Why we need to drop 'Jews Don't Count'.
When I wake up at 5:30am I tend to be consumed with inane thoughts: the shopping list, chase the doctor, who was that guy in the 3rd season of Line Of Duty? It happened most when I was busy being creative, and I’d find more complex questions would rise to the fore and I’d need to get up and write things down.
Now that I’m not, articles and abstract arguments buzz around in my head like a wasp in a lampshade, and the only way to get them to fly out the window, is… to write down my thoughts.
So, after seeing people talk very politely and calmly about it on Twitter* the other day, I watched David Baddiel’s Channel 4 program Jews Don’t Count. To swat this persistent wasp, I felt the need to share some thoughts.
Firstly, let’s engage with the term “Jews Don’t Count”. It’s also the title of Baddiel’s book, which I’ve also read.
Limiting isn’t it?
It’s not a great epithet, nor a mantra, or even something to be chanted. More like a kind of insidious whisper, (which I suppose is quite fitting for the kind of racism that Jews tend to face). ‘Black Lives Matter’ by comparison, is a positive affirmation, a statement which should in no way be controversial, arising from police brutality, but evolving to stand for racial justice.
Jews Don’t Count’s fundamental argument is that within ‘progressive society’ Jews are not given the same consideration as other minorities. The same people who would pull you up on say, anti-black or anti-Asian racism, allow antisemitism to slide, according to Baddiel, because they don’t consider it worthy of comment – or worse – agree.
Now, I understand why Baddiel chose a provocative title for his book: it’s a polemic about racism intended to generate interest and stir debate (and, like all books, sell copies). Fairly successful, I’d argue. The book itself is, in my opinion, a mixed bag. It makes some relevant and useful points, some that I think are wrong. But then the title got picked up as a hashtag on social media, attached to any real or perceived slight on Jews, and provided as further incriminating evidence that Jews are uniquely overlooked when it comes to discrimination.
Baddiel doesn’t claim to be an authority on antisemitism. However, his book is being treated as gospel (ironically) within some circles. Keir Starmer brandished it in a speech to the Jewish Labour Movement last year, it apparently carrying the same weight as the Communist Manifesto, or Mao’s Little Red Book.
But it’s telling that the C4 program doesn’t seek to establish some authority by interviewing any academics or experts in the field of antisemitism or race, instead relying on a cast of famous writers, comedians and showbiz stars to talk about their experiences. Short of providing more ‘ooh, didn’t know he’s a Jew!’ moments (Neil Gaiman, kicking myself) the program suffers therefore from a lack of solid empiric grounding.
There’s a really jarring moment in the show where Baddiel goes to apologise to the ex-footballer Jason Lee for racist bullying on Fantasy Football in the 90s, which included Baddiel dressed as Lee in ‘blackface’.
What jumps out is that Baddiel has never apologised personally to Lee (despite public mea culpas), and that it has taken him 25 years to do so face to face… via a new TV show. It feels cynical, whatever the intent, and is shunted to the end of the program. It’s clear that Baddiel should have made this right a long time ago, and that it should have been the first part of his journey. Admitting your own damaging public racism shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially not if you want to be taken seriously talking about race.
Ash Sarkar** points out Baddiel’s past treatment of Lee completely undermines his point about Jews’ experience of racism being uniquely ignored, as at no point has this racist treatment of Lee negatively impacted Baddiel’s successful career. Do black people not count?
There’s no attempt to bring other minorities into the conversation, to compare with their experiences - or to engage with, for example, the Forde report which found a “hierarchy of racism” in UK Labour (supposedly progressive society) with anti-black & anti-Muslim racism at the bottom of the pile.
Aside of Jason Lee, the only person of colour Baddiel interviews is his niece (who describes herself as “bi-racial”). She points out that she is much more worried about her black mum being stopped by police than her Jewish dad – Baddiel basically brushes this insight aside.
And here lies a fundamental weakness of the JDC position. Just because antisemitism isn’t widely understood or even considered (unless politically convenient) doesn’t therefore mean other discriminations are taken seriously. This is a zero sum game.
Blithely repeating the term shows a lack of responsiveness to current reality; no one with the faintest idea of UK politics can seriously claim ‘Jews Don’t Count’ after the unholy row over Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. What would perhaps be more accurate is Jews Only Count When It Serves Your Particular Political Or Factional Agenda, or Jews: A Political Shotput To Be Fired Into The Stadium And Fall Heavily To Earth, but that’s a different book, and I digress.
There are some valid points raised in the program; “Jewface” is worthy of discussion (check out the toxic backlash online whenever Sarah Silverman raises it); ‘why is Jewish not deemed an ethnicity worthy of official forms?’; and the political Left really does have a blind spot when it comes to antisemitism.
Look at the list of luminaries who came out in support of ‘Chicken Soup Espionage’ Iran State TV fruitcake David Miller after his sacking from Bristol Uni – a walking embodiment of that Charlie Day Beautiful Mind meme. But there are better, more nuanced books written about this specifically.***
Let us not forget that some of the most dangerous and pressing forms of antisemitism come from where they always have: the Right. When Kanye West completed last week’s Jew-hate tour, it was right-wing podcasts and TV shows that platformed and amplified his Hitler-loving ravings. And how did he begin his descent into conspiracist Nazi hell? By blaming black people for slavery and launching a ‘White Lives Matter’ t-shirt.
There is only one future in tackling discrimination: it has to be a joint effort, in conjunction, and collaboration with other minorities. When I’ve led anti-discrimination workshops in schools, I’ve partnered with a Muslim facilitator; we draw from our own experiences, and students are able to see the common ground between them. Allowing space for each other enables greater empathy: the key for any anti-racist practice.
‘Jews Don’t Count’ is now actively working against this shared experience, driving a wedge between different communities, and exacerbating differences. It’s at best reductive, at worst, actively provocative and divisive.
It’s time for the phrase to be permanently retired.
** A controversial figure for some in the Jewish community
*** I very much recommend Daniel Randall’s ‘Confronting Antisemitism On The Left: Arguments for Socialists’. Again, not without caveat; I don’t agree with everything he says but it’s a worthy contribution to debate.