Nathan Abrams finds flaws in David Baddiel’s new book about antisemitism Jews Don’t Count.
I finally got my copy of Jews Don’t Count, David Baddiel’s new book about antisemitism. Despite being a longtime fan and bearing more than a passing physical resemblance to him, I desperately didn’t want to like this book. Maybe it’s because the media only seems to pay attention to these issues when it’s a celebrity like Baddiel, Simon Schama or Anthony Julius. As he puts it himself in the book, ‘I am, I would say, one of the UK’s very few famous Jews.’ (In this vein, there is certainly a great deal of name dropping in the book from the congratulatory blurbs on the cover before I had even opened it to who he had lunch with within the first few pages.) Or maybe it’s my own petty jealousy.
As this is not a deeply considered or philosophical tome — for that, one must turn to other writers and thinkers – my review will proceed in that mode. It is more of an angry polemic aimed at the Twitterati and rehashes many of the points Baddiel has made on Twitter – and the book is illustrated with plenty of his tweets – but here he has strung them together into a much more coherent argument which is simply that amongst ‘progressives’ Jews don’t count as a minority and hence they have been left out of the considerations that affect other minorities.
Let’s begin with the title. Jews are being discounted, Baddiel says. The comedian in me wants to reply this is ironic given how Jews love a discount. I would add but, of course, Jews count as they’re very good at counting hence the high number of Jewish accountants, bankers and financiers. One of the most famous Jewish counts is Dracula and Jews are very good at being counted in that they’ve been counted in numerous lists that have counted against them. But perhaps here I am being too frivolous.
The cover of the book is black and white reflecting some of the discussion within. Baddiel explains how Jews don’t fit into the traditional dichotomy of black and white. Where Jews fit into this colour spectrum is vitally important and has been the subject of much debate. If Ashkenazi Jews are not black, there are certainly many black Jews. On the other side of the coin, Baddiel writes, ‘Jews are not white. Or not quite. Or, at least, they don’t always feel it.’ To appropriate Homi Bhabha’s famous formulation, ‘Jews are the same but not quite white.’
Many of the examples Baddiel deploys are flawed. His example of food is not a good one because as much as Jewish cuisine has been appropriated by non-Jews, Jews appropriated the local cuisines of the places they lived in to create a Jewish cuisine which even a cursory glance at Claudia Roden’s magisterial cookbook, The Book of Jewish Food, will make clear.
And not to diminish the antisemitism that he and his brother suffered at Chelsea but really, he kind of brought it on himself by supporting Chelsea — whose supporters have a reputation for racism especially against blacks — when any typical North London Jew should have at least gone for either Arsenal or Spurs.
Sticking on the subject of football, there are and have been probably far more Jews in the boardrooms and at a managerial level than there are black and Asian managers and executives even if there are far more black players on the pitch. Why isn’t Roman Abramovich helping to stamp out antisemitism at his own club? If there is a lack of Jewish players on the pitch, this is probably does not owe to antisemitism but Jewish preferences for not playing professional football no matter how hard we imagine ourselves as the next Ronnie Rosenthal.
When it comes to cultural representations, Baddiel is on trickier ground. When, for example, he refers to Bond villains as depicting evil ‘as swarthy and hook-nosed’, he needs to consider why when Jews were behind those depictions. Indeed, the very first film villain – Dr No — was played by a Jew. Take the notorious Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, that obscene schnozz was made by Stuart Freeborn who has a Jewish heritage. We have had a role to play in these depictions and we need to interrogate why that is. They didn’t just crawl out of nowhere.
Baddiel writes how ‘it is not brave for a non-Jew to play a Jew’. Here I think he’s entirely wrong not least because the majority of stereotypical lazy representations of Jews have been done by Jews and the much more recent and nuanced representations of Jews have been done by non-Jews. To take one example he uses in the book: I remember when McMafia first aired, Baddiel tweeted, ‘No sign so far of the enormous woke outcry over James Norton playing a Jew in McMafia’, and then, ‘So you’d be OK with a white man playing Othello?’
The irony here is that while it is correct that Jewishness and Judaism are easy to caricature, this caricaturing has been carried out by Jewish actors themselves who, in building upon a primary understanding of tropes, ticks, mannerisms and vocal affectation combined with an awareness of the primary factors such as psychology, geography, culture and history that have framed these outward signifiers of Judaism, have fed into stereotypes and hence into prejudice. Thus, one could certainly make the argument that over the years it is precisely the type of Jewish actors who signed an open letter in 2019 complaining about what they called ‘Jewface’ that has neither accurately nor sensitively represented Jews, Jewishness and Judaism on British television. Rather, the opposite is the case: it is and has been non-Jewish actors who are producing the more accurate and sensitive portrayals of Jews on-screen by not playing them as stereotyped or caricatured Jews but by playing them as themselves.
When he complains about other shows such as the casting of Al Pacino in Hunters, there’s been a long interchange between Jews and Italians with Italians playing Jews and Jews playing Italians. It doesn’t bother me that Robert de Niro so famously played a Jewish gangster in Once Upon a Time in America or Casino. John Turturro has long played Jewish characters in such Coen brothers movies as Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing but also in Quiz Show and nobody complained then so why is it a problem now? And these films were made by Jewish directors. But the biggest chutzpah is that David Baddiel allowed a non-Jewish Baha’i to play a half-Muslim half-Jewish character in his own film, The Infidel.
He misses — or deliberately overlooks — the fact that Alison Brie is Jewish when discussing Bojack Horseman. Had Kafka written that show, I suspect he would have had no problem making the Jewish character simian or even a hideous vermin. Again, showing his blind spot, Craig David is Jewish, so when Leigh Francis apologized for his impersonation of him in Bo’ Selecta! and not for his bizarrely accented caricature of Baddiel, he was apologising for his ‘Jewface’ whether he realised it or not.
I get his point that there’s no outrage where he thinks there would be if other minority groups were involved. But the history of representation of Jews in film and television, as he surely knows, is highly complex. It was Jewish Americans who forced other American Jews to change their names to appeal to and appear more goyish. It was Jewish TV executives in both the US and the UK who feared their shows as being perceived as ‘too Jewy’. Friday Night Dinner is a case in point where it’s manifestly a Jewish show but wears its Jewishness extremely lightly.
He complains that Al Pacino plays his character in Hunters as ‘really f****** Jewishly. His performative mannerisms are full of shrugs and schlemiel-faced antics, his intonation pitted with melancholic question marks. It’s JewVoice, JewExpression, JewStoopedandshrugging body. It’s NebbishBeing.’ I get that is problematic when you cartoon the Jewishness and you yourself are not Jewish but how can you blame the non-Jews for cartooning the Jewishness when for a century Jews have been cartooning their Jewishness and hence, have provided the template for non-Jewish actors when cast as Jews?
Maybe the problem here is not that it’s non-Jews doing the Jewface but that the Jewface has been done badly. As someone said about Jeremy Corbyn: the problem with Jeremy Corbyn was not that he was left-wing; it was that he was left-wing and s***.
And then there’s the flip side of the coin: what happens when Jews play non-Jews? Is that a form of minstrelsy and mockery? Is it Goyface? Consider all the roles that those Jews in Hollywood were forced to play in the 1940s and 1950s. Is it insulting that Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis played Vikings and Greeks (and the latter even did it with a conspicuously Bronx Jewish accent)?
Antisemitism in the Ether
In the final analysis, is it possible that what Baddiel has not confronted head-on is that antisemitism exists within the ether; it’s a defining element of Englishness regardless of what part of the political spectrum you’re on. To appropriate a saying from another country, perhaps English (and Welsh, Scottish and Irish) people suck it in with their mother’s milk. As Miriam Margolyes is quoted in the book as saying, ‘the English are naturally anti-Semitic’.
Baddiel should have known this from school but then maybe his experiences at his public school, Haberdashers’, cossetted him from the sort of casual everyday antisemitism experienced by his contemporaries at, say, JFS, as recounted by fellow Jewish comedian Ian Stone. (Baddiel does recount one experience of a teacher referring to him, ‘venomously’ as a ‘Jew’ and another teacher replied: ‘Of course’.)
My point, then, is not that people have to struggle to be antisemitic, but they must struggle against it. It’s the default position which they will easily slip into if given half a chance.
I guess I’m not the target audience for this book and that’s fair enough. For those who should be reading this book, there is one simple lesson to be taken from it: ‘Just as a particular racism can only really be defined by the victims of that racism, the deep truths of identity is only available to those who live that identity’, as Baddiel puts it.
In short: it is us who gets to decide what is and what isn’t antisemitic — not you.
Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel is published by TLS Books, priced £9.99.