You may not have heard of the Jewish comedian David Baddiel or the black ex-footballer Jason Lee. You may not care about either of them. But their first-ever meeting – aired in two different formats this week – should interest anyone concerned about how the discursive battle on racism and identity politics is manipulating our political life in increasingly malevolent ways.
The meeting ostensibly took place so that Baddiel could offer an apology to Lee 25 years after he repeatedly lampooned and bullied him in a BBC TV show called Fantasy Football League – in ways that even then were obviously racist. Baddiel blacked up as Lee, wearing a pineapple on his head to ridicule Lee’s appearance because he wore dreadlocks tied atop his head for matches.
In one of those formats, Baddiel appeared on the launch show of Lee’s new podcast channel, which has currently racked up just over 700 subscribers, even with the help of Baddiel’s appearance.
Lee took the opportunity to make a moving case for why his and many other black people’s lives were irreparably harmed by Baddiel’s racialised ridicule back in the 1990s. Lee rapidly became the target of nationwide mockery, on and off the field. His young children were confused and frightened that every time they walked in the street with their father passers-by would shout out abuse. And other black children who had been encouraged by Lee’s example to take pride in their cultural heritage suddenly faced taunts and bullying at school for the way they looked.
The second format was Baddiel’s own. Since Fantasy Football League, the comedian – whose Twitter bio reads simply “Jew” – has presented himself as something of an expert on racism. That self-assessment has been accepted with little resistance from pundits in the establishment media, even if some social media users have been less forgiving of his racist past.
A few years ago Baddiel wrote a seemingly influential book on antisemitism, and this week its thesis was given even more prominence in a Channel 4 documentary of the same name: Jews Don’t Count. Baddiel’s argument is that Jew hatred is a unique and especially pernicious form of racism, not least because most Britons fail to acknowledge it in the way they do other forms of racism, such as racism against black and Asian communities.
Baddiel made this point more graphically and bluntly on Frankie Boyle’s New World Order show in 2018 to general applause, comparing racism against Jews to cancer, and racism against other minorities to shingles.
Fanning the flames
Baddiel certainly worked hard to make a good impression on Lee’s podcast, offering a gushing apology for his long history of unthinking racism. He admitted fear and embarrassment had played a part in delaying his meeting with Lee for so long.
In his own documentary, Baddiel was a little less magnanimous in covering the same ground. He framed repeated criticisms on social media of his racism towards Lee, and his hypocrisy, as cyber-bullying – and used those examples to shore up the argument that his treatment, as a Jew, was exceptional and different.
Safely on the media turf he controlled, it sounded a lot more like Lee had got his belated apology only because Baddiel had been shamed into making it, or because Baddiel viewed it as the penitence needed before he could occupy the moral high ground on TV while demanding the right to be judged differently for his own racism.
But back on Lee’s podcast, Baddiel also conceded that it had taken personal experiences of racism to open his eyes to the humiliation and shaming Lee must have experienced as he was regularly pilloried on the BBC.
Baddiel noted one incident on the football terraces in the late 2000s: someone had recognised him and repeatedly shouted the word “Yid”. His brother had briefly been embroiled in a threatening altercation with the racist fan. Baddiel indicated that it was at this point he began to appreciate just how dangerous his own fanning of the flames against Lee had been.
That raised a point Baddiel did not address on Lee’s podcast or directly in his own documentary. How had the comedian managed to survive so long before experiencing the kind of visceral, menacing, personal racism – separate from that faced by his ancestors and Jews historically – that gave him a taste of what it was like to be Lee?
Murdered by the Klan
I raise this not to be vexatious, but as the context for exploring a challenging point raised by Lee. He asked Baddiel who the comedian had “allyship” with: who did he think of as allies in the fight against racism? It was the one moment – more so even than when he had to apologise – that Baddiel looked genuinely flummoxed. Who exactly did he see as allies in the struggle against racism?
Baddiel rowed back to note that in the 1960s and 1970s Jewish and black communities stood shoulder to shoulder in the civil rights struggle in the United States. Rabbis marched with Martin Luther King in Selma against white supremacists, he pointed out. In Jews Don’t Count, he and the US actor David Schwimmer further noted that in 1964 two young Jewish men were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan when they headed to the Deep South to assist a black civil rights activist – an incident that was turned into a Hollywood movie, Mississipi Burning.
Baddiel conceded that this type of solidarity had been largely lost, adding that he did not entirely understand why. In an unusually inarticulate section of the podcast, he wondered whether it was because race “had become polarised in America particularly – and that’s where all that stuff seems to originate”. He added: “It [the allyship] can come back, but at other times it seems that relationship isn’t what it was.”
In seeking an answer, he returned to the horrors faced by his mother’s family in Nazi Germany. Those scars left Jewish communities, he argued, especially sensitive to the discrimination faced by others: “In the 1960s and 1970s, because of that experience that a lot of Jews had had, a feeling of seeing that black people were being discriminated against violently, particularly in America, they [Jews] wanted to reach out with their own experience.”
But almost like a nervous tic, Baddiel then detoured straight to Whoopi Goldberg, the black American actress turned TV talk show panellist, to berate her for her muddled comments about the Holocaust, in which she suggested the Nazis’ industrial-scale genocide was not about race. I have dealt at length before with the furore provoked by Goldberg’s comments and the problematic backlash from Jewish organisations like the Anti-Defamation League, so I won’t revisit that episode here. You can read the original article.
Unlike in Lee’s podcast, the issue of the breakdown in allyship between Jewish and black communities in the fight against racism got no mention in Baddiel’s documentary. And that may be because it looks like the key to unlocking a lot of the confusion exhibited by Baddiel and the Jewish liberal allies he interviewed for his TV programme.
Circle of oppressors
Early in Jews Don’t Count, Baddiel gets to the nub of what seems to bother him about antisemitism in Britain. It chiefly involves leftwing progressives and black anti-racists, not the people who attack synagogues, though they are mentioned too.
Footage from the Labour party conference of 2019 shows a speech made by Dawn Butler, a black MP who was then Labour’s shadow secretary of state for women and equalities. In it, she lists many vulnerable and disadvantaged groups Labour hoped to welcome as part of an electoral coalition to defeat the ruling Tory party. She expressly included those in social housing, the gay, lesbian and trans communities, the working class, the disabled, under-18s, and blacks, whites and Asians. But absent, as Baddiel emphasised, was any mention of Jews.
Baddiel hoped to frame this as a minor but telling example of unthinking antisemitism. Labour’s rainbow electoral coalition under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was intentionally inclusive except, argues Baddiel, when it came to Jews. He asks rhetorically why Jews don’t count for the progressive left.
It is indeed an interesting ommission. But I suspect it does not illustrate what Baddiel imagines it does – and may offer a clue as to why Jewish and black communities have lost that allyship they enjoyed back in the 1960s and 1970s. Or put another way, why for someone like Dawn Butler, Jews like Baddiel are subsumed in the category “white”, just as Sikhs, Buddhists and Chinese are in the category of “Asian”.
Baddiel argues that “there are lots of answers” to the question of why Jews are overlooked by the progressive left, 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”.
For this reason, Baddiel concludes, 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”. Progressives think they are punching up. Baddiel disagrees.
Naturally, the Guardian’s TV reviewer loved Baddiel’s documentary, impressed by what she called its “all-star cast” of Jewish cultural figures who echoed Baddiel’s argument. The paper’s headline described the programme as “so shocking it sounds like a siren”.
But it is notable that the liberal Jews Baddiel cites in making his case – and the liberal non-Jews at whom his documentary is firmly aimed – seem as unconcerned as Baddiel himself by the fact that the most prominent targets of his “Jews don’t count” thesis are leftwing progressives and ethnic minorities, particularly black community leaders.
Baddiel seems far more concerned to lambast them by imputing to them intentional or unthinking antisemitism than to spend too much time worrying about racist thugs on the football terraces or a figure like Boris Johnson whose political rise was entirely unharmed by – maybe benefited from – writing a novel whose central, Johnsonesque character believes Jews have hooked noses and control the media.
Interestingly, a Guardian reviewer of the book managed to miss Johnson’s antisemitism even as late as summer 2019, when antisemitism was making daily headlines as the media battered Corbyn and the Labour party into the ground.
Baddiel could have interpreted those confluence of facts rather differently from the way he chooses to: that Jews don’t count only if it is in the interests of the British establishment – from Boris Johnson to the Guardian – that they do not count. They very much count when the same establishment wants them to count, as the progressive left found out as soon as Corbyn was elected Labour leader.
And here’s another thing. Johnson’s Teflon-coating against allegations of racism echo Baddiel’s own success in avoiding paying a price for his long history of racism.
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 antisemitism – 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 antisemitism isn’t.
Consider the ease with which both Johnson and Baddiel have evaded any political or media reckoning for their well-documented racism: in Johnson’s case for his antisemitism, and in Baddiel’s for his anti-black racism.
Then contrast that with the demonisation of Corbyn, who was brought down by years of evidence-free antisemitism allegations that the Labour party had become institutionally antisemitic during his tenure.
Those allegations were given life by smears from a toxic combination of the Tory party, the establishment media, the rightwing bureaucracy of Corbyn’s own Labour party, and liberal Jews like Baddiel. All felt threatened by Corbyn’s anti-imperialism, especially, in the case of large sections of the Jewish community’s organised leadership, his criticisms of Israel and its apartheid policies towards the Palestinians. And most feared his moderate socialist programme that might put a stop to rampant inequality.
It does not seem to occur to Baddiel or the other liberal Jews he interviews that they may not look like allies to the progressive, anti-racist community, or to the black community, for a very simple reason. Because Jewish leadership bodies that claim to represent the vast majority of British Jews – like the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Jewish Labour Movement, the list goes on – all keep trumpeting that Jews are not allies of progressives.
The organised Jewish community’s leadership, as well as prominent commentators like Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, claim over and over again that polls show nine out of 10 British Jews support Israel – even if many apparently dislike its current government, the one before it and the one after it.
They support Israel, it seems, as some kind of abstraction, even as it openly and ever more ostentatiously oppresses and dispossesses the Palestinian people, besieges and intermittently kills civilians in Gaza, and is declared an apartheid state by leading human rights groups. It makes as much sense as if I had supported apartheid South Africa 40 years ago but insisted I was not racist because I opposed the P W Botha government.
Not only that, but Freedland and other liberal Jews strenuously argue that Israel is at the core of their identity and that to criticise Israel is to criticise them. They argue that opposition from the progressive left to the political ideology of Zionism – an ideology that has entailed the colonisation of the Palestinians’ homeland and the dispossession of its people – is equivalent to hatred of Jews.
If this view is not widespread among the Jewish community, then either the media or the Jewish community itself have done an extremely good job of misleading us. Those Jews who take a contrary position, like those who supported Corbyn, invariably find themselves decried by other Jews, either explicitly or implicitly, as self-hating or the “wrong kind of Jew”.
Those “wrong Jews”, as Al Jazeera recently documented in graphic detail, are currently being systematically purged from Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party – and there is not a peep about it from Baddiel or any of his liberal Jewish friends.
Further reinforcing the confusion, Israel itself demands recognition as the state of all Jews around the world. Israel’s laws declare that all Jews belong to the so-called “Jewish state”. Israel claims to speak for all Jews. It expressly holds all its territory – even Palestinian territory – in trust for Jews everywhere. When Israel carries out the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as it does every day, it does so in the name of David Baddiel – whether Baddiel likes it or not.
Which is a point Baddiel might have raised with the writer Howard Jacobson during their interview when Jacobson claimed Israel would be hated whatever it did, even if it were Switzerland. It would, he argued, be “hated in the language that people used about Jews 2000 years ago.”
Instead, Baddiel skips over British Jews’ relationship to Israel with a dismissive – and convenient – “Israel, Shmisrael”.
Profits from war
Baddiel is right to point out that it is antisemitic to hold Jews responsible for Israel’s actions, or to expect them to criticise Israel. But then interviewees like Jacobson and US comedian Sarah Silverman complicate his argument by choosing to express on camera support for Israel, arguing that it is their state and a supposed “safe haven” for Jews while also demanding that they share no responsibility for its actions in making the same territory extremely unsafe for Palestinians.
So which is it? Is Israel a state representing all Jews, as Israel claims?
Or is it a state representing only those Jews like Freedland, Jacobson and Silverman – and all of Britain’s major Jewish organisations claiming to speak for the Jewish community – that say Israel is at the centre of their identity?
Or is Israel wrong and it represents only Jews who are Israeli citizens – and not those, like Jewish reporters for the liberal New York Times in Jerusalem, who have chosen over the years to send their children to fight in Israel’s army?
Baddiel may prefer to avoid tackling that question, but progressives don’t have the same luxury when they decide who to count as political allies. The left correctly struggles to determine who it has allyship with when the very organisations that claim to represent Britain’s Jewish community, including liberal Jews, keep issuing statements excusing Israel as it murders children in Gaza or label progressives as antisemites for campaigning to stop Western collusion in that murder.
Baddiel isn’t responsible for Israel’s actions, but he is responsible as a Jew with a prominent platform for remaining silent when the Board recruits him and most other Jews to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians or when it weaponises antisemitism against those who adopt progressive, anti-imperialist causes.
Israel is flooded with Western arms, aid, trade deals and diplomatic support as it commits its crimes against the Palestinians in the name of every Jew in the world. Israel’s outsize military, largely paid for by the US, intermittently rampages across the Middle East claiming its role as the region’s gendarme. It maintains a simmering Cold War with Iran that could explode into conflagration at any moment. It battle-tests its weapons on Palestinians and its Arab neighbours to benefit Western armies and arms dealers. It exports its cyber-weapons to dictators that use them to surveill dissidents. And increasingly it helps to prop up equally ugly Muslim regimes like Saudi Arabia’s with vital intelligence.
So the question for progressives as they pick their allies is who is with them in the fight against a West that profits from endless resource wars, that enables continuing colonialism, that treats much of the rest of the world as on the wrong side of a supposed civilisational divide, and that embeds Israel deeply into this web of interests?
Hierarchy of racism
Maybe the ambivalence of the left and black community about allyship with the Jewish community – as opposed to individual Jews – reflects this confusing picture, a confusion Jewish leaders and Israel have actively fostered.
Maybe the fact that progressives view the Jewish community both as vulnerable and powerful at the same time is less a reinvention of an age-old antisemitism than a conundrum posed by the preferred allies of supposedly representative Jewish leadership groups like the Board of Deputies. They have sided with a nuclear-armed regional bully, Israel, while also allying with a British establishment only too keen to weaponise antisemitism as a smear to disappear a progressive left from British politics – something Starmer is carrying out right now on the establishment’s behalf.
Baddiel explains in his documentary the weakness felt by Jews, especially faced with a supposed plague of Labour antisemitism under Corbyn’s leadership. But the progressive left in Britain has to see these events through a very different lens.
For example, they had to watch powerlessly as a Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, led what looked disturbingly like a lynch mob of some 50 other Labour MPs – Jews and non-Jews alike – against an isolated, vulnerable, veteran black anti-racism campaigner, Marc Wadsworth, requiring the party to expel him as an antisemite.
Wadsworth’s crime was to accuse Smeeth of doing exactly what it appears she was doing: briefing the billionaire-owned, rightwing Telegraph newspaper – the beating heart of the establishment – against Corbyn, her party’s elected leader, to help bring him down.
What was the progressive left supposed to conclude about “allyship” during that episode?
Baddiel rightly notes how much fear – the fear of a new Holocaust, of renewed expulsions – continues to grip Britain’s Jewish community. But he ignores the fear that grips a progessive left that has barely registered in British politics for more than half a century, apart from its accidental and short-lived rise with Corbyn, and is currently being snuffed out for another generation by Starmer.
The progressive left, like Jews, are also made out – by the same establishment – to be weak and powerful at the same time. Starmer knows he can eradicate the left from Labour at no political cost, because the media will cover his back as he does so. But at the same time, the left is presented as so powerful that it supposedly poses an “existential threat” to the Jewish community in Britain. If Corbyn had won power, he was apparently going to turn Britain into the Third Reich.
Baddiel uses his documentary, once again, to reinforce a hierarchy of racisms, to plead Jew hatred as a separate category. His special pleading on antisemitism is evidence of the privilege he expects and the allyship he spurns.
The reality is that weak, vulnerable communities need to stick together, and when they are under attack – whether a black footballer like Jason Lee, an anti-racism activist like Marc Wadsworth, the ‘wrong Jew’ like Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, or a Palestinian child like the pupils of Masafer Yatta – they need our solidarity, not our scorn. They precisely need allyship, premised on equality. And that was exactly what Corbyn was offering.
Jason Lee asked Baddiel who were his allies. Baddiel did not know how to respond. And in that very moment, Lee got his answer.