In this extract from his new book, Jews Don’t Count, the comedian and writer examines how, in the fight to eradicate racism, antisemitism has been uniquely ignored…
I am, I would say, one of the UK’s very few famous Jews. By which I don’t mean I am one of the UK’s very few famous – ish – people who are Jewish. There’s quite a number of those. What I mean is that I am one of the very few people in this country whose Jewishness is one of the principal things known about them. Who else is there?
Maureen Lipman, possibly. Vanessa Feltz. Some media rabbis. That’s kind of it. Within British comedy there are many other Jews (or, at least, people with Jewish heritage) — Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Alexei Sayle, Simon Amstell, Sue Perkins, Simon Brodkin, Robert Popper – but I’d say that only I am someone who most people would know, if they know me at all, as Jewish. Only I, that is, have made being Jewish part of my public identity. I think this absence is partly because – until very recently – being British and Jewish wasn’t really a thing.
Jews may be the only minority group in this country who have never been cool. (Unlike their American counterparts – think Mort Sahl or Saul Bellow in 1963 – cool as f***). But beyond not being cool, there is also, around Jews, and their Jewishness, some shame. Here is a conversation I had with a woman at a wedding once:
WOMAN: Oh you’re David Baddiel. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?
WOMAN: I’m Jewish. Although you probably can’t tell, can you? That’ll be the nose job.
ME: Right …
WOMAN: I never normally tell people. That I’m Jewish, I mean.
ME: Why not?
WOMAN: (as if it’s obvious) Well. People don’t like ’em.
Amazing though this wedding guest’s attitude was – her breezy acceptance of Jew-hate, and also, of something even deeper, the acceptance of a default distinction between Jews and People – I don’t think it was that unusual.
The actress Miriam Margolyes, in an interview in The Daily Telegraph in 2015, said: ‘Look, nobody likes Jews. You can’t say people like Jews. We’re not popular. We’re too smart to be liked.’ Margolyes is different from the wedding guest in that she is outspokenly progressive and of the left, and, like many left-wing Jews, carries particular shame around Israel, but her statement feels deeper than that, more universal and eternal (she preceded it by saying that ‘the English are naturally anti-Semitic’).
It also has another very Jewish wrinkle in it, which is Jews’ own reflection back to mainstream culture of the high-low status duality projected on to them: we are hated because we are smart.
Significantly, one of the things that marks Jewishness out as different from other ethnicities is that it can be hidden. One of the many contradictory beliefs held by antisemites is that Jews are incredibly, obviously Jewish – because they all have big noses and swarthy skin and dark hair and are fattened up with their own greed – and simultaneously difficult to spot, which is what allows them to get under the radar of non-Jews and work their despicable secret doings.
This is why the Nazis were able to have cartoons of Jews that depicted them in a very recognisable, uniformly grotesque manner – big noses, swarthy skin, dark hair, fattened with their own greed – but also extensive and complex checks for spotting Jews.
And, of course, the requirement of Jews to wear armbands that identified them as Jews.
This ability to hide is important in the omission of Jews from identity politics, because most identities, sexual ones aside, are fairly impossible to hide. Jews can hide; they can pass as non-Jews.
READ MORE: OPINION – Baddiel’s apostrophised insult won’t make “******* frummers” more law-abiding
So the assumption appears to be that because they are not immediately visible, they don’t suffer racism. Jews don’t really suffer from being considered different, because they don’t look different. But consider what the woman at the wedding said.
She doesn’t tell people she’s Jewish, because ‘people don’t like them’. Which would suggest that Jews don’t really suffer from being thought of as different as long as people don’t know they’re Jews: as long as they, like gays in the closet, hide.
Which means that Jews are only OK as long as they can pass as non-Jews, and that Jews – once identified as such – will be thought of as different.
I’m not someone given to hiding my Jewishness. My Twitter biography has always been one word: Jew.
This is for a number of reasons, none of them to do with religion. First, it’s funny. Second, it’s a statement against Jewish shame, and indeed Jewish absence, against Jews not counting, by putting it – however comically – front and centre of my identity. And number three, it’s a reclamation, although a twisted one. ‘Jew’ has a strange status, as a bad word.
All other minorities, in the process of reclaiming hate speech, are working with words that aren’t actually the words in the dictionary that describe them.
They are reclaiming slang insults. Jew is actually what I am. So it’s interesting that those concerned about offence tend to say ‘Jewish people’ rather than ‘Jew’.
Because even though it is the correct word, and not a slang word coined by racists, the deep burial of it in a bad place in the Christian unconscious means that it feels insulting anyway.
The avoidance of the word brings home, in fact, the – to coin a phrase – systemic racism of Judeo-Christian culture, the submerged power that hangs around, because of two centuries of linguistic toxicity…”
Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel is published by TLS Books, priced
£8.99 (hardback). Available now
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