Two Jewish men make their way home from the Synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah on 18 September 2020 in Gateshead, United Kingdom. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why is anti-semitism the last acceptable form of bigotry?

Just like Covid-19, this new, virulent strain of anti-Semitism will prove hard to dispel, and no vaccine will be available to act as a panacea

The writer, broadcaster and comedian David Baddiel and I have history together, albeit mostly of a civil enough nature. Years ago, I wrote that The Books Quiz, which Baddiel originally hosted, was “deservedly panned”, and speculated that it was surprising that it received a second series after his departure. This led a pained Baddiel to write in a Times column that “a chap called Alex Larmar [sic] blogs furiously against the show in general, beginning by expressing his surprise that the programme was commissioned for a second series “after the first series, hosted by David Baddiel, was deservedly panned.”

Our paths crossed again more recently, after a piece I wrote for The Critic about the celebrification of children’s literature. I cited Baddiel as an example of a writer who was “a once-edgy adult-oriented comedian who was now appealing to a more youthful market”, which subsequently led to an enlightening exchange on social media. Baddiel made the entirely reasonable point that his readership could not care less that he was once a mainstay of Fantasy Football League or The Mary Whitehouse Experience and that the success of his books was down to their being entertaining stories.

I concurred, but stuck to my own argument that it was Baddiel’s, and his contemporaries’, existing reputations and fame that had led publishers to invest in the well-known names in the first place, and for parents to buy the books. Nonetheless, it was a useful reminder that it is all too easy to make sweeping judgements about household names, and that those celebrities are often more complex, contradictory figures than their caricatured reputation allows for.

In Baddiel’s case, one of these contradictions is between his earlier reputation as a laddish, football-loving comedian and his recent incarnation as a serious intellectual figure with a deep-rooted interest in the social aspects of history and literature. The latter has not only led him to work as a dramatist and novelist, but has now seen him publish a short, angry polemic with the TLS, entitled Jews Don’t Count. At last, he and I have found a subject on which we can stand shoulder to shoulder, without the slightest hint of disagreement.

Baddiel’s central thesis is that so-called “progressives”, who would recoil in horror at the idea of discrimination or bigotry being extended to the most put-upon people in society – he cites the Danish comedian Sofie Hagen’s list as including “black people and people of colour, queer people, trans people, Muslims and people with disabilities” – simply do not accept that Jewish people, who have been historically one of the most oppressed races on the planet, can legitimately claim to be marginalised. Hence the title.

The environment in which Baddiel is writing is one that seems to be as hostile to Jews as it has ever been

It is a compelling and elegantly expressed argument, but it is regrettable that Baddiel needed to make it at all. Yet if one looks around, the environment in which he is writing is one that seems to be as hostile to Jews as it has ever been. Piers Corbyn, who has recently been arrested for distributing leaflets that have compared the UK’s vaccination programmes to Auschwitz, denied that he was anti-Semitic, saying, “I was married for 22 years to a Jewess and obviously her mother’s forebears fled the Baltic states just before the war because of Hitler or the Nazis in general… I’ve also employed Jewish people in my business Weather Action, one of whom was a superb worker.” (Baddiel wryly remarked, on the juxtaposition of “Piers Corbyn” and “Jewess” trending on Twitter, “what a time to be alive”.)

I will leave it to others to decide whether Corbyn is being sincere or whether not, but it is undeniable that his younger brother Jeremy, and the Labour party under his leadership, has been the source of much of the current antipathy that Jews face in Britain. The stories hardly need repeating, but after the EHRC found in October 2020 that Labour was responsible for “unlawful” acts of harassment and discrimination, saying, “the equality body’s analysis points to a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it”, Corbyn angrily argued that, “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”, resulting in his suspension from the Labour party and having the whip removed from him. He was readmitted to the party but remains an independent MP. It seems unlikely that Keir Starmer, whose wife is Jewish and whose children are being raised in the faith, will be hurrying to offer his former party leader the whip again.

Yet Corbyn Minor is now a marginal figure. He remains a martyr for a section of noisy “progressive” opinion who believe that he could have led Britain into a socialist utopia, but most others regard him as a rejected party leader who was defeated twice at the ballot box, once marginally and once crushingly. Whether or not he is personally anti-Semitic is essentially irrelevant. His legacy is instead that he has, whether through ignorance, carelessness or design, made an unpalatable idea, that of open bigotry again existing within Britain towards a section of its inhabitants, an unpleasantly toxic part of everyday life.

At least once, I have been approached in the street and asked where the nearest synagogue is

As the possessor of dark hair and a curly beard, I look Jewish, and I have a surname that sounds Jewish. While I, to quote Charlie Chaplin, “do not have that honour”, I have been used to being taken for a Jew by new acquaintances. To the best of my knowledge, I have never been subject to any misguided anti-Semitic abuse, but I have no idea if I have been discriminated against or given unsuspected preferential treatment. At least once, I have been approached in the street and asked where the nearest synagogue is, to which I have had to plead ignorance.

All of this is ironic, as my family has not been overburdened with its own progressive qualities. I had a late relative who, while not actively anti-Semitic, certainly had what could be termed an “old-fashioned” attitude towards the Jewish. She talked of her Jewish friends with great affection, but her general demeanour towards others could be summed up as a kind of cautious suspicion, leavened with incomprehension. In the last years of her life, she lived in Bournemouth and ran a popular bridge club, but she often talked about how “the Jews keep themselves to themselves”, muttering darkly about financial sharpness and “helping one another out”.

She also expressed mild concern about an elderly couple who I had as my landlords in London, asking anxiously whether their (Dutch) surname was a Jewish one, as if, had it been, I could have faced unexpected extra charges on the rent. As I grew older, I would occasionally remonstrate with her, but generally I avoided the subject, other than rolling my eyes theatrically and sighing when she used the phrase “I’ve nothing against Jewish people, but…” Another generation, I said to myself.

This new, virulent and ‘progressive’ strain of anti-Semitism will prove hard to dispel

I wish today that I had been more robust, and that I had challenged her low-level bigotry more aggressively. But the world had seemed a different one. The horrors of the Holocaust, which she would have learned of as a young adult, seemed to have taught her generation, and successive ones, that the old fictions about a secret, gilded world of money and quasi-Masonic “influence” seemed irrelevant in comparison to the apocalyptic obscenity committed on the race. And until recently, that was the received wisdom. Yet if I, and others, had listened more carefully, the signs had been there for decades. I was once in a pub where a literary agent commented, quite matter-of-factly, that he “disliked Jews”, and that he would struggle to represent one as a client. I asked him why and he shrugged and sipped his pint before changing the subject. As far as I know, he still works in the profession. If he had made a similar comment in public about black, gay or trans people, I imagine that he would been fired the same day.

Now, his views are shared and expressed by millions, albeit usually expressed with weaselly wording. It is considered wholly acceptable by progressives to call themselves “anti-Zionist”, and to speak forcefully about the discrimination and violence committed in the name of Israel towards the Palestinians; it is less desirable, but often tacitly condoned, to extend this into a generalised dislike for all Jews. Yet a writer of my acquaintance persuasively argued that, if the righteous left should condemn Jews for the policies of the Israeli government, surely by their own warped logic they should be engaging in anti-Chinese abuse because of that country’s attitude towards the Uyghurs. To say nothing, of course, of the various obfuscations and secrecies associated with the creation and subsequent spread of the coronavirus that currently blights our lives.

The reason why Jewish people are considered fair game is simple. As Corbyn’s ally Andrew Murray stated:

Jeremy is empathetic with the poor… [but] happily, that is not the Jewish community in Britain today. Jeremy would have had massive empathy with the Jewish community in Britain in the 1930s and he would have been there at Cable Street, there’s no question. But, of course, the Jewish community today is relatively prosperous.

Leaving aside the almost sinister repetition of “the Jewish community”, Murray articulates the central issue, one that has been at the heart of every piece of anti-Semitic propaganda for centuries, even millennia. The Jews are said to be a race obsessed by money, usuriously so. They have enriched themselves at the expense of others, and have created a secretive, elitist cabal dominated by money and power. No wonder names like “Soros” and “Rothschild” are bandied around as terms of abuse, often interchangeably with “Zionist” and, more aggressively, “kike”.

Many are feeling fear in a society where they are being told that they have no real right to belong

For such an old-fashioned idea, it has been remarkably persistent. Those of a more high-minded, if equally bigoted, disposition might also cite the so-called “blood curse” from the New Testament in Matthew 27:25, when the Jews accept responsibility for Jesus’s death, saying, “His blood be on us and on our children.” This ignores the theological fact that Jesus’ blood is believed to be a sacrament, and is taken as such in religious services, rather than a curse. Yet nuance barely matters in these situations. As the character of Borat sang, “Throw the Jew down the well, so my country may be free.” In the programme, Borat (played, of course, by the Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen) is cheered on by idiotic rednecks. If he had performed the same song to certain gatherings in Britain, it would have met with thoughtful head-scratching, and possibly a touch of foot-stamping. What it would not have encountered was dissent.

Unfortunately, just like Covid-19, this new, virulent and “progressive” strain of anti-Semitism will prove hard to dispel, and no vaccine will be available to act as a panacea. Baddiel (who initially welcomed Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, calling him “a decent man” and “a proper left-wing Labour politician”) will, like Tracy-Ann Oberman, Rachel Riley, Luciana Berger and other prominent public figures of Jewish heritage (women are, perhaps predictably, over-represented) find himself subjected to further abuse for his polemic, which I’m sure that he expects and can take. As his former sparring partner, I can attest to both his tenacity – and intelligence – in debate.

But it is those without a public platform who I have the greatest empathy for. Many are feeling fear and uncertainty in a society where they are being told, in not so many words, that they have no real right to belong. It is not so very far from the idiotic abuse on social media to the catcall in the street. We have to hope that there will not be the sound of broken glass again, and pray that history has not repeated itself in the most brutal of ways, all because the lessons that we needed to learn have been so callously ignored.

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