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What British comedian, David Baddiel, gets wrong about Israel and anti-Semitism

November 29, 2022 at 6:01 pm

David Baddiel on July 30, 2022 in London, England [Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for The National Lottery]

British comedian, David Baddiel, is right about one thing: Jews are not “collectively responsible” for the policy and behaviour of the State of Israel, but he is complaining about the wrong group. Instead of criticising left-wing progressives and black anti-racists for why he thinks “Jews Don’t Count” within such spaces, he should be protesting the international campaign by Israel and advocates of the Occupation State to adopt a definition of anti-Jewish racism which conflates anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.

Baddiel’s comment on collective responsibility is from an exchange with British-Australian actress, Miriam Margolyes. Recorded for his Channel 4 documentary, “Jews Don’t Count”, which was aired last week, Baddiel and Margolyes are seen clashing over the connection of Jewish people to the State of Israel.

Margolyes, a critic of Israel and a supporter of the Palestinian cause, appears to disagree strongly with Baddiel over how the Occupation State should be viewed in the current discursive battle on anti-Semitism. Describing herself as deeply Jewish, Margolyes insists that “Israel is at the root of all this. Israel is the problem.” David pushed back: “Ok, so I disagree with that because anti-Semitism has roots that go back centuries and centuries and centuries.” Agreeing with Baddiel that anti-Semitism predates the creation of the State of Israel, Margolyes qualified her remark saying that anti-Semitism had been “buried” and that “Israel opened Pandora’s Box and allowed what had been festering and simmering to come out.”

The exchange is revealing for several reasons, not least because it highlights the lack of consensus and strength of disagreements within the Jewish community over anti-Semitism. Baddiel has a very specific axe to grind on the matter. In “Jews Don’t Count”, the comedian gets to the nub of what seems to bother him about anti-Semitism in Britain.

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Explaining why “Jews Don’t Count”, Baddiel argues that there are lots of reasons why that is the case, but the most important is apparently this: “Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined as both high and low status.” They are seen as both “dirty, thieving, stinking, vile”, but also as “monied, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world”. Jews, according to Baddiel, are seen in progressive spaces as standing outside the circle of oppression. Baddiel claims that the progressive left deny Jews a place “in the circle of the oppressed”. In fact, he continues, they are often considered more firmly to be “in the circle of the oppressors.”

Although “Jews Don’t Count” has received glowing reviews from the mainstream media – which has generally avoided talking about some of the more controversial aspects of Baddiel’s thesis – there are  several critical reviews that unpack the arguments to offer a more balanced view. Observations around how Baddiel’s argument fuels a destructive arms-race between minorities over their experience of racism and the dangers of that, is worth considering. As is the preposterous idea that Jews are at the bottom of a hierarchy of racism, when Baddiel’s own career is as clear proof as any that that is not the case.

Baddiel is famous for mocking footballer, Jason Lee, in the 90s by playing a caricature of the Nottingham Forest player in blackface, with long black hair and a fake pineapple on his head to represent Lee’s afro. Baddiel apologises to Lee in the Channel 4 program, and the two are seen face to face talking about the racism Lee had been subjected to by Baddiel. The comedian has come under sharp criticism for taking 25 years to meet Lee face to face and apologise for the hurt and pain he had caused.

What is revealing about Baddiel playing a character in blackface, despite it being generally unacceptable in the 90s, is how little it has affected his career. Contrast that with the price many have paid for criticising Israel and for merely being accused of anti-Semitism like NUS President, Shaima Dallali. The 27-year-old was dismissed for comments she had made on social media when she was only 16.

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If there is a hierarchy of racism in society, then it is the total opposite of the one Baddiel has suggested. Both the Forde Report, examining the handling of anti-Semitism complaints within the Labour Party and Aljazeera’s Labour Files exposed how anti-black racism and anti-Muslim racism was ignored in favour of anti-Semitism.

The political commentator, Ash Sarkar, makes this point well: “The fact that [Baddiel’s own racism] never affected him invalidates his thesis that Islamophobia, anti-blackness, certain kinds of xenophobia enjoy a privileged status compared to anti-Semitism – because his career has never been impacted by any of these things.”

“In fact, there was so little impact of his own history of racism that he was then able to become an expert on racism … He is a walking, breathing, talking rebuttal to the idea that anti-blackness is taken so seriously in progressive circles and anti-Semitism isn’t.”

Returning to my initial point that I agree with Baddiel about not holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel, here also, the comedian displays a lack of self-awareness that one suspects would disqualify people from other communities as an expert on modern forms of racism. Can anyone recall a single instance where a Jewish person has been asked by a journalist to denounce and apologise for the crimes committed by Israel or a Jewish extremist group? Muslims are rarely, if ever, extended this level of generosity and their entrance into “polite society” and public discussion following a terrorist attack by extremists is almost always predicated on the insistence on denunciation and an apology.

Who exactly should Baddiel be angry with? There is a lot one can disagree with progressive groups on the left, but conflating Israel with Jews is not one of them. Is Baddiel not aware that there has been an ongoing campaign to conflate the two by Israel and advocates of the Occupation State? Many are here in the UK. Baddiel may feel he has “no connection with Israel”, as he says to Margolyes, and, therefore, should not be held responsible for its crimes. British Muslims know better than most how demoralising it can be to be made to feel that you are responsible for the actions of Saudi Arabia or a Muslim terrorist group that claims to act in our name.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, however, which is not a state for Muslims – nor are any of the 50 Muslim-majority countries – Israel claims to be a state for all Jews. Baddiel can, if he wished, leave his home in London and relocate to an Israeli government-subsidised property in illegal settlements constructed on Palestinian territory. One presumes, Baddiel will never exercise this right granted to him by Israel, but hundreds of thousands do. Baddiel’s gripe should be with Israel itself, which claims to be a “nation-state of the Jewish people,” a proposition that is as racist as it is historically inaccurate. Israel was founded as a settler colonial state and has never been a movement for self-determination.

Baddiel’s justified anger should be directed at the many Zionist organisations and pro-Israel lobby groups that are vigorously campaigning for the adoption of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. With seven out of eleven examples conflating Israel with anti-Jewish racism, the so-called “working definition” has done more to conflate Israel with Jews than progressives on the left.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.