In David Baddiel’s new documentary, Jews Don’t Count, broadcast on Channel 4 on Monday 21 November, the comedian posits the idea that Jewish people are actively or inadvertently discriminated against because progressives don’t care about anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is a real and present problem in British society. It is crucial to understand it and dismantle it. At its essence it is a conspiracy theory, one that claims that Jews have secret control and power, or that Jews are vermin, corrupting or “infesting” our society – sometimes both of these at the same time. Because of its conspiratorial nature, no one (on the left or right) is immune from anti-Semitism; across political affiliation we have to be vigilant about it. I imagine Baddiel and I would agree on that. Where we differ however, is on how to go about addressing the problem.
Yes, we should talk about how anti-Semitism can show up differently to other oppressions; yes, we should look at how blind spots may develop around anti-Jewish bigotry. But insisting that “Jews don’t count” in people’s ideas of the oppressed – and because of progressives! – only serves to divide Jews further from other marginalised and minoritised groups, and will probably set back the struggle against anti-Semitism in the long term.
Putting aside the fact that this documentary (and the book that preceded it) failed to define what is actually meant by “progressive” (I’d hardly call anyone who shouts “f***the Jews” at Tottenham matches a comrade), the examples that Baddiel relies on throughout his conversations with various celebrities – such as supremacist violence towards Jewish communities in Colleyville, Texas, and Pittsburgh, or ideas that Jews are secretly rich and powerful, or racially inferior – have their roots in Christian, white supremacy.
Neil Gaiman telling Baddiel about the fear that his youngest “most Jewish looking” daughter would have ended up in a Nazi concentration camp, was moving. It is something a lot of Jews, including me, have thought about. But Baddiel offers no explanation of how this fits in with his argument, given that the discrimination Neil fears is obviously more associated with far-right anti-Semitism.
Let’s stay on the Nazis for a second. It is important to note that when the Nazis started their book burning programme in the 1930s they began with the library of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish German sexologist who researched and provided gender affirming care for trans people. In 2018 the gunman who massacred Jews at the the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh attacked this community because of its work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Soceity, a Jewish organisation supporting refugees seeking asylum in the US. Understanding that Jews are targeted in part because of our relationships with fellow minority groups actually helps to combat anti-Semitism, rather than minimise our experience of it. Establishing a competition of suffering, separating Jews off from others targeted by the racists and bigots that Baddiel refers to, ultimately undermines our ability to fight anti-Semitism.
While there is certainly a section of society that minimises anti-Semitism, as Baddiel fears, there are plenty that minimise the experience of other minorities too. One only needs to read the Forde report on bullying and racism in the Labour Party or much of the public discourse around racist policing and Black Lives Matter to see how Islamophobia and anti-black racism continue to be minimised by politicians and the press. Furthermore, many Jewish people are Jews of colour, queer, trans, black, working class or disabled; being Jewish is often part of a multitude of intersecting identities and therefore intersecting experiences of oppression or prejudice. Not taking seriously the need to examine and combat anti-Semitism alongside other prejudices ultimately erases these Jews too.
I would love to have a public conversation about how we create better anti-racist progressive spaces. The problem with the idea that “Jews don’t count” is that it offers us no solutions, no way of moving forward. It separates Jews from the conversation rather than integrating us within it as partners with a shared desire for safety, freedom and justice. Where does that leave us? In the arms of the right.