David Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count: How Identity Politics Failed One Particular Identity. HarperCollins, 2021.
Last month, I reviewed Deborah Lipstadt’s Antisemitism: Here and Now, praising its accessibility and care for its audience’s sensibilities and commitments. This month, I take on a less comfortable book, one that I wouldn’t give out as an introduction to the topic…or (I realize as I type this sentence) to non-Jews.
I came to David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count via a rather circuitous route. In the background of my life is ongoing contemplation of what it means to be Jewish in the US of the 21st century. In the foreground, I was listening to an episode of the podcast Conspirituality, in which three (non-Jewish) white men discuss “the stories, cognitive dissonances, and cultic dynamics” of today’s wellness and new spirituality movements. Being somewhat exhausted by current conspiracy theories (from flat earthers to QAnon) and phony gurus, I was particularly pleased to find the May 2023 episode “Why Does Every Conspiracy Theory Lead Back to Antisemitism,” featuring Ben Cohen (founder of The Banter, not the Ben and Jerry’s guy). I valued the discussion’s focus on attacks upon “globalists” (shorthand for Jews) and the increasingly visible promotion of white replacement theory, which argues that Jews control the world through funding anti-white interests and advocating for multiculturalism to erode the white majority. Also addressed was the left-to-right swing of several public figures, and how this has included increasingly visible antisemitism. Mid-discussion, guest Cohen casually recommended David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count.
I paused the podcast to look up the British-Jewish Baddiel and found his comedy, his many publications, his work in television, and his remarkable Twitter presence. I felt I should already have known about this man, this powerful Jewish voice against antisemitism and in support of Jews and Jewishness today. But I didn’t know him, so I finished the podcast and then rectified my ignorance. I read about his work via Wikipedia and IMDb, and then I screened his documentary on Holocaust denial. After this, I bought Jews Don’t Count as an eBook – thrilling at the high praise of both comedian Sarah Silverman and actor/writer Stephen Fry, two of my favorite Jews – and dug in.
A self-classified polemic, the book runs a little over 100 pages and straightforwardly argues that Jews have been ignored as a genuine minority within an era of heightened awareness of minorities. Baddiel uses reasoning, personal experience, and dark humor to ask why not only the right but – even more importantly – the politically left fail to recognize and support Jews. Too many progressives today, he maintains, neglect to call out antisemitic jokes and use Jewish stereotypes while they quickly denounce racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism.
At the book’s core is the claim that antisemitism is a form of racism and must be understood as such if Jews are to have true allies on the left. For those who consider themselves antiracists, he ponders, why is antisemitism seen as a much lesser threat? The author understands the problem of identifying Jews, as did Hitler, via race; however, to understand antisemitism is to understand
how Jews have been identified as a race. In his words, “To fight antisemitism, you have to be aware of how the antisemites see Jewishness, which is a thing in your blood, not your spiritual soul.”
A central issue, claims Baddiel, is confusion of Jewishness and Judaism. To exemplify the problem, he brings up an experience I have faced several times: How do we identify ourselves when demographic data is collected, and Jewishness is missing? Checkboxes for race or ethnicity never include Jewishness. Judaism does show up under religion, but for the secular/atheist Jew, this is not a valuable option. “The religion, in terms of the discussion of how to fight antisemitism, is virtually irrelevant,” insists Baddiel. Thus, we must ask, who are we as Jews if we are attacked as a race or ethnicity but not allowed to identify as such?
With this question come others, including those over the lack of Jewish allies, over antisemitism as forgivable when other forms of racism are not, and over the placement of Jews in a totalizing category of privilege. To be sure, Jews as a category are both privileged (if pale skinned by access to white privilege) and not (by virtue of antisemitic attacks), but a hierarchy of racism serves no one other than the dominant race. We must, therefore, insist on the validity of our minority identity and demand the support of progressives in our efforts to raise awareness of the way antisemitism both is and undergirds racism in our culture and worldwide, as it has for centuries.
A particularly strong feature of the book is the compelling variety of examples presented, from Twitter disasters to the hideous declarations of politicians and activists. Perhaps my favorite example is one of the first mentioned, two lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”: “The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot.” I share Baddiel’s conviction that “the poetry does not redeem the hatred.” As Jews, we have a right to demand more and better today, especially from those who should recognize their importance as allies.
Baddiel’s book is not for everyone, I realize. Although it takes little time to read, it is demanding. There is no denying that Jews Don’t Count less welcoming and less forgiving than Lipstadt’s Antisemitism, but I find value in both, taking equal places of prominence in my library and my mind.
Elyce Rae Helford, Ph.D., is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. She is author of What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor. She can be reached at email@example.com.