When David Baddiel’s latest book, “Jews Don’t Count,” was published in the UK earlier this year, he was somewhat surprised to hear some Americans buzzing with interest about it.
After all, the book, which rails against the relegation of antisemitism to a bigotry of lesser importance among many progressive activists, arose in the aftermath of the Jeremy Corbyn era of British politics, where issues of antisemitism dominated public discourse.
Now, more than six months later, Baddiel — a comedian, author, and popular British TV personality — has adapted the book for American audiences, with a new version out in the United States this week.
“Before I rewrote the book, a number of Jewish Americans had read it anyway because it was available on Kindle,” Baddiel told The Times of Israel, in a recent phone interview while vacationing in Cornwall along the British coast.
“There was interest… without me even rewriting a word of it,” he said, adding that, like their coreligionists in the UK, left-leaning Jews in the US feel “alienated.”
“Left-wing Jews tend to be allies to other minorities, [but] where are our allies?” he said.
Baddiel said fellow comedian Sarah Silverman reached out to him when the original version of the book was published, and discussed on her podcast how much it resonated with her.
“It felt from Sarah’s response that there’s a very similar American progressive Jewish anguish at the failure of the left to come on side with fighting antisemitism,” said Baddiel.
In 130 fast-paced and forceful pages, Baddiel takes to task many in the progressive left-wing movement who devote themselves to fighting bigotry, racism, and discrimination, yet are quick to dismiss and excuse antisemitism.
“It is the project of this polemic to shine a light on the ways in which the progressive consensus has failed, in a time of deep intensification of concern about discrimination faced by minorities in general, to apply that concern to Jews, and the discrimination they suffer,” writes Baddiel.
He brings numerous examples of how antisemitism has been left out of the public discourse surrounding racism, and how slights against Jews are left largely ignored or un-countered. The book is not about blatant and virulent antisemitism, violence against Jews, Holocaust denial, or vandalism of synagogues, said Baddiel. Rather, it is about the casual dismissal of Jew-hatred as something that should demand resources or attention.
“A sacred circle is drawn around those whom the progressive modern left are prepared to go into battle for, and it seems as if the Jews aren’t in it,” he writes. “Why? Well, there are lots of answers. But the basic one, underpinning all others, is that Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined — by the racists — as both low and high status. Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways that other minorities are — as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking — but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world. Jews are somehow both sub-human and humanity’s secret masters.”
Baddiel’s book was published in the UK in February, close to a year after Corbyn was replaced as leader of the British Labour Party, capping off a five-year tenure that was marked by extensive and repeated accusations of antisemitism against both him and the party’s leadership. Antisemitism became a headline issue across the UK throughout the Corbyn era, despite the Jewish community accounting for approximately 0.4% of the population.
Over the past few years, Baddiel — a household name in Britain — has become a vocal champion for efforts to fight antisemitism, calling out the double standards and the discrimination, particularly on Twitter, where he has close to 750,000 followers and a one-word biography: “Jew.”
He is an unlikely spokesman for the Jewish community, describing himself as both an avowed atheist and non-Zionist, placing him outside of the mainstream Jewish consensus. But in a roundabout way, Baddiel said, this position can often help him make his case.
“It gives me a very particular voice in the discussion,” he noted, “because what happens a lot when anyone talks about antisemitism, particularly the way it has been talked about on the left,” is that they are often countered with questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I have the advantage that I am clearly not a Zionist — I’m not an anti-Zionist, it’s just not for me,” Baddiel added. “And so therefore it is useful that someone [like me] is talking about antisemitism. And that’s not a tactic, it’s my genuine position, but tactically it can be very useful, because it means that the response of ‘Shut up about antisemitism, what about Palestine,’ is very useless.”
That doesn’t stop online trolls and commenters from countering just about anything he says with criticisms of the State of Israel, Baddiel said.
He writes that this was such a common phenomenon, that “for a long time online I used to hand out an award for this sort of tweet, called the #BringIsraelPalestineIntoItSomeFuckingHow Award. Then I realized it was happening so often it was pointless.”
Baddiel said the initial reaction to the publication of the book in the UK was heartening.
“I was sort of surprised by the noise it made” in the overall public discourse, he said. “There are still so few Jews in Britain — under 300,000 Jews, a tiny minority — and so what I was pleased about was that although a lot of Jews did read the book, it seemed to be breaking out of that obvious market.”
Baddiel said some progressives who read the book sought him out to say they had not thought about the issue before, and that he felt they were positively and constructively challenged by it. He also heard from many Jews who said that while for a long time they hid their Jewish identity and were not active against antisemitism, the book spurred them to reevaluate that position.
Of course, Baddiel is far from a household name in the US, where the average American hasn’t seen or heard any of his dozens of TV and radio shows. But the comedian is intrigued to see the impact the book will have on an audience unfamiliar with his work.
“This book, without it yet coming out in America, has probably given me more visibility in America than anything else I’ve ever done,” he said. “I don’t know what impact it will have at all, but I do quite like the idea of the book coming out without the baggage of me being known.”
To better reach that audience, Baddiel said, he adapted and tweaked the book ahead of its publication in the US, adding a new preface, a fresh final chapter and extensive footnotes.
“There were quite a few things that might not be immediately understandable to an American readership that I had to explain, some of it about British politics and British culture,” he said.
And while Baddiel largely shies away from talk about Israel and anti-Zionism in the book, the American version’s new last chapter addresses the wave of antisemitism seen around the world — including the US — this past May, during the flareup in violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
“I perceive, though, in the recent stronger-than-ever reaction to the conflict in the Middle East, a weakening of this always weak border between the ‘acceptability’ of anti-Zionism versus the unacceptability of antisemitism,” writes Baddiel, recounting attacks on Jewish diners in Los Angeles and activists hurling slurs at Jewish passersby in London in May. “The idea that collective responsibility is racist has got lost in the righteous fury. Any Jew is fair game.”
Baddiel told The Times of Israel that the events of this past May around the world were eye-opening.
“Antisemitism inevitably gets worse whenever stuff happens in the Middle East,” he said. “And it seems to me, particularly in the last [Gaza conflict], that again progressive people were sort of turning away from the idea that collective responsibility was racist.”
“In a normal situation, even the most progressive person would expect that a British Jew getting beaten up on the street because of something that happens between Israel and Palestine is racist, in the same way it would be racist for a Muslim in Britain to get abused for something that happened in the world,” he said.
But earlier this year, as rockets flew from Gaza into Israel and the IDF bombed the Gaza Strip in response, Jews in London were being blamed for events happening 2,000 miles away.
“It felt to me that I saw people saying, essentially, antisemitism happens because of this, that this is why antisemitism happens,” Baddiel said.
“[I sensed] the notion that Jews should understand that there is a peak in antisemitism because of what happened in Israel, and that’s understandable,” he said. “And that’s a very dangerous thing to say.”
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