews interviewed as Sarah Silverman, Jonathan Safran Foer, David Schwimmer, and Dara Horn without ever mentioning the long history in America of “Blacks versus Jews.” As if the world has never seen Cynthia Ozick on one side or Louis Farrakhan on the other. As if when we talk about what’s wrong with the current government in Israel, it’s “far-right” counterpart: we aren’t talking about exactly a group of people (Meir Kahane’s supporters in the successors to his Kach party) who were formed not in Israel, but in New York especially, via the New York City teachers’ strike and the JDL, via the murders carried out by Baruch Goldstein, etc…

On the other hand, when Baddiel shows a Jewish school its alarms ringing so that the 6-year-old kids can prepare for a shooting – I believe him. I can tell you about the security gate through which you need to walk to enter a London synagogue. And where that fear comes from, which isn’t history or fantasy – it’s from the such real and recent events as the Tree of Life shooting.

He’s right when he says the left is rubbish at responding to Jewish anxiety. The problem saying “Jews Don’t Count” makes it sounds like only Jewish people get this treatment. So what about Anna Chen and what happened when she wanted the left to organise Chinese workers? What about Flame? What about the way that for 25 years, the likes of Sivanandan or Darcus Howe were ignored – where in the British left between 1990 and 2010 could you find anyone other than their closest living allies urging you to read them?

That’s one frustration of “Jews don’t count”, the way it pretends there’s an audience of British white leftists who’re engaged with the rights of every single minority except Jews. When the honest accounting would be, every racialised group without exception has had to fight for the limited solidarity the left has given it.

If I’d written this six weeks ago, that’s where the piece would have ended. But-

But watching the same programme now, I was much more interested in the last ten minutes, in which Baddiel was speaking to Jason Lee – and Baddiel apologised – and Lee chose not to forgive him. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a piece of television with so little text and so much subtext.

This is what we get. It begins with Baddiel telling Lee: “I’ve come here to say sorry, Jason. I’m sorry for wearing a costume and makeup that was racist. I’ve said I’m sorry in print. I said I’m sorry in TV by there’s something missing…” He continues, “What we lost sight on in those sketches was the human being at the other end of those sketches, which is you.”

Lee responds by reminding Baddiel that for years Baddiel had wronged him, but had never spoken to him or admitted anything face to face: “Yeah, I think it’s important for people watching this, listening for the first time to realise that we’ve never spoken.”

Awkwardly, Baddiel admits, “We’ve never spoken.”

Lee says, “I mean my first question would be why’s it taken 25 years for you to reach out really and have this conversation, man to man?”

Baddiel, “Yeah, that’s my bad as well. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. To explain it, there’s shame, there’s awkwardness, there’s fear. But it took me a while to understand I think, how much we fucked up and also stuff happened to me that made me realise how you must have felt as I became more well-known, especially as I put my Jewish identity a bit more front foot, suddenly I was getting racist abuse.”

“Yeah,” Lee answers.

Baddiel says, “And I hated it and it did start to shift in me at that point, of course, this is how Jason Lee must have felt.”

Hearing what feels like insight, Lee smiles for first time. He says, “As much as I hold you accountable for it because you were the person obviously who costumed up, I hold so many more people accountable, BBC2 at the time, people you was working with, was there anybody at stage who said maybe you’re going a bit too far here?”

Baddiel, “Not at that point.”

Lee, “Because I was successful?”

Baddiel, “And because it was in a culture at that time, and again, people use that as an excuse, I’m not using it as an excuse, I’m just trying to answer your question, there was an acceptability at that point in time-”

Lee: “Hm.”

Baddiel, “To that kind of comedy at the time, which is not acceptable.”

Lee is still pressing to see how far Baddiel will go: “It’s nice to hear you say that” (smiles). “Now, if that had come out earlier maybe people might have understood.” Then, for the first time, he speaks as if he is willing to see the hurt over: “But, as I say, I was able to deal with whatever was thrown my way. Doesn’t mean I should have to deal with it.”

“No,” Baddiel acknowledges.

Then Lee takes the conversation in a different direction. First to politics: “You know, I’ve got family and friends who live in Stoke Newington, where there’s a large Jewish community. There’s a real strong connection between the black community and the Jewish community in that area” (smiles). “These are communities coming together supporting each other who can probably identify with the struggles.”

Then to football. (It’s worth knowing, although the programme never explains, that Lee now works for the PFA where he is an Equalities and Education executive, and that he has often written about the racism he encountered both from Baddiel himself, and from the fans who took their cue from him).

Lee says: “You mentioned in your book about allyship, I mean, I would say to you that I would be an ally. I agree with you 100% that using the Y-word in a stadium, and for me, you know, in terms of football, and would Tottenham can do, it would be helpful if they could take a lead. Because they identify with that word.”

He continues: “My focus is on players. Players can bring it to our attention and if a Jewish player was to bring it to our attention and to say, Look I’m being discriminated against. 100% that player would get the same support as any other minority group.”

Baddiel, appreciating that their time is ending, goes for an upbeat note: “You saying that, as a black player, that antisemitism 100% should be challenged. That is allyship and I’m 100% grateful for that.”

Now, what really interests me about this exchange is what Lee doesn’t say. At its start and at its ends, it feels to me as if Baddiel was pushing for forgiveness. And, if Lee had indeed spoken the magic words, then undoubtedly that would be of real value to Baddiel. Since every time anyone criticised him on Twitter he’d be able to say. “Look, I know what I did was stupid but Jason Lee forgives me so why can’t you?”

So why doesn’t Lee forgive him? Here are some possible explanations:

  • Who cares?As a perpetrator, Baddiel has no right to forgiveness. It is always the victim’s choice. They are entitled to be unwilling, unready. A perpetrator has no right even to an explanation. It’s the victim’s decision, and if they want to be silent, arbitrary, unwilling etc then good luck to them.
  • There are things said by Baddiel and Lee in the exchange which “may” provide an answer. In particular – the 25 years and nothing said. Maybe all that was going on was Lee thinking: it’s been too long, you’ve not done enough. I want to hear more insight, and a better promise that there’ll be no repetition before I forgive you. (In which case, fair enough: see “a”, above)
  • Maybe Jason Lee thought that Baddiel’s apology was not made in good faith. After all, from halfway through the programme, Baddiel was signalling that much as the programme is about a community (Jews) it’s also about a single person (Baddiel) and that among all the great injustices suffered by the Jews was the fact that people are still monstering him online. To which Lee would be perfectly entitled to say: I don’t owe you anything. If you’re willing to apologise properly to help me, then I’ll accept that. But this programme isn’t about me. This scene isn’t you apologising because you regret doing harm. It’s you apologising to look good in front of other people. And that’s something you’re doing not for me but for you. So, on that basis, I’ll hold on a bit longer before accepting what happened.
  • Maybe Jason Lee didn’t want to play the role of token black person. I mean – one unspoken message of the programme is that’s what black people just do. They’re Martin Luther King. They’re Christians, for god’s sake. Of course they forgive. When they’re not bad, unkind, black people like Malcolm X or Dawn Butler. Maybe Jason Lee couldn’t be bothered living up – or down – to a role fixed for him.
  • Or, the opposite explanation, maybe Jason Lee thought that David Baddiel wasn’t being Jewish enough. I mean, read Maimonides on apologies and there’s a pretty clear route mapped out. First you name the harm and taken ownership (which in fairness Baddiel did, just about) then at step two you change you have “the power to repeat a transgression” but choose not to exercise it (at best, judging by the programme, this one was a maybe), then you make restitution, which in this case might be something like – being seen to take up publicly the causes that mattered to Jason Lee – hell, in the programme, he even told Baddiel what they were, the demands of a new generation of young footballers confronting racism in the game, help them, make their lives easier, amplify them (as far I can see, he hasn’t even started on that one), and only then do you make an apology. The sequences matters. The public apology has its weight, and should be accepted, as the final act of someone who has already proven how much they have learned.

Personally, I’ll take the last of those explanations. A good apology is all about restitution. It’s not about the moment, the performance. On that score, Baddiel’s words were perfectly acceptable, but it’s not the test. Sometime, you can apologise and by your acts restore your victim to the exact position they were in before you hurt them. You stole £10. Alright, give them another £10 back. They’re at the start again. Now, you can say sorry.

Sometimes, you can’t restore the victim to their exact position in which they started. Because time has passed, because they’re dead. Because certain hurts are irreversible. So, you make a symbolic gesture. Like when a person who has been punched gets the chance to punch their oppressor back. And they never put their full force into it. Because it’s not the chance that matters, it’s the right, it’s the entitlement that counts.

If you can’t undo the exact hurt, you can do something like it. And, in this case, Lee was telling Baddiel what that would be – take the steps of public allyship, so that next time a different 25 year old black footballer won’t get that treatment at all – everyone will know it’s stupid and racist and something shameful. There’s the path, all mapped for Baddiel.

Now let’s see if he can follow it.

One response »

  1. It’s a shame the people we end up hearing the most are largely determined by our corporate masters. Now that the left is moribund, the power that forced the establishment to acknowledge the voices of the marginalized, via, for example, Debs or the Black Panthers, is no more. Instead, we mostly have the legacy of the original New Left and its offshoots, which – well, it’s too long to go into now, but, in a gross understatement, let’s just say, what amounts to public discourse is heavily “mediated.” The media will always mediate…

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