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27 February 2021

Why David Baddiel is half-right about my review of his book

The discussion of my review was a welcome experience: one where for the first time, my article really was secretly about Israel. 

By Stephen Bush

My critical review of David Baddiel’s latest book Jews Don’t Count, attracted plenty of comment, including on Twitter from the man himself. But there was one particularly interesting question about the piece, from both those who agreed with it and those who disagreed.

The question was “isn’t this review really about Israel?” This is a question I get a lot, usually from people who aren’t Jewish in response to topics that aren’t about Israel but are about antisemitism and the only polite answer is “No, go away”. So it was a nice change of pace to get it from Jewish people where the answer is “Yes, I’m so glad you noticed”.

While there were a number of critical reviews of the book from other members of the British Jewish community, criticisms within the community largely focussed on the book’s indifference to Israel, which mine did not do explicitly.  The journalist Lee Harpin, while himself enjoying the book, correctly identified that my criticisms had a commonality with those in the Jewish community who found its treatment of Israel wanting. I agree that Baddiel’s indifference to Israel is a fatal flaw in the book, but it is, in my view, a natural outgrowth of the argument he wants to pursue: if the poor treatment of British Jews by “progressives” is to be judged not by our rights as human beings but whether that same ill treatment is handed out to other minorities, then there is no room in your defence of British Jews for Israel. That, inevitably, makes for a poor defence of British Jews in progressive spaces, as more than nine in ten British Jews draw a measure of their identity from Israel. 

I agree with Anthony Julius: it is not just my right as a Jew to subject Israel “to judgements, ethical or prudential, critical or laudatory”. It is my duty, as someone who may one day benefit from the lifeboat that Israel provides, to consider the impact that lifeboat has on others. I do not agree with Julius that this obligation extends to all Jews: while I neither agree with nor understand Baddiel’s lack of interest in Israel, if you have no intention of entering the lifeboat that Israel provides, you do not have an obligation in my view to consider the afflictions it may cause others, or the achievements it may provide to the world.  

But this relationship and complexities cannot be explained with reference to other minorities, because Israel is sui generis. To compare a British Jew being asked to denounce Israel with a British Muslim being asked to denounce a majority-Muslim state misstates the offense being done both parties. A British Muslim is being asked to denounce a state they may have no direct link to, no right of return to, which in some cases persecutes large numbers of British Muslims simply for engaging in their democratic rights. This is done for no reason other than their shared religion. A British Jew is being asked to denounce an enterprise that, whether in its real or theoretical form, provides more than nine in ten British Jews with a measure of their identity and provides all British Jews with a lifeboat. That most British Jews oppose the occupation and support the two-state solution does not change the fact that a British Jew being asked to denounce Israel and Zionism is being asked to disavow a concept that provides them with security and identity – no matter what objections they may have about how it conducts itself in the real world.  

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I opted not to explicitly discuss Israel in my review for two reasons. The first is that I think the book’s indifference to Israel flows from the book’s central error, of arguing against antisemitism “embracing whataboutery” and comparing the bad behaviour of the antisemite with how they might behave towards another minority – an argument in my view that cannot be separated from the amount of houseroom that I believe Baddiel gives to concepts around “privilege” in lieu of rights and obligations. The second is that skipping ahead allowed me to discuss some of what was in the book rather than solely focussing on what was not in the book. While I think the resulting review works on its own terms, for the first time, I have to admit: this is a piece in which my Zionism really is a factor.