Notes on Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count
Published in February 2021 for the Times Literary Supplement by HarperCollins, Jew’s Don’t Count is a short polemic directed primarily at progressives in the UK. Baddiel draws attention, through various arguments and anecdotes, to the ways that many leftists dismiss antisemitism as less important than other types of racism. I found several useful ideas as well as a few aspects that missed the mark in interesting ways. One of these is the centering of the experience of Jews of Ashkenazi, or European descent (a category I fall into). It must be remembered that there are Black Jews, Jews of Sephardic (Spanish, Portuguese) or Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African) descent, among others (Jews are diverse ethnically and politically). This situation is somewhat obscured by the difficulty many white Jews have in confronting whiteness. But before I turn to the problem of whiteness, I want to explain the aspects I found valuable in the book.
Baddiel is at his best when exploring the main subject of his book: the features of the progressive mindset that lead to a minimizing or overlooking of antisemitism. A key mindset for him comes from a defining desire to champion the oppressed. I would explain this mindset differently, placing the driving emotion in a revulsion at injustice, particularly systematic injustices. The progressive focus tends towards systems of oppression more than interpersonal instances of bigotry (unless those can be tied to something systematic). Indeed, it is an element that separates progressive from conservative mindsets: progressives focus on systems; conservatives, on individuals. This interest in unjust systems interacts in unfortunate ways with antisemitic tropes.
If you believe, even a little bit, that Jews are moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world … well, you can’t put them into the sacred circle of the oppressed (P.19)
I very much dislike the dismissive phrase, “the sacred circle of the oppressed.” At the same time, you do not need to believe that Jews control the world to instinctively consider Jews well off and privileged. A historical analysis would show that institutional antisemitism in the United States and Europe has been greatly reduced since WWII. And so a focus on institutional systems, combined with a default perspective that Jews are priviledged, means that Jews frequently do not register for progressives. Baddiel reveals a systematic blindness within progressive thinking that stems from a too simplistic focus on institutional systems of oppression and does not take ideological systems enough into account. But if institutional antisemitism has diminished, general antisemitic ideas remain pervasive and, I would suggest, are increasing. They are also extremely dangerous as the continual antisemitic attacks show.
The Eternal Capitalist
There is another antisemitic trope that interacts badly with progressivism: the association of jewishness with capitalism. Discussing Corbyn’s hesitation about the phrase: “Rothschild bankers control Israel and world governments,” he writes:
Someone like Corbyn will see the anti-capitalism in that sentence before the anti-Semitism. He can be brought to see the anti-Semitism, grudgingly, but another part of him would always be deeply resistant to having to shut down or condemn an anti-capitalist statement at all. (P.46)
Here as well an often implicit antisemitic trope, Jews as the ur-capitalist, can make it difficult for some (Marx notwithstanding) to reject, or even see, antisemitism. When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green recently spoke about the Rothschild funded space laser, many in the media saw the antisemitism. But how many did not?
It is important to note that Baddiel is not really talking about active antisemitism, but about an implicit antisemitism that so pervades popular consciousness that Jewishness can be unconsciously associated with capitalism, an association that can blind anti-capitalists to antisemitism.
There are obviously a non-zero number of right-wing Jews all over the world. What Baddiel alludes to are the non-jewish political conservatives who, aware of the troubles the left have with antisemitism, use it as a weapon against them. This weaponization fits into something I called elsewhere philosemitism (See this blog). Not everyone agrees with this usage or my analysis there. Yet most, I imagine, are aware of the way antisemitism and criticisms about Israeli policy have become entangled into the left-right polarization. This phenomenon appears frequently in the US, particularly because of various Christian Supersessionist ideas standing behind apparent pro-jewish statements. So, another useful insight is how political polarization can lead to diminished attention to antisemitism.
I have two main criticisms, a minor and a major. The minor comes from Baddiel’s use of the self-loathing Jew trope. I get the distinct impression that Baddiel deploys it against those Jews who take a critical view of Jewishness. The major criticism comes from a failure to understand and tackle the Whiteness issue. It is a fraught question for many Jews about how they fit into regimes of Whiteness. Baddiel is at some pains to show that Jews are not white. Now, in fact, some definitely are not. It bears repeating: Jews come from a diversity of backgrounds. But some are in fact white. It is a common usage, in fact, to use the phrase White Jews (as in this useful talk about the black power movement and white jews). One way that Baddiel tries to reject Whiteness is by claiming that he (and many other jews) do not self-identify as White. But Whiteness in not simply a chosen self-identity, but it is an imposed identity. In a society defined by White Supremacy, one cannot simply choose to be white or not. Bell hooks, in an excellent chapter on antisemitism from her book Killing Rage, writes about her white Jewish students as follows:
To some extent these students believe so deeply in the notion of democracy and individual rights that they are convinced that if they choose not to identify as “white” no one will see them that way.
I remain very suspicious of anyone who choses to self-identify as White. But I am a White Jew, not because I choose to be, but because those identities are imposed upon me by the social ideology in which I live (this article is a useful discussion of Jewishness and Whiteness and also this excellent podcast for those who prefer that medium). I also understand the desire not to be White, since it implicates you in a system that provides benefits at the expense of those excluded. And it can feel particularly galling to be implicated in Whiteness when self-identified Whites, i.e., White Supremacists, are not only virulent antisemites but also instigate and carry out violent attacks. Indeed, Baddiel also tries to distance White Jews from Whiteness by associating Whiteness with safety. There is perhaps some truth to this idea, but it misses important elements. Whiteness is more than just a generalized feeling of safety. To the extent that it is about safety, it is mostly a feeling of safety from the power of the state. White jews today can count on the state not imprisoning them in high numbers and not subjecting them to consistent police violence.
Baddiel has rightly drawn attention to how the pervasive atmosphere of antisemitism can lead progressive minded people to diminish systematically the question of antisemitism. And yet, the failure to address adequately the problem of Whiteness undermines his project of getting people to take antisemitism more seriously. In bell hooks’ chapter mentioned above, she argues convincingly that what is called “black antisemitism” is the eternal antisemitism of our world reflected through the black experience of white racism. In other words, there is no such thing as black antisemitism. She and Baddiel thus call attention to a similar dynamic: that ideological antisemitism continues to work within the worldview and experiences of many. Ignoring antisemitism is dangerous for all who want to see a better world. At the same time, it is my view that one cannot face antisemitism today without directly facing Whiteness and White Jews position within it. This is one reason why I get so upset when I see charges of antisemitism weaponized to attack or silence people fighting anti-black racism. Not that there is never antisemitism, but that its misuse in this context reinforces it, worsens it. I’ll give bell hooks the last word here.
The failure of blacks and white Jews to engage in critical dialogue that does not reflect prevailing racist hierarchy has meant that it is unclear in what context either group can be critical of the other without being labeled racist or anti Semitic. Where is the context where blacks can come together with white Jews and talk critically about Jewish appropriation and commodification of black culture? Where is the context where Jews can come together with black non Jews and talk about the sense of betrayal of a historical legacy of solidarity? What is the context in which black people can be critical of Zionist policies that condone the colonization and exploitation of Palestinians? Where is the context in which Jews can question black folks about our attitudes and opinions about Israel, about Jewish nationalism? Unless these contexts exist we will not be able to create the kind of critical thinking and writing that can challenge and transform black anti-Semitism or white Jewish racism. (“Keeping a Legacy of Shared Struggle” Killing Rage p.213).