Beoordeeld in het Verenigd Koninkrijk op 5 maart 2021
In view of the huge and still continuing row over the alleged “antisemitism crisis” in the Labour Party and wider British society, the title of David Baddiel’s book is bemusing; surely in recent years, Jews have counted more than, it seems, any other minority? Baddiel himself acknowledges this: “some might say, so there you are: Jews count. Look at this enormous political fuss about Jews. How can you say they don’t?”(p. 116)
His response to such criticism is that he is talking in the book not about mainstream society but the ”progressive” left and their prevalent ideology of “identity politics” and “cancel culture”. Baddiel expresses some doubts and criticisms in relation to this ideology, but insists that whether or not he agrees with it is not the point. The point is, he claims, that Jews are excluded from it; the “progressive” left is up in arms on Twitter at the remotest suggestion of infringement of the rights of all other minorities, but not when it comes to antisemitism, at which point a “blind spot” makes itself evident; in a phrase, to the progressive left, Jews Don’t Count. Baddiel describes this as dangerous to Jews because it contributes to a culture of antisemitism.
Baddiel’s illustrations of this claim lead him into discussions of the mind-boggling intricacies of “identity politics” – intricacies which, despite being a comedian and despite the doubts and criticisms mentioned above, he takes with deadly earnestness. Thus he spends a lot of time discussing the question of whether minority parts on stage or in films should be played by actors who don’t belong to those minorities: should non-trans people play trans parts, should straight people play gay parts? He complains that only one minority group is excluded from the progressive left’s obsession with this question: you guessed it, Jews.
This leads him into discussion of a joke made by John Turturro, who is not Jewish but plays a rabbi in the film of The Plot Against America. During an interview, Turturro quipped: “I feel like an honorary Jew. My wife is Jewish, my kids are Jewish. I mean, I grew up in New York City, so I’m basically Jewish!” Baddiel comments: “The joke about New York is a racist one, not a million miles from calling it Hymietown”. But he insists that it isn’t that he personally cares whether non-Jewish actors like Turturro play Jewish parts; his main problem is that the progressive left doesn’t care about non-Jewish actors playing Jewish parts -- and his main problem with Turturro’s allegedly racist comment is that, according to Baddiel, Turturro would have thought carefully before he made it in relation to any other minority:
“What is John Turturro not doing here? He’s not concerned about microaggressions to Jews. Because there is not a proper call-out culture around those. However, if he was cast as a gay character in a TV series, I think he’d think very carefully, with a lot of concern about the consequences, before saying ‘I mean, I grew up in San Francisco, so I’m basically gay’.” (p.58)
In a February 4 interview with the Jewish Chronicle about his book, Baddiel claimed: “there’s a continuum in all racism and small what are known as microaggressions are on a continuum with Auschwitz”. He goes on to assure the interviewer: ”I’m not suggesting for a second that some of these examples in the book inevitably lead to Auschwitz”; nonetheless, it appears that Baddiel regards Turturro’s light-hearted joke about the Jewish culture of New York as “on a continuum” with the Holocaust. This is just one example of the tortuous and paranoid thinking that informs this book.
Much has been made by Baddiel’s many admirers of his claim to be non-Zionist and to have little interest in Israel. But his criticism of left-wing Jews echoes Howard Jacobson’s coinage of the term “The ASHamed Jews” in his Booker-prize-winning novel The Finkler Question -- a book in which paranoia about UK antisemitism is clearly used to deflect criticism of Operation Cast Lead. We are told (with evident authorial approval) of the hero Finkler (who at first leads the ASHamed Jews but later leaves them): “Gaza didn’t do it for him”. Finkler (again with authorial approval) claims that Hamas provoked Israel, whereas the facts are the other way round – in November 2008, when the eyes of the world were on the election of Obama, Israel broke the ceasefire (which Hamas had kept) in a deliberate provocation of Hamas rockets in order to create a casus belli for Israel's invasion of Gaza.
Baddiel criticises left-wing Jews who speak out as Jews against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians:
“I’m not suggesting that the state of Israel hasn’t done many things to be ashamed of. But here’s the thing: I am not responsible for those actions and expecting that I should feel so is racist. If a non-Israeli Jew does feel responsible, it is internalised racism. To be perfectly honest, I think a fair amount of Jews on the left are just ashamed of being Jewish.” (page93).
So Baddiel is here describing as racist those Jews who speak out as Jews against Israel’s racist oppression of the Palestinians – which does arouse a suspicion that there is something disingenuous about his claim to feel no connection with Israel. Baddiel completely ignores Israeli government assertions that it acts in the name of all the Jews in the world (Israel has actually declared itself the nation-state of all the world’s Jews) and the claims of Jewish communal leaders – who, whenever Israel launches its periodic massacres of Gazans, organise Israel Solidarity Rallies in tandem with the Israeli Embassy – that the entire British Jewish community supports Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians. Jews who speak out as Jews against these attacks are not ashamed of being Jewish—on the contrary, they are reclaiming a Jewish tradition of universalist morality that Baddiel completely disregards in his idea that Jews are simply a tribal “ethnic minority”.
Baddiel doesn’t just echo The Finkler Question; he also complains bitterly that, although The Finkler Question was awarded the Booker Prize in 2010, Jacobson’s works “are still seen fundamentally as Jewish novels and not expressive, in social terms, of anything beyond that ethnicity.” (page 37). He contrasts this with a book that won the Booker in 2019, Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, who is half-Nigerian. Baddiel cites the New Statesman’s comment on this book: “If you want to understand modern-day Britain, this is the writer to read” and points out, rightly, that this would never be said of Howard Jacobson. And a page earlier Baddiel moans resentfully that when his own novel, The Secret Purposes, was published, he went to look for it in Waterstones and found that it had been hidden away in a section called “Jewish Interest”: “I felt a strong urge to take it out of there and place it somewhere else in the shop. And not just the Highly Recommended Section ”. He writes that he felt that Waterstones had created a “ghetto” for Jews.
This is odd in view of Baddiel's obsession with turning Jews into an ethnic minority, which surely smacks of putting Jews into a ghetto – at least into a little box in the “ethnicity” section of the government census form. When Baddiel tried to explain his point, he made my head spin:
“Jews, although marginal, are not thought of as marginalised. Which means Jews can’t be seen as representative of a modern Britain that is intent on shifting marginalised experiences into the mainstream.”
If we make an effort to unpack these two sentences: this is more or less the only point in the book at which Baddiel admits that Jews are “marginal”; ie there are only about 300,000 Jews in Britain, which is only a very small percentage – about 0.3 per cent, though Baddiel never mentions these statistics – of the British population and so are not really of that much importance to the general public. Baddiel is making the further point that, in multi-cultural modern Britain, it is the ethnic minorities, discriminated against and excluded though they are, who seem to the fashionable, progressive left to represent where the country is at – the real beating heart of modern multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Britain. British Jews are not only a tiny percentage – they are not a particularly exciting tiny percentage at that, being mostly affluent, successful, professional, middle-class, Conservative-voting and – after three and a half centuries of gradually overcoming all discrimination against them – completely integrated into mainstream British society (while still preserving their own Jewish culture). Baddiel writes enviously of American Jewish culture, which, as he points out, is seen as representative of the heart of modern America – but a) there are about six million American Jews; b) the US is a melting-pot of immigrant cultures; and c) partly for these reasons, though no doubt for many other reasons as well, US Jews have forged a far richer, broader, more universalist culture than UK Jews have ever achieved. When Baddiel attempts to define his ethnic British Jewish identity, two of his identifiers are religious and most of them refer to American Jewish culture --despite his view that Turturro’s joke about the Jewishness of New York is a “microaggression…..on a continuum with Auschwitz”:
“My Jewish identity is about Groucho Marx and Larry David and Sarah Silverman and Philip Roth and Seinfeld and Saul Bellow and pickled herring and Passovers in Cricklewood in 1973 and my mother being a refugee from the Nazis and wearing a yarmulke in my Jewish primary school”. (pp.92-3)
Nonetheless, since their resettlement in Britain in the mid-17th century, the history of British Jews has been a success story; and it is a denial of this success story to depict, as Baddiel tries to do, British Jews as an ethnic minority suffering from discrimination, exclusion and poverty. Baddiel complains that Jews, unlike communities considered to be BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic), “don’t benefit from positive discrimination….That’s because they don’t need it, I feel you thinking. But what does that mean and where does that thought lead?” (page 53). He doesn’t explain where it leads. Does he think it leads to Auschwitz? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the British Jewish success story – as Ken Livingstone did when he helped to organise the “Simcha in the Square” in Trafalgar Square in 2006 to celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in the UK? Why does Baddiel need to pretend to be excluded, oppressed and victimised? This book is ridiculously pretentious, because it pretends that Jews are something that they aren’t. The ultimate reason for this pretence seems to be Baddiel’s massive ego, which makes him want Jews to be the centre of attention and top of everything, even – or especially -- in the victim stakes.
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