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24 April 2023

Diane Abbott’s letter shows Jews still don’t count

Throughout history Jews have been subjected to racist discrimination. Why do supposed progressives still not grasp this truth?

By David Baddiel

Some time ago, I wrote a book called Jews Don’t Count. It is about how, in my opinion, Jews and anti-Semitism are positioned low down in the mix of the identity politics conversation. The book has had some impact. I have written another one since about something else (The God Desire).

After Jews Don’t Count I felt I should move on, partly because I would like to think that the dial has now shifted on anti-Semitism and race, and that continuing to bang the drum on the issue may not be necessary.

I would like to think this – but that often feels, perhaps, optimistic. Over the weekend, the Observer published a letter by the Labour backbencher Diane Abbott. It was a response to an article by the writer Tomiwa Owolade in which he discussed the racism suffered by various groups, including Jews and Travellers. The letter objects to this, suggesting that what these groups, imagined by Abbott as “white”, experience is something lesser: prejudice, she says, similar to that suffered by redheads. She goes on to mention historical instances of terrible anti-black oppression in which these groups did not suffer, ending with: “and at the height of slavery, there were no white-seeming people manacled on the slave ships”.

This is of course true. But in the middle of the 20th century, six million Jews – and at least 200,000 Roma and Sinti – were murdered, due to being categorised as members of an inferior race.

When I started writing Jews Don’t Count, there were certain things I thought were on the nursery slopes of my point, and perhaps the principal one was that anti-Semitism is racism. It is not, as some who wish to downgrade the seriousness of it like to imply, religious intolerance. I am an atheist. That would have given me no free pass out of Auschwitz. My great uncle Arno was not an observant Jew. He died in the Warsaw Ghetto. And presently, the white supremacists in the United States who carry torches and chant “The Jews will not replace us” would not, I think, inquire if I kept kosher before burning down my house.

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I have said all this many times now, but it does not land in certain ears. The blockage appears to be particularly around the use of the word racism, which seems – for some, although clearly not Owolade – ring-fenced for people of colour. The same ring-fencing occurred when Whoopi Goldberg claimed the Holocaust – a racial genocide that began with the installation of the Nuremberg racial purity laws – was not about race: it was, she said, a “white on white” issue, despite the specific categorisation of Jews by Nazis as non-white.

Talking about this tends to lead to arguments about whether Jews can be considered a race, or an ethnicity, or a people, or a religion, which are all irrelevant. The point is, throughout history, Jews have been racialised. They have been classed, by majority cultures much more powerful than them, as an alien, verminous race, leading to murderous consequences. This is of course racism, whether Jews, in some a priori anthropological way, are or are not a race.

When I get asked, as I do, if I think this or that well-known British left-wing politician is an anti-Semite I always answer no. Because an anti-Semite is someone who directly, at the front of their head, hates Jews and yearns for their eradication.

The “Jews don’t count phenomenon” is much subtler. It operates only indirectly. It’s when something – a concern, a protectiveness, a championing, a cry for increased visibility, whatever it might be – is not being applied to Jews. If you were to use the language that progressives apply now to other minorities, you might say it functions as a form of unconscious bias.

I saw it in a tweet Abbott posted in 2018 in response to me calling out the racist abuse of the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger. She said: “The targeted online abuse of women in public life is simply unacceptable.” Which, obviously, I agree with. But I noticed something else: Abbott’s response, by turning what I was saying about the particular abuse suffered by Berger into a point about women in public life, erased the anti-Jewish racism involved – a tactic similarly deployed by the right when it tries to erase the racism suffered by black people by widening #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter.

I have talked before about a hierarchy of racism – and received much online blowback as a result, not least from progressives keen to proclaim that if there is such a thing, Jews, with all the silly whining and fussing they make about anti-Semitism, are somehow at the top of it.

But what we see in Abbott’s letter is confirmation of something beyond even the idea of a hierarchy: an insistence that the discrimination Jews and other ethnicities suffer does not even deserve the term racism. The MP has apologised for her letter, and in her apology states that she understands that Jewish people and the other groups mentioned have experienced monstrous racism.

As someone who has done his fair share of public apologies, I am happy for that to stand. But I nonetheless retain in my mind the underlying currents contained within what she called the “initial draft” of her letter, and somewhat reluctantly conclude that, at some point, I am going to have to write Jews Still Don’t Count.

[See also: Diane Abbott has reignited Labour’s anti-Semitism row. Should the party forgive her or forget her?]

David Baddiel’s new book, The God Desire, is available now, published by Harper Collins

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