How Comedian David Baddiel Became an Unlikely Voice for Britain’s Jews

David Baddiel has attracted widespread praise for his book ‘Jews Don’t Count’ and his online condemnations of antisemitism. But how did a ‘fundamental atheist’ best-known for his sweary stand-up end up a pillar of the community?

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Comedian and writer David Baddiel.
Comedian and writer David Baddiel. Credit: Steve Best / Xavicus Media
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
London

LONDON – Late last month, protesters marched through central London to challenge the U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown measures. It was a small but angry crowd (several police officers were injured), and included several wearing yellow stars and brandishing placards with slogans such as “COVID-19 Vaccine Holocaust.”

It was an arresting image to see on the streets of modern-day Britain, but not one that featured in any of the initial media coverage.

What brought it to wider attention was a social media post by British-Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel.

“Take. That. Off,” he wrote in a tweet showing a woman wearing a yellow star. He later added: “What I’ve said there does in fact illustrate one of a number of key differences between this woman’s situation and my grandparents in Germany in the 1930s. She has that option.”

The fact that such a shocking demonstration of blatant antisemitism went unreported by the mainstream media does not exemplify how firmly Jew-hatred is embedded in British society. It isn’t.

But it does perfectly illustrate the central premise of Baddiel’s latest book, “Jews Don’t Count,” in which he argues that, especially for otherwise enlightened liberals, anti-Jewish prejudice exists as a kind of lacuna in our modern consciousness of racism.

Despite a genocide in living memory, Jews are no longer seen as people at risk of attack or in need of protection – or even, despite all evidence to the contrary, as an ethnic minority in the contemporary understanding of the word.

“A sacred circle is drawn around those who the progressive modern left are prepared to go into battle for, and it seems as if the Jews aren’t in it. Why?” he asks in “Jews Don’t Count.”

This short book, in truth more an extended essay, attempts to answer that question, drawing heavily on the general cesspit of online discourse and Baddiel’s own recent experiences in which this self-confessed atheist has become an unlikely voice – he winces at the word “activist” – of Britain’s Jewish community.

The book cover for "Jews Don't Count," by David Baddiel.Credit: Harper Collins

“The book is a strange thing,” he tells Haaretz in a Zoom conversation, “because it’s a polemic, it’s political, but really it’s a kind of outpouring from me about me about how I feel.”

It’s also an attempt to see where Judaism fits into identity politics, Baddiel says. “I’m placing Judaism in the wider conversation about modern ways of thinking about racism and ethnicity, gender and sexuality and ableism, and all the ways in which we’re trying to shift the ways that we think about discrimination.”

Traumatic years

It’s this context that provides the book’s title: Jews really don’t seem to count – sometimes quite literally. Ethnic origin questionnaires, for instance, which are common in the United Kingdom to assess diversity, have no dedicated option for Jews.

“It’s just a sort of weirdly overlooked thing,” Baddiel says, noting that the 10-yearly census came out just after his book was released earlier this year. “To actually look at what is available on ethnicity, they try and absolutely cover the waterfront,” he adds, observing that this time you could, by a fairly convoluted route, put Jewish as a category under “Other.”

“And that’s really the point: Not so much that you can’t write Jewish; it’s that so much effort has gone into making sure that every other category of ethnicity is represented but Jewish isn’t.” (In 2019, the Office for National Statistics said that according to their focus group testing, Jews themselves did not support any change in the categorization.) 

Similarly, the recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which was intended to be a comprehensive report on racism in modern Britain, was widely condemned for downplaying or misrepresenting the reality of prejudice. What went completely unnoticed, though, was that it had no mention whatsoever of antisemitism, “and no Jew on the panel, as far as I’m aware,” he says.

This is important, because the book comes in the wake of truly catastrophic, traumatic years in the Anglo-Jewish experience. It’s impossible to underplay the impact of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as U.K. Labour Party leader in 2015, and the rise of a kind of uniquely left-wing and insidious version of antisemitism.

Most damaging was the effective gaslighting of a community whose protestations that they knew antisemitism when they saw it were ignored or derided. There were endless accusations that Jews who called out antisemitism on the left were acting in bad faith – shills for Israel or selfishly dedicated to derailing a project to eliminate poverty and bring social justice to Britain.

As Baddiel writes in the book: “It is a progressive article of faith – much heightened during the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 – that those who do not experience racism need to listen, to learn, to accept and not challenge, when others speak about their experiences. Except, it seems, when Jews do. Non-Jews, including progressive non-Jews, are still very happy to tell Jews whether or not the utterance about them was in fact racist.”

The examples are myriad, some of which he touches on in the book – the East London mural depicting Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the world’s poor, stoically defended initially by Corbyn – but what seems to bother him most are the offhand, apparently unnoticed examples.

Protesters demonstrating against antisemitism in the U.K. Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was still leader in 2018. Credit: TOLGA AKMEN / AFP

For instance, there’s the Labour politician who, in a long list of social groups she vows the party will protect – Black, white, Asian, disabled, LGBTQ, “if you wear a hijab, a turban, a cross” – leaves out one minority.

And then there are the endless suppositions that Jews are overwhelmingly moneyed, privileged and “white.” (One of Baddiel’s earliest stand-up jokes was that he had been beaten up twice in his life: once for being Jewish, and once for being Pakistani.)

“I’m arguing not for another person’s experience of racism to be lessened in significance, but for the awareness of something similar happening to Jews to be heightened,” he writes.

A household name in Britain, Baddiel has had a diverse career. He began as a stand-up comic in the late 1980s, became one of the country’s best-known soccer fans (he co-released a song for the 1996 European Championships, “Three Lions,” that became an instant anthem for the English national team), made a documentary on Holocaust denial and has writen best-selling novels for both children and adults.

His Twitter biography, however, has only ever been one word: “Jew.”

“Antisemitism is important in forging how I feel as a Jew in exactly the same way as many brown and Black identities are forged in reaction to and refusal of those racisms,” he explains. This means he is having to do some rewrites for the U.S. edition of the book, out in September.

“Some American people who’ve read it have said to me, ‘Oh, we don’t really think of antisemitism being racism here, because we have an issue with the notion of Jews being a race’ – as if that’s somehow a right-wing way of looking at Jews. That’s to say, ‘the Nazis considered the Jews were a race, and so we can’t consider ourselves a race.’ I think that’s an incredibly old-fashioned and not useful way of thinking about antisemitism.”

‘Stupid f***ing Israel’

For Baddiel, Judaism is mostly about U.S. Jewish comedians and writers he admires, and “pickled herring, and Passovers in [the north London suburb of] Cricklewood in 1973, and my mother being a refugee from the Nazis and wearing a yarmulke at my Jewish [elementary] school.”

That’s very specific, and just as there are blind spots in society’s treatment of Jews, Baddiel’s book also has its gaps. Israel, for one – or “stupid f***ing Israel,” as he prefers to call it (he is fond of swearing in his comedy).

“It’s not really a comment on the country; it’s a comment on the baggage,” he says, explaining how it is core to modern antisemitism that Jews are expected to somehow be responsible – or, at the very least, have a strongly held opinion – on the state of Israel and its actions.

Baddiel has an award he hands out on Twitter called #BringStupidFuckingIsraelPalestineIntoItSomehow, which he initiated when a tweet about how he was enjoying watching some golf led to someone responding: “Lucky you watching golf, you don’t have to worry about people being shot in Palestine.”

“It’s also true I say that I don’t have a strong connection to [Israel],” he says. “And I do think that people who want me to – either within the community or on the left – get into a sort of intellectual flux [about it].

“My point is that if I wrote a book which really got into the whole thing about Zionism, you’re acting out exactly what those people insist upon – which is that you have to state a very big and complicated position on Israel before you can talk about antisemitism … and then the next thing you know, you’re either defending or attacking Israel. My point is, I don’t really care,” he says.

However, the overwhelming majority of British Jews do care, with many feeling that demonization of Israel feeds into modern antisemitism.

Baddiel also falls down in his solidarity when it comes to the strictly religious. Earlier this year, for example, he retweeted an article about COVID lockdown rules being flouted by some members of Britain’s ultra-Orthodox community with the words “Stupid fucking frummers.”

It was jarring to read this from the author of a book urging people to think about their language. To be fair to him, Baddiel went on to engage in an online community debate with social activist Yehudis Fletcher, who noted how the Haredim, to borrow the parlance of identify politics, were being “othered.”

But he remains largely unrepentant.

“I might say it slightly differently now, but the sentiment I still really agree with. I’m not religious, and I really think that when religion creates that disease and death, it should be called out – and I feel slightly more able to do that robustly because I’m Jewish.”

Caveats aside, this is an important book, glowingly reviewed in the U.K. media (apart from the perhaps predictable outrage it spurred in online far-left circles), and potentially leading to some real change: Baddiel says he has been contacted by numerous corporations concerned that all their diversity and inclusion training somehow included zero references to Jews.

And as far the largely Zionist Anglo-Jewish community is concerned, he can say “stupid fucking Israel” as much as he likes, given how popular the book has already proven.

Indeed, Baddiel says much of the Jewish feedback he’s received has been people telling him: “We’ve been saying this for some time, but it’s articulated here and in a package that makes it immediately understandable and accessible. And I’m going to buy it for my progressive non-Jewish friends.”

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