David Baddiel (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)
Artillery Row

Against Baddielism

The author is wrong about Jewish representation

The last few years have witnessed a golden age of social-justice neologisms. Some, like “microaggression” and “intersectionality”, have become clichés of Instagram infographics and HR-speak. Others, like “global majority”, are right on the cusp: soon we will know whether they will sink or swim. Lagging far behind are terms like “pansexuality” and “misogynoir”, which could conceivably have risen to ubiquity, but instead have been consigned to the linguistic dustheap. “Jewface”, despite some relatively energetic promotion, seems to languish in the latter category.

Like many related concepts, “Jewface” had its bathos in the aftermath of 2020, but its limited usage in Britain can be traced back slightly further. In 2019 an old musical called Falsettos was revived off the West End. Despite being all about Jews (its opening number is titled “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”), none of the cast was Jewish. This caused a bit of a stir. For a number of Jewish celebrities, including Maureen Lipman and Miriam Margolyes, it exposed at best “a startling lack of cultural sensitivity” and, at worst, the “overt appropriation and erasure of a culture and religion increasingly facing a crisis”.

Baddiel is determined to appeal to people who already buy into woke discourse

Words like “appropriation” and “erasure” strike me as a tad dramatic, but they point to the broader ideological thrust of the matter at hand. What seems to have upset Lipman, Margolyes, et al. was a sense of hypocrisy — the feeling that “Jewface” ought to be taken seriously by the type of people who would, if they were talking about any other minority, bandy terms like “appropriation” and “erasure” about. They were aggrieved that Jews were “omitted” from an “important and necessary conversation” — the conversation around “authentic casting”, the idea that minority characters should always be played by members of that same minority. They were, in other words, upset to discover that in this “conversation”, Jews don’t count.

The Falsettos furore became one of the case studies in David Baddiel’s pamphlet of that name. There, Jews being played by non-Jews is not presented as being intrinsically bad, unless they play up antisemitic stereotypes for cheap laughs (in which case it might not sit as well as it would with a Jewish actor). Rather, “Jewface” is bad because it proves Baddiel’s thesis: that “Jews don’t count” in the sort of progressive worldview that takes “authentic casting” as one of its central tenets.

This, I think, is a weak argument. Double standards might be annoying, but pointing at them does not tell us anything meaningful, and it can seem slightly petulant. Consistency can go in either direction: perhaps Jews should count in the “authentic casting” conversation, but perhaps the whole conversation is silly and ought to be dispensed with. This, indeed, gets to the heart of my opposition to Baddiel’s framework. Pointing at Jew-shaped blind-spots in what we might call “woke discourse” is as much an argument against woke discourse as it is an argument for including Jews within its parameters. Baddiel refuses to countenance the first option, however, because he is so determined to appeal to people who already buy into the axioms of woke discourse ­ — people who pride themselves, as he puts it, for being “on the right side of history”.

That said, it seems that Baddiel’s arguments about “Jewface” have shifted since the publication of Jews Don’t Count. It’s no longer just a question of double-standards. In an article for the Jewish Chronicle about the newly-released film Oppenheimer, Baddiel expresses his dismay that J. Robert Oppenheimer, a Jew, is played by Cillian Murphy, a non-Jew. He praises the writer Naomi Alderman for “pointing out the vast amount of Jewish physicists whose work was vital to the discovery of nuclear fission, and therefore to the Manhattan Project”. (Anxious not to lend credence to antisemitic conspiracy theories, Baddiel is then quick to say that “this does not mean — let me be clear — that the Jews are to blame for Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.) The implication is that the Jewish contribution to the Manhattan Project is neglected in the film itself, and this somehow stems from the fact that the Jewish protagonist is played by a gentile.

This is nonsense. Jewishness is a prominent theme of the film and of Oppenheimer’s characterisation. The film’s trailer, for example, shows Oppenheimer saying, “I know what it means if the Nazis have a bomb.” What Oppenheimer means by this, we learn in the film, is that he feels the evil of Nazism more personally than most of his compatriots, precisely because he is a Jew.

The marketplace of social-justice neologisms doesn’t prize quality

Likewise, one of the film’s key messages is about the self-sabotaging idiocy of antisemitism. The film suggests that one of the reasons for Oppenheimer’s achievement in building the atomic bomb — one of the reasons the Americans outstripped Werner Heisenberg’s parallel efforts to split the atom in Germany — was that the Nazis had caused an exodus of talented Jewish physicists to the United States. Ironically, the Nazis’ antisemitism is what gives Oppenheimer and the Allies hope. Baddiel is quite right that it would not be “possible to make a movie about the Manhattan Project without talking about Jewishness”. Fortunately, as is clear to anyone who has watched Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan has done no such thing.

Baddiel’s arguments about Oppenheimer also expose some of the problems with the “Jewface” concept as a whole. As Mark Solomons has pointed out in The Spectator, Cillian Murphy is the perfect fit for Oppenheimer for “one simple reason: he looks like J. Robert Oppenheimer”. Both men are tall and thin, with prominent cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. I cannot, off the top of my head, think of a Jewish actor who’d fit the bill. “What else,” Solomons asks, “is Nolan going to do? Pick Jonah Hill? Seth Rogan? Woody Allen?” “Jewface” (unlike, say, “blackface”, with which it attempts to forge an uneasy parallel) falters in part because Jewishness is not all about physical, visible traits: it is possible for a non-Jew like Murphy to embody a Jew.

In a similar vein, as the film professor Nathan Abrams has observed, it is unclear how to apply the idea of “authentic casting” to Jewish characters, given that “Jewishness comes via a number of routes: religion, culture, and ethnicity”. If Cillian Murphy had decided to convert to Judaism, would he then, in Baddiel’s view, be an acceptable Oppenheimer? Perhaps someone with some Jewish heritage would be better suited to the role — but what if they present as Asian or black? Oppenheimer, of course, was not just a Jew but an Ashkenazi Jew: would it be “Ashkenaziface” (I wonder if this neologism will catch on) for him to be played by a Sephardi or a Mizrahi Jew?

There are considerable pitfalls with applying voguish ideas about “authentic casting” to Jews, however much the perceived double-standards may stick in the craw of people like Baddiel. Still the question remains: why did Baddiel shift from opposing “Jewface” purely for reasons of a perceived double standard, to opposing it, as appears to be the case in his article on Oppenheimer, as something inherently wrong? I think the answer is simple; Baddiel’s trajectory shows the dangers in taking up flawed axioms in order to criticise them. His insistence on criticising woke, progressive discourse on its own terms — saying that it is bad because it doesn’t always include Jews, rather than because it is bad — causes him, perhaps unconsciously, to buy into that discourse completely.

I don’t find the concept of “Jewface” particularly helpful. Many non-Jewish actors have put in great performances as Jewish characters, including most of the great Shylocks (Laurence Olivier, Al Pacino, Ian McDiarmid, etc.). We can now add Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer to that number. The marketplace of social-justice neologisms doesn’t prize quality — for what it’s worth, I much prefer the elegant “misogynoir” to the clunky “intersectionality”. Some neologisms fail to stick simply because the ideas which they represent aren’t very compelling, though — and “Jewface” might be one of them.

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