One thing about watching football these days is that I don’t just watch it: I watch and tweet, and read others’ tweets, and reply. It’s a digitally turbocharged version of watching football at home with mates and shouting at the TV. The first day of World Cup-watching was helped in the shouting regard by a number of features peculiar to this tournament, such as the BBC’s decision not to show the opening ceremony in Qatar, watching four ex-footballers discuss the intricacies of human rights in the Middle East, and the host nation fielding a side that seemed slightly worse than the seven-a-side team I play for on a Tuesday night, who are mainly over 50.
However, I was then faced with a dilemma. My documentary Jews Don’t Count went out on Channel 4 the day after the World Cup began. I tend to stay off social media – or at least Twitter – when I do something on TV. One of the problems of putting anything out in a social media world is that you hear the fiery reaction in your head in advance, and that can lead to a self-conscious, stilted type of creativity.
In this case, I was well aware there would be a lot of pushback against a polemic which details what I consider to be a progressive blind spot around anti-Semitism. It is in itself an example of Jews not counting that when they call out anti-Semitism it often gets an aggressive and dismissive reaction from people who otherwise believe fervently in the idea of listening to – and not challenging – the testimony, the lived experience, of other minorities.
With this film, I also knew there would particularly be a strong reaction because it includes a section where I meet and apologise to Jason Lee, the footballer whom I impersonated in blackface on television comedy sketches in the 1990s. It’s perhaps also an example of Jews not counting – at least on social media –that in a film about anti-Semitism and Jews it was that particular section that got the most attention.
With friends like these
The day after Jews Don’t Count was broadcast a lot of mainly positive reviews appeared. I also got many tearful, liberated messages from Jews, and a very nice one from Rod Stewart. This contrasted with the response on some sections of Twitter, which I knew about despite being away, as what happens when people are slagging you off is that concerned friends ring up to check that you’re OK because they’ve read lots of people slagging you off. They’ll often quote bits to you, in horror, that are particularly malevolent.
I am used to this. It used to happen, in fact, with newspaper reviews. Friends would ring and say something like, “It’s so unfair what the Telegraph said. I mean, you know, you really don’t look like Daniel Radcliffe’s down-on-his-luck uncle.” I managed to shake off most of the negative feelings my friends’ kindly concern might have inspired by going to play football for my over-50s team, although even there, John O’Farrell, the writer of the Labour Party memoir Things Can Only Get Better, was keen to tell me that tweeting positively about my documentary had led to him losing 20 followers.
The good thing about being off social media, however, is the feeling of liberation that comes from not chasing your digital shadow. Also useful to that feeling was that I went straight into a workshop for a new musical – of my children’s book The Parent Agency – which I’ve written with the composer of Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, Dan Gillespie Sells. It felt good to immerse myself in music and comedy, in a child’s world of fantasy and storytelling, away from all the back-and-forth fury about Jews and anti-Semitism. Although, having said that, there is a moment in that piece where the child hero says he doesn’t recognise his twin teenage sisters, and when questioned by his parents on what on earth he means, explains, “I mean politically – in the same way that Iran doesn’t recognise Israel.”
Fifty years of hurt
So I’m staying away from Twitter for the moment. It’s possible that when I return Elon Musk may have dismantled the site anyway. The greatest problem of the week was not knowing where to channel my urge to publicly shout in joy and triumph – perhaps involving the words it’s, coming, and home – at England scoring six goals against Iran in the first World Cup outing. But luckily, England’s next game managed to make me glad that I had denied myself that outlet.
David Baddiel’s documentary “Jews Don’t Count” is available on All 4. His children’s book “Virtually Christmas” is published by HarperCollins
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince