This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Some years ago, when reviewing Frederic Raphael’s collection of writings, The Necessity of Antisemitism, and reading it on the Northern Line, I tried all manner of awkward ways to hide the cover-title from my fellow passengers. I haven’t yet ventured on to the Tube brandishing David Baddiel’s new offering, Jews Don’t Count, but the possibility has awakened memories of my uncomfortable rides with Raphael.
Of course, neither of these well-known Jewish authors advocates the idea broadcast upon his particular book-jacket. Raphael’s title was a sophisticated conceit borrowed from Shelley’s essay, The Necessity of Atheism, while the sentiment on Baddiel’s cover is one he is emphatically ascribing to others.
And he doesn’t mess about. Following an introductory clutch of celebrity encomia, Baddiel launches straight into a joyless-sounding review in the Observer, by a writer called Holly Williams, of Jewish film-maker Charlie Kaufman’s rambling novel, Antkind. It is narrated by a character called Rosenberger Rosenberg, whose wild parody of a Jewish name is in keeping with Kaufman’s ironic laying on of Jewish stereotyping throughout a story that demands a lot of unscrambling.
Understandably, Williams is not too keen on the book but, for her, it seems the problem is that it is written from a “white-male-cis-het” perspective. It’s as though Jewishness doesn’t exist. Charlie Kaufman is subsumed, along with Rosenberger Rosenberg, beneath a four-fold woke anathema.
Baddiel is concerned in this short, polemical book — in effect, pamphlet — with Jews being “left out”
And, from there, Baddiel breezily, but with serious purpose and accuracy of aim, assembles examples across contemporary culture and politics where, as he puts it, “despite the history of persecution, there is only one minority that, for the privilege checkers, stays firmly in the square of privilege”. And that, he argues, is the Jew. He even cites actual lists of ethnic minorities and other groups deserving of protection against negative discrimination, upon which Jews would be expected to appear but do not.
It seems that 2019 was a vintage year for such listings. That was when a Danish comedian called Sofie Hagen enumerated “the most oppressed people in society” including those who are black, Muslim, disabled, “queer” and “trans”. But not Jews.
In that same year, in a speech to the Labour Party Conference, Dawn Butler, shadow minister for women and equalities, gave a rousing but slightly confusing promise of Labour support if, inter alia, “you are LGBT+” (but also if you are “straight”); wear a turban, hijab, or cross; didn’t go to Oxbridge; are a carer; don’t have a trust fund; or are black (or white). Jews weren’t mentioned but, I suppose, could qualify under another category. As far as I’m aware, most Jews don’t have a trust fund. And, as Ms Butler probably knows, there are black Jews.
Baddiel is concerned in this short, polemical book — in effect, pamphlet — with Jews being “left out” by well-meaning, self-defined anti-racist progressives, many of whom appear to be spectacularly ignorant of history. But, even today in liberal democracies like our own, Jews, too, are victims of racism, in the singular form of antisemitism. Baddiel quotes from a nauseating written example — by the widely treasured Alice Walker.
Baddiel himself knows of antisemitism’s modern incarnation only too well, as his vividly described experience of being a football fan bears out. He is particularly critical of the adoption by Tottenham Hotspur fans of the identity “Yid”, on the basis of the club’s historical Jewish associations. Baddiel (whose team is Chelsea) refers to “Yid” as “the Y-word”, believing it to be as abhorrent as “the N-word” used by anti-black racists.
As far as I’m aware, most Jews don’t have a trust fund. And, as Ms Butler probably knows, there are black Jews
Today’s antisemites tend to favour the word “Jew”, or euphemistically “Zionist”, in their malignant vocabulary. Baddiel, however, relegates “Jew” beneath “Yid” because “Jew” is “not a slang word coined by racists”. But neither is “Yid” — and we can write that without asterisks. There is still a vibrant Yiddish language and culture, taught in classes from London to Beijing. Traditional Jews use the adjective “Yiddishe” in entirely benign ways. And, however raucously, Tottenham fans are doing the same.
Elsewhere, his focus is too much on the Twitter bubble and he is perhaps too dismissive of the religious foundations (his definition of “Talmud” is a howler) of even the most secular Jewish identity, to which he adheres so strongly. But I was swept along by his stirring exposure of one glaring omission after another of the words “Jews” or “Jewish” from where they belonged.
David Baddiel is literate, lucid and writes with passion and precision. He has done a great service in showing Jews how to stand up — and be counted.
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