Why so many on the left think Jews don't count
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A new book by writer and broadcaster David Baddiel gets right to the heart of anti-Semitism, and why it has taken such a hold on the left.
Smear. Bundled up in that single syllable are years of pain and anger felt by Jewish people who have failed to persuade the putative anti-racist movement that we know what anti-Semitism looks like. Most people on the left know the principle of respecting minorities as the authority on their oppression: if you’re white, for instance, don’t try to explain racism to someone who’s black.
It’s been enshrined in progressive thinking since the Macpherson report in 1999. But when polls during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour consistently showed that almost nine out of ten British Jews consider him anti-Semitic, too many socialists’ response to this consensus was not to pause for reflection, but to reject the charge with an insult: it was not only wrong, but a ‘smear’.
For people who aren’t Jewish to dismiss this overwhelming view, which derives from a litany of moments spanning his advocacy in 2011 for Sheikh Raed Salah – a hate preacher already notorious for spreading the blood libel that Jews make bread with children’s blood (which would have repulsed any true anti-racist) – to his remark about Zionists who "don’t understand English irony" despite "having lived in this country... probably all their lives", is itself dubious.
There are only two possible conclusions: they think most Jews are liars or delusional. Neither exactly frames us in a positive light: in moral or mental terms we are collectively deficient. Well, there’s a word for such negative generalisations about Jewish people. Relations between British Jews and the left have therefore been at a nadir – so for those of us who fall into both camps, it has been an experience that tears you apart inside.
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Bursting into this fraught territory comes Jews Don’t Count, an impassioned, exasperated but always lucid contribution from the comedian and author David Baddiel. This 144-page polemic scrutinises the ways progressives discard their principles over anti-Semitism and lays out an irrefutable charge sheet of oversights and inconsistencies. Here are only three of many.
• A film by the Danish comedian Sofie Hagen lists the ‘"most oppressed people in society"; Dawn Butler MP concludes a rousing Labour conference speech with a similar lengthy list of disadvantaged people the party will fight for; both omit a long-oppressed group who were murdered in their millions within living memory, and continue to be killed today by Islamists and white supremacists.
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• The actress Seyi Omooba is fired from an adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for posting homophobic remarks on Facebook – but, in an era when artists are routinely ‘cancelled’ for prejudice, Walker herself is not despite her track record of anti-Semitism. Her 2017 poem To Study the Talmud drips with loathing for Jews, whose central theological text she libels as sanctioning paedophilia, slavery and murder of gentiles.
• The actor and left-wing activist John Cusack fails to see the anti-Semitism in an image he retweeted of cowed people smothered by a giant hand protruding from a sleeve bearing a Star of David, captioned: "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise." This line is attributed to Voltaire; it was actually coined by an American white nationalist named Kevin Strom.
These are all sins of omission. Anti-Semitism, as Baddiel points out, is usually understood as active. It exists in things people do: in insults, propagation of hateful conspiracy theories, physical attacks, murders. Such things still happen with horrifying regularity. Less obvious, at least to many non-Jewish people, are its manifestations in the things people do not do; in conspicuous silences, failures to apply principles. Baddiel’s essay pinpoints these gaps and the flawed assumptions they rest upon, and explains their origins.
A well-established reason is that anti-Semitism, alone among racisms, imagines it punches up. It entails the identification and desired redistribution of power. This instinctively appeals to some on the left, whose raison d’etre is to create a fairer society.
If you’ve absorbed the ancient canard that Jews are rich, you’d naturally see them as lower priority than other minorities. But Jews aren’t rich, or no richer than anyone else. Baddiel cites the latest New World Wealth report: of the world’s 13.1m millionaires, 56.2% are Christian, 6.5% are Muslim, 3.9% are Hindu and 1.7% are Jewish. Nor does this alleged privilege prevent them from being the faith group likeliest to experience hate crime in Britain today, according to Home Office statistics.
A related reason is that Jews are perceived as white, and therefore beneficiaries of white privilege. "But Jews are not white," writes Baddiel. "Or not quite. At least, they don’t always feel it." One of his first jokes as a stand-up was: "I’ve been beaten up twice in my life, once for being Jewish, once for being a Pakistani."
Depending on how the genetic lottery jumbles one’s inheritance of Eastern European and Middle Eastern DNA, some Ashkenazi Jews pass for white while others have swarthy skin, wiry dark hair, and look different enough to attract comment. Like Baddiel, I lie at that end of the spectrum. Consequently as a teenager in rural north Norfolk in the 1990s — not a place and time where the subtleties of ethnicity were held paramount — I was repeatedly called "p*ki".
This does not mean I know how it feels to be Asian, but that there’s an ambiguity to Jewish experience of being ‘white’ — encapsulated in the fact white supremacists murder Jews for being another ‘race’ — that can leave us disinclined to have this simplistic label imposed on an identity we’re also repeatedly reminded is alien. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked: "Where are you really from?", I’d be as rich as the anti-Semites expect me to be.
Jews are often off-white enough to be perceptibly ‘other’. Too ‘other’ for the racists, too white for the anti-racists; rich parasites, impoverished scroungers; capitalists to the far-left, fomenters of communism to the far-right... anti-Semitism’s endurance lies in the fact there’s a myth about Jews to appeal to every political persuasion.
Sometimes the same myths appeal to left and right alike; Baddiel identifies an overlap in ideas about Jewish power and mendacity at the extremes of the political spectrum. I’ve seen this in numerous social media posts by acquaintances. A football teammate ranting on Facebook about how "Jewish-American overlords" manipulate the media. A former newspaper colleague who tweeted that he blames Labour’s 2019 electoral defeat on "British Jewry", who are overrepresented in the media and skewed the debate in their favour. A former friend who shared a meme that quotes a Holocaust survivor and pro-Palestinian activist named Hajo Meyer as saying: "An anti-Semite used to be someone who hates Jews; now it is someone who Jews hate."
This means that if Jews hate someone, we lie that they’re an anti-Semite. We habitually smear our opponents by crying wolf. It’s plainly an anti-Semitic sentiment, and no surprise: the quote was misattributed to Meyer, it originates from a far-right holocaust denier named Joseph Sobran.
This crossover is a recognised phenomenon. One of the grimmest episodes in Labour’s anti-Semitism saga involved Liverpool-based activist Kayla Bibby visiting the far-right Incog Man website, finding an image of the Statue of Liberty being attacked by an alien creature marked with a Star of David, and sharing it with the comment it was "the most accurate photo I’ve seen all year". Labour’s then head of disputes, Thomas Gardiner, decreed that it was not anti-Semitic and declined to suspend her.
Kevin Strom, Joseph Sobran, Incog Man, all neo-Nazis whose ideas have resonated with the far left. Jews, helping political enemies find common ground. Who says we’re a divisive presence in society?
The acquaintances mentioned above consider themselves left-wing and anti-racist. Each of their statements is indisputably racist. At some cognitive level, then, we have a problem. When it comes to Jews, it’s different: they don’t count. Genuine anti-racists don’t talk over minorities’ experiences, they listen. It is time for consistency while understanding that anti-Semitism is unique. Not worse or more important than other racisms, simply equal, and unique. A great way to start is to read this book.
Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel is published by TLS Books at £8.99
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