Why do people never refer to the “Y-word” in place of the offensive “yid”? Why, when the BBC recently broadcast a reading of TS Eliot’s poetry, did it read out the famously and staggeringly racist lines from “Burbank with a Baedeker” when it is inconceivable that it would regurgitate similar abuse of any other minority, even in the name of art?
Why are Jews excluded from diversity or ethnic minority monitoring? Yes, Judaism is categorised as a religion but there is no anti-Semite in history who viewed atheism as grounds for exemption from persecution. How, with the Holocaust still a living memory, do so many on the left feel content to dismiss the fears of one of the most persecuted peoples in history, to regard anti-Semitism as something that matters less than other prejudice, a sort of second-degree offence?
Underlying all these questions is a simpler point and a deeper hurt. Anti-Semitism is on the rise and yet political progressives, the people who ought to be allies and who normally stress the need to listen to the experience of other minorities, seem to suspend those rules when those voices are Jewish. Why is it, as writer and comedian David Baddiel asks in his short polemic, that Jews Don’t Count?
This book is not aimed at witting anti-Semites or at those who are indifferent. It is aimed squarely at people who think of themselves as progressive but seem to have a blind spot when it comes to casual or not-so-casual anti-Semitism. It is a deceptively easy read, the underlying seriousness lightened by personal stories and regular flashes of Baddiel's wit.
Baddiel’s is one of two short new books on modern anti-Semitism. French rabbi Delphine Horvilleur has also tackled the issue and from the perspective of a country where its manifestations have been more vicious and deadly. Her ruminations, while interesting, are too rabbinical, too much like a sermon. But there is one core nugget. The prejudice, she argues in Anti-Semitism Revisited, lies in the view that “Jews are a bit too much the same and a bit too different”. Both too keen to fit in and insufficiently assimilated.
British Jews, stung especially by the rows over anti-Semitism in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn, will read Baddiel’s book with a combination of recognition and despair. Since Labour’s issues, people have been paying more attention. But, given the upsurge of abuse and violence, the shock has been how loud Jews had to shout for the issue to be addressed and how many people were content to shrug their shoulders at the problem.
The author’s question is less about why anti-Semitism exists than why good people care less about it. And here he is in similar territory to Horvilleur’s. The key is that Jews are not seen as underprivileged or marginalised. They are caricatured as rich capitalists. They are also “too white” for campaigners. This means they are beyond the interest of social justice activists who see racism as a class construct, one in which you need to be economically or socially disadvantaged. For progressives, he writes, “no victory is claimed by championing their experience, and this leads to a subtle — and unconscious — exclusion.” The mission of fighting racism has been repurposed to suit the other political causes of campaigners rather than the needs of its victims.
To this point, Baddiel brings up the concept of “Schrodinger’s Whites”. Jews are both white and not white. Since most pass for Caucasian and are “rich”, they enjoy white privilege. If only someone had remembered to share this insight with white supremacists.
While most victims of racism are looked down upon as lesser people, Jews are both looked down upon but also portrayed as part of a sinister, wealthy, powerful force, an enemy within. This was the rhetoric that paved the way to Auschwitz. But the bias also informs the progressive blind spot. Jews are powerful; they don’t need defending. And some on the far-left even buy into the conspiracy theories.
And this is the most tone-deaf part of the issue, because the peculiar nature of anti-Semitism means that status counts for little. With the Holocaust, the key reference point for the modern fear of anti-Semitism, Jews see that the success, integration and respected place in society of many German Jews did not save them and was even used against them.
Wrapped into this, of course, is anger at Israel, a poster cause for the left. But on this Baddiel, no supporter of Israel, has a simple riposte. The issue of Palestine offers no justification for anti-Semitism in Britain and a good cause does not legitimise racism.
Not all his arguments land. He asks why many who would complain if a film does not cast a trans actor in a trans role (or a white actor in a black or Asian role) think nothing of non-Jew in a Jewish role, even if it is played as a cartoonish stereotype (something he describes as “jewface”). He admits that he does not believe Jews must always be portrayed by Jews. But you have to pick your fights and other groups do struggle harder for on-screen representation. It is the double-standard that troubles him. Likewise in the debate on Eliot’s poetry, there is an argument to be had about censoring literature but it is reasonable to wish for a level playing field.
A criticism will be that this is special pleading by a community whose concerns are far from ignored. One can also argue that recognising a hierarchy of urgency is not the same as having a hierarchy of racisms. Some issues are more pressing. In over five decades in London I have only once been stopped by the police without any reason; this is not the average black experience. But Baddiel acknowledges this, both supporting the focus on Black Lives Matter and noting that at different moments in history some struggles should and will move to the forefront. His appeal is only for equal awareness.
I am not a neutral but this pithy, wry book ought to leave one raging that the accepted nostrums of anti-racism are simply discarded for one of the most persecuted peoples in history.
The one worry is that this will be read mainly by Jews and not by those who need to read it. It should be essential reading for progressives, self-proclaimed anti-racists, and those offering diversity and awareness courses. If it is, then Baddiel will have done a sterling service. If it isn’t, he will have the grim satisfaction of having been proved right.
Jews Don’t Count, by David Baddiel, William Collins, RRP£9.99, 144 pages
Anti-Semitism Revisited: How the Rabbis Made Sense of Hatred, by Delphine Horvilleur, translated by David Bellos, MacLehose Press, RRP£12.99, 140 pages
Robert Shrimsley is the FT’s UK chief political commentator
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