Daniel Randall critically responds to David Baddiel’s documentary “Jews Don’t Count”.
Jeremy Corbyn defending a mural explicitly intended, according to its creator, to demonise Jewish financiers; antisemitic memes peddling conspiracies about “Rothschilds” approvingly circulated in left-wing social media spaces; Adbusters magazine, seen by many as having sparked the Occupy movement, asking in editorials “why won’t anyone say they’re Jewish?”, alleging Bush-era neoconservatism was a specifically Jewish movement; further back, the Trotskyist leader Nahuel Moreno arguing that “racism against Israel is progressive” because “it destroys the Zionist state”; further back still, early socialists and anarchists like Fourier, Bakunin and others recycling often racialised conspiracies about Jewish financial power…
All of these involved people who saw themselves as committed to fighting for equality and against bigotry. And yet they were either incapable of identifying antisemitism, or, sometimes, even saw it as compatible with a progressive worldview. Against that backdrop, it is hardly surprising that many Jews, and not only Jews, have concluded that, in some would-be progressive spaces, but anti-Jewish bigotry is also either denied, dismissed, trivialised – or, worst of all, valorised as having some progressive character.
David Baddiel’s recent Channel 4 documentary “Jews Don’t Count” mentions one of the aforementioned examples and alludes to others indirectly. If the maxim “Jews don’t count” were intended only as a summary of that conclusion, it would be hard for all but a hardened denialist to contest. But Baddiel attempts to construct a more substantial “thesis”, as he puts it, on top of the pithy observation. Whilst undoubtedly sincere, it is one that often obscures more than it clarifies.
Early in the documentary, Baddiel criticises a 2019 speech by Labour MP Dawn Butler that appeared to list every possible minority-identity category but left out “Jews”. That exclusion (and indeed, some of the inclusions – people who “wear a cross” made it onto Butler’s list: are crucifix-wearers oppressed or marginalised in Britain?) is indeed objectionable. The most basic implied solution to the problem, for Jews to be counted as a historically marginalised minority and for bigotry against them to be recognised as such, is impossible to argue with. But it is anodyne if one’s horizons extend past the mere acknowledgement of bigotry and into the conscious struggle to defeat it.
Some of the remedial measures the film suggests are highly questionable. Would we be closer to defeating antisemitism and building a more equal, more consistently anti-racist world if a Jewish actor, rather than Rachel Brosnahan, had been cast to play Midge Maisel? Personally, I doubt it. Nevertheless, the film makes for engaging and sometimes affecting viewing and contains much of value.
A debate with Miriam Margolyes about the relationship of Israel to antisemitism, and the position of Israel within British Jewish identity, would make for an interesting programme by itself. Counterintuitively, in this exchange, it is Baddiel who makes an “anti-Zionist” argument, and Margolyes who makes the more “Zionist” one. Baddiel says he is a “British Jew”, to whom Israel feels “foreign” and “distant”, a refutation of the Zionist idea that Jews as a whole comprise a national people. Margolyes, on the other hand, says she feels “connected” to Israel, and that Israeli Jews are her and Baddiel’s “fellow people”, presupposing Israel as part of a global Jewish collectivity.
Baddiel is right to argue that it is antisemitic to hold Jews in Britain responsible for Israel’s actions. But it is also the case that the Israeli-Jewish national people and the contemporary state of Israel emerge out of the historic Jewish experience and are intrinsically connected to it? Indeed, that is a significant part of what makes reactionary forms of anti-Zionism specifically antisemitic, rather than merely a form of chauvinism against Hebrew-speaking Israelis.
But there is also much in the documentary that is either underdeveloped or simply wrong. Baddiel says we live in “a culture in which all other forms of racism are closely monitored and called out.” Certainly, there is a formally anti-racist public culture, both a gain of the historic anti-racist struggle and a mechanism for containing it from going further. And yet, newspaper headlines and government ministers’ pronouncements still shriek with anti-migrant racism. Racism may be “called out” on social media (although it is also frequently amplified there), but the prominence of such bigotry in national political discourse shows our formally anti-racist culture is often superficial.
The first modern immigration control in British history was a specifically antisemitic measure. But the film does not even explicitly mention the 1905 Aliens Act, a key part of the story of British antisemitism. This seems a missed opportunity to connect the critique of antisemitism to wider anti-racist politics, rather than simply “counting” antisemitism alongside other forms of racism. That connection is not a matter of collapsing antisemitism into a broader generic category or erasing distinctions between different forms of racism, but of seeing where different forms intersect, in order that we can more effectively confront each and all of them.
Throughout the documentary, shifts between issues of manifestly different scales and significance undermine its argument. Baddiel’s conversation with David Schwimmer moves from Schwimmer talking about how the KKK’s murder of Jewish civil rights activists shaped his identity and sense of exclusion from whiteness to a discussion of whether the criticism of Friends for being insufficiently diverse might have been a little unfair because it did, after all, feature Jewish characters.
The documentary also features a scene of Baddiel apologising to Jason Lee, the footballer he mocked in a series of racist sketches in the 1990s. Some of Baddiel’s critics argue this disproves his arguments in itself: despite being regularly roasted on social media for it, his career has hardly been harmed by his exploitation of anti-black racism, so how can he claim it “counts” more than bigotry against Jews? Some of those critics have dismissed the apology, which comes at the end of the film, as performative and done only for the cameras, although Lee himself has said it “meant a lot.”
In arguing for antisemitism to be “counted” as morally equivalent to other bigotries, Baddiel sometimes appears to draw broader material equivalences that objective analysis does not support. Baddiel seems to find it difficult to accept the point made by his niece Dionna, who is biracial, that (white) Jews have been substantially integrated into whiteness. That integration is both recent and revocable, but it is real.
Antisemitism in the west is not a materially oppressive structure in the sense that anti-black racism or racialised hostility to migrants are. Jews are not more likely to be brutalised by the police, to be in poorer housing, or to be lower paid because they are Jewish. British Jews do not routinely find themselves in immigration detention centres or physically forced onto deportation flights by security guards.
The anti-racist theorist Ambalavaner Sivanandan once declared: “People’s attitudes don’t mean a damn to me […] Racism is about power, not prejudice.” Faced with an antisemitism that is about “attitudes”, “prejudice”, and ideology more than “power”, some of Baddiel’s leftist critics do indeed imply antisemitism need not be “counted” at all, and that it can be relegated to the status of a historical artefact, an unpleasant but irrelevant belief confined to the margins of politics. As one put it in a debate with me, expressing exactly the argument Baddiel sets out to refute, “Jews are a prosperous, privileged section of the white community. There’s no racism that I can discern.”
But, whilst Baddiel is wrong to argue Jews remain, straightforwardly, an “oppressed minority”, those who argue this means antisemitism is no longer relevant or even extant are, as it were, even more wrong. “Attitudes”, to use Sivanandan’s term, still matter, and as recent high-profile cases show, antisemitic attitudes clearly persist. Any movement aiming to recompose power requires an ongoing effort to recompose attitudes, to build and animate the movement. And bigotry that is principally ideological can still be physically dangerous. That danger is expressed in the ways in which antisemitic ideology still leads to violence in the west. Attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, Poway and Colleyville are testaments to that.
Baddiel implies but does not develop, the argument that these attacks mean British Jewish institutions face an immediate threat of similar incidents. That, to me, requires further substantiation. But even if it is true, much of the antisemitism Baddiel highlights is not that of fully convinced ideologues on the verge of direct action, but coded forms that often exist in left-wing discourse by implication or omission. The danger posed is less an immediate imperilling of Jewish safety, and more that these implicit elements of antisemitic ideology can poison any would-be radically progressive politics. As I have sometimes provocatively and perhaps hyperbolically put it: left antisemitism is, in the first place, a threat to the left itself more than it is a threat to Jews as such.
With antisemitic critiques of “globalist financial elites” made by the likes of Trump and Orban sometimes finding echoes on the left, it would be complacent to imagine left antisemitism could never dovetail with populist-nationalist antisemitism and, to repurpose a phrase from Marx, “descend from language into life.” April Rosenblum and others have rightly noted that some episodes of anti-Jewish violence and oppression happened at moments and in societies where Jews appeared to be substantially “privileged” and integrated. But in the immediate term, left antisemitism threatens ideological toxification more than physical harm or material oppression. Anti-racism that erases distinctions in the ways different forms of racism function in each moment can be as limiting as one that excludes some forms of racism altogether. This erasing of distinctions is especially obstructive to attempts to confront antisemitism as it manifests on the left.
Baddiel says antisemitism can attach itself to radical politics via the stereotype of Jews as rich and powerful, which renders antisemitism a racism that “punches up”. This oversimplifies matters. Left antisemitism functions by promoting a series of what the theorist Moishe Postone called “pseudo-emancipatory” claims about the nature of capitalism and imperialism, which see those things as conspiracies driven by cabals of Jews or “Zionists”. As a “primitive critique of capitalist modernity”, modern antisemitism is essentially a form of reactionary anti-capitalism. In its fullest expression, antisemitic ideology sees Jews not merely as powerful but as power, not merely as rich but as capital. Capitalism itself is seen as a specifically Jewish endeavour.
Few on the contemporary left would see that claim, made by some 19th and early 20th century socialists, as anything other than explicitly antisemitic. But from the 1950s onward, propaganda emanating from the USSR and other Stalinist states wove those motifs into new conspiracy theories that put “Zionism” and Israel in the position the figure of the “Jewish financier” held in the earlier narratives. The influence of Stalinist Communist Parties within the global left, and the adherence of much of the wider non- and even anti-Stalinist left to a campist geopolitics that saw the USSR as historically progressive, meant elements of these antisemitic ideas became incorporated into the common sense of some sections of the left.
The number of people on the left for whom worked-out antisemitic ideology provides the primary infrastructure of their worldview, and who might therefore see physical attacks on Jews as a progressive act, are few indeed. But the presence of antisemitism’s pseudo-emancipatory claims within leftist discourse, even in embryonic or coded forms, will always inhibit the development of a genuinely emancipatory politics. The reactionary, conspiracy-theorist critique of capitalism will always inhibit the development of a revolutionary, class-struggle critique.
Baddiel’s thesis also seems to reproduce another trait common to many critiques of antisemitism, in seeing it as belonging to an undifferentiated historical thread. In the film, David Schwimmer describes Jewish history as one of “enslavement, persecution and exile, culminating in the Holocaust”, suggesting a picture of a singular, almost teleologically-impelled force.
Given the historic Jewish experience, it is not difficult to understand how this view arises. Baddiel is right to call for sensitivity to ways in which inherited cultural memory of experiences of trauma continues to shape consciousness. However, viewing antisemitism as singular and historically transcendent is misleading. Although different forms of anti-Jewish bigotry share common themes and motifs, they arise in and are shaped by distinct social conditions.
Although modern antisemitism “presupposed”, as Postone put it, “earlier forms of antisemitism”, it is distinct. Nazism is not the same thing as anti-Jewish persecution in the Seleucid empire. Islamist antisemitism is different from white supremacist antisemitism. Their shared features matter, but the specificities matter too. Acknowledging different forms of antisemitism as historically contingent, alongside a belief that collective struggle can change historical conditions, allows us to retain hope that both bigoted ideas and systems of oppressive power can be uprooted, dismantled, and replaced.
The alternative view, which can imply antisemitism is fixed and immutable, something we can acknowledge but never defeat can only impel a retreat into particularism. Jews, and all people who have experienced bigotry, must aspire to be more than the accumulated effects of our historic oppression. We must aspire to shape the future for the better. Baddiel, in his own terms, undoubtedly shares that aspiration, but concludes the film by saying that, whilst the problems it identifies are “getting better”, if fundamental change is to occur it will only be “quietly, uncertainly, and with many qualifications.”
Another counter to Baddiel’s arguments has come from those who argue, often from personal experience, that it is simply not the case that other bigotries are consistently treated with a seriousness not extended to antisemitism. Whilst the media paid significant attention to allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, it has made comparatively little of allegations of anti-black and anti-Muslim racism. The counter is legitimate, and the solution is not to attempt to reorder a moral hierarchy of racism but to reject the notion of hierarchy altogether in favour of a politics of solidarity.
Criticisms of Baddiel that excoriate him for seeking solidarity for his own confrontations with bigotry whilst having sometimes failed to extend that solidarity to others misunderstand what solidarity is. It is not a transaction, something paid out as a reward for good behaviour and withdrawn as punishment for malfeasance. It is a declaration of shared interest in a struggle for common demands. It may often be what Keith Kahn-Harris has called “sullen solidarity”, a shared struggle with individuals or groups one may not “like”, or whose majority politics one might contest. Solidarity can be critical – indeed, it is often the best foundation for criticism – and is surely stronger when reciprocal, but it must be unconditional, or it is meaningless.
The interviewees in Baddiel’s documentary are drawn overwhelmingly from the worlds of film, theatre, and television, and it only occasionally touches on the ways in which Jewish communal life is composed and constituted. That might not matter, except that when the thesis is posed in terms of an argument for Jews, as a community, to take their place alongside other minority-identity communities, the film suffers from a lack of any interrogation of that framework itself.
Competition over position in a perceived hierarchy of grievance is inevitably produced by official state multiculturalism which, despite formally promoting integration, functionally incentivises minority groups to silo themselves in their own “communities”, each with their own “community leaders”. These leaders act as mediators between the community and the state, sometimes also acting as an ideologically or materially disciplinary force for the state within the community. If affirming our own group’s status within that framework is what it means to be “counted”, then we should reject it.
For myself, I prefer the aspiration expressed by Steve Cohen, the seminal critic of antisemitism on the British left, to “become the kind of Jew the antisemites warned against: the cosmopolitan of no fixed identity.” Cohen went on: “And I hope you are willing to surrender your own tribal, ethnic, nationalist, and religious identities and allegiances. Join me as a traitor to your own traditions. Become cosmopolitans!” In other words: do not jostle to be “counted”, reject the entire basis on which the “counting” is done – and certainly reject the authority of community leaders and the state to determine it.
(It is true that some on the left assert this kind of critique of Jewish particularism and identitarianism whilst failing to critique, or even defending as progressive, the particularism and identitarian communalism of other communities. But the unprincipled inconsistencies of some on the left should spur those who aspire to a more principled left to greater consistency, not to reject the horizon of cosmopolitan universalism altogether.)
It is undeniable that Baddiel’s observations and the conclusions he has drawn from his experiences resonate with many Jews. Dismissing his arguments out of hand, without engaging with their substance, serves only to compound an already messy debate, which frequently produces far more heat than light. Although often unacknowledged or denied, parts of the left do have an issue with antisemitism, either in terms of a failure to recognise it, or in terms of having integrated its “pseudo-emancipatory” claims into distorted critiques of capitalism and imperialism.
Baddiel’s interventions can help provoke debate around these issues and call attention to (parts of) a real problem. But he offers a half-formed and sometimes misleading perspective on the nature of that problem, and very little in the way of transformative solutions to it. Baddiel’s supporters might counter that he is a comedian, not a political theorist. If he poses questions, it is for others to round out the analysis and provide the solutions. Perhaps; if only Steve Cohen had had the benefit of a platform on national television.
But it would do Baddiel a disservice to treat his work as something less than what he calls it – a “thesis”. As a critical analysis of contemporary antisemitism, it is ultimately flawed. For those of us who wish to do more than ensure Jews and antisemitism are formally “counted”; for those of us who wish to question the implications of official multiculturalism, communalism, and identity politics, rather than affirm our place within them; and for those of us who wish to counter the pseudo-emancipatory claims of antisemitism with a genuinely emancipatory politics in a way that is unapologetically radical rather than “quiet and uncertain”, it is our responsibility to extend and amplify the analyses Cohen and others have developed within debates that interventions like Baddiel’s continue to stimulate.
Small portions of this article are adapted from a speech given at Elstree Liberal Synagogue in December 2021 on the question “antisemitism: why does it persist?”, which can be viewed online here.
Don’t be so coy, Daniel. You’re in the Alliance for Workers Liberty organisation that has, shall we say, an unusual stance on Israel. It also supported the invasion of Iraq. It’s almost as if (cough) they’re not a real left wing organisation at all.
And such a lovely photo of David and Rachel.
Thanks for your illuminating response. Just a note: when attempting to criticise a political organisation, it helps not to tell demonstrable lies about the positions it holds.