At 123 pages, David Baddiel’s “Jews Don’t Count” is more like a very long essay than a full length book – which is no criticism. The book’s brevity, as well as its plain, non-academic prose, means that his trenchant argument about an often-overlooked intellectual current that obfuscates antisemitism will result in more people grappling with these important ideas.
The premise of ‘Jews Don’t Count’ is one that would resonate with those who read our blog posts: that antisemitism is not taken as seriously by the anti-racist, identitarian left – and even mainstream literary, political or media personalities – as bigotry towards other minorities. Baddiel cites numerous examples of well-known figures who spew out antisemitic rhetoric, yet avoid the public opprobrium normally meted out to those who engage in racism.
One example relates to the 2019 musical production of Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. While the actress, Seyi Omooba, was sacked due to her anti-gay views, the grotesquely antisemitic writings of Alice Walker herself didn’t cause even a ripple of controversy.
Much of this double standard, Baddiel convincingly argues, is based in part on the perception of Jews as “white”, successful and thus “privileged”, thus not genuine ethnic minorities deserving of the sympathy afforded to other ‘truly’ oppressed minorities. Baddiel cites, as one example of this dynamic, an incident in 2019 that we covered at the time, in which BBC presenter Justin Webb promoted a version of this very idea – a narrative that another BBC presenter, Jo Coburn, legitimised more recently.
“With the transition to identity politics”, Baddiel writes, the left “has become less about for the masses and more about specific minorities”. A “sacred circle”, he adds, “is drawn around those whom the progressive modern left are prepared to go to battle for”, and the ‘monied’ and ‘powerful’ Jews aren’t in it. When ‘progressive’ anti-Semites attack Jews, others writers similarly cognizant of this dynamic have argued, they often believe they are “punching up” – that they are bravely “speaking truth to power” and rebelling against the (rigged) system.
Though Baddiel’s central thesis is important and well-argued, and his book an extremely valuable contribution to the debate about antisemitism, his one blind spot pertains to Israel – and the role the demonisation of the state plays in the resurgence of anti-Jewish racism that he’s very clearly passionate about fighting. Indeed, the intuitive overlap between hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews qua Jews was demonstrated empirically in a study by the CST and Jewish Policy Research Institute, which shows that Britons with strong anti-Israel attitudes are dramatically more likely than most citizens to also hold classic antisemitic beliefs.
It’s hard to understand how anyone familiar with the Labour antisemitism problem under Jeremy Corbyn could fail to connect these dots.
Baddiel, whose grandparents fled Nazi Germany, describes himself in the book as a non-Zionist – which we can read to mean: He doesn’t necessarily have any greater concern for the well-being and survival of the Jewish state than for any other state. About Israel, he writes, “meh“. And, he in fact complains that to assume that he cares more about Israel than other countries, due merely to the fact he’s Jewish, is “racist”.
It is indeed racist to hold British Jews, as he later observes, responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. However, the idea that the overwhelming majority of diaspora Jews have a special and unique connection to Israel is a demonstrable fact, not an expression of bigotry.
Baddiel’s moral and emotional neutrality towards the Jewish state raises the question: does his dispassionate even-handedness extend to British Jews as well, or only to the nearly seven million Israeli Jews? It’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t feel a special attachment to his Jewish community in the UK – a gut-level bond and historically informed passion that inspired him to write “Jews Don’t Count”. In fact, in reading the book, Baddiel’s pride in his Jewishness seems clear, and nothing he writes even hints at an aversion towards Jewish particularism.
Whilst being a self-described non-Zionist Jew certainly gives him a rhetorical advantage when dealing with those who, for instance, accuse Jews of falsely crying antisemitism to silence criticism of Israel, his unwillingness to explore the connection between hatred of the Jewish state with hatred of British Jews represents an unfortunate intellectual abdication within an otherwise serious, penetrating and timely examination of how identity politics erases antisemitism.