You have to stand back for a moment to appreciate the sweep of David Baddiel’s career. He’s such a familiar figure, the bearded, blokeish, Jewish football fan with the easily ability to make you laugh and the wit to remind you he was once a doctoral student at University College London. But if your recollection stretches back far enough, you will remember the first (radio) series of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Its explosion into the public consciousness as a sharp, subversive and sometimes silly cognoscenti-friendly comedy culminated, in 1993, in Baddiel and fellow Cambridge graduate Rob Newman playing Wembley Arena in front of 12,500 ecstatic fans. She didn’t coin the phrase, but when Janet Street Porter said that comedy was “the new rock’n’roll”, it struck a chord.
That was almost 30 years ago, and there is little Baddiel hasn’t tried since then. For much of the 1990s he presented Fantasy Football League with Frank Skinner and demonstrated that you could be funny and intellectual but still invest everything in the hopes of England at the next tournament. That spawned a musical collaboration with the Lightning Seeds to produce the now-epic Three Lions, which has become the anthem of English football, and, as Baddiel will remind you with a smile, has topped the charts four times. That is a unique achievement in popular music.
That was not enough. Baddiel has written four critically acclaimed novels, a West End play, 10 children’s books, a sitcom, a comedy quiz show format and a screenplay, and he continues to tour and a stand-up as well as appearing on television with a regularity that entertains without tipping over into tedious ubiquity. He has even achieved the acme of mainstream celebrity in the 21st century, fronting his own travel series David Baddiel on the Silk Road.
In February 2021, he published his latest book, Jews Don’t Count. A short, passionate, punchy volume, it proposes a thesis which had nagged at Baddiel for some time, essentially that even the most progressive and egalitarian somehow don’t see anti-semitism as another form of racism, often overlooking it or, even worse, making excuses for it. He writes “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”.
It can be an uncomfortable read. Baddiel is a natural Labour voter, and cautiously welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader in 2015 as “a proper left-wing Labour politician”. But, beginning with a Guardian article in 2017, he has criticised the emergence of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist rhetoric on the left of British politics. Baddiel himself is a “fundamentalist” atheist and does not subscribe to Zionism, believing that religion is a bad basis for statehood and stifles criticism of the government of Israel. But he felt compelled to speak out when Ken Livingstone told BBC London that Hitler had been a Zionist (an imaginative interpretation at best) before he “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. Baddiel argued that this had lifted the lid on something, a murky world-view which lay unvoiced on the progressive wing of British politics:
that sense that runs deep in the left, that the Jews don’t quite fit into the category of The Oppressed, and so therefore don’t deserve the same protections and sympathy as other minorities in the face of racism against them.David Baddliel – The Guardian, 6 April 2017
It proved not to be an isolated incident, and it seemed (and seems) to many that the election of Jeremy Corbyn emboldened some to say out loud what had previously been tacit: that Jews were not simple victims of prejudice, that they did not fully deserve the same victimhood as other minority groups and even, terrifyingly reminiscent of recent and ancient history, that they carried some kind of collective power and responsibility.
In 2018, Baddiel said in a television interview that anti-semitism was “sort of invisible” to Corbyn and his fellow-travellers because they focused their attention on fighting capitalism. Two years later, Baddiel said that Holocaust denial was “a direct way of saying Jews are liars, Jews have tricked the world for their own gain, Jews are the most evil, pernicious race that exist”.
The message that he was articulating consistently was that anti-semitism was the forgotten prejudice, the acceptable bigotry. “It is hate speech,” he said. “There is no other conclusion.”
Jews Don’t Count was the summation, the systematisation of this belief which he had felt for some years. In it, Baddiel describes the ways in which anti-semitism is glossed over in industries like cinema and literature, how it is insidious in football, especially when it comes to Tottenham Hotspur, and how it has become what he calls a “second class racism”. And he suggests some reasons: Jews are perceived as wealthy, and therefore impervious to or untouched by, prejudice; and that Jews are regarded by reflex as “white” and therefore not a ‘real’ minority.
This was demonstrated at the Conservative Party’s first leadership election in July, when a journalist noted on Twitter that a run-off between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss meant that the UK would either see its first ethnic minority prime minister or its third female leader. Baddiel responded “Jews, obviously, don’t count. #Disraeli”. It was a simple point to show how anti-semitism came in all sorts of forms, from erasure to full-on persecution. The replies to his tweet were also a sobering demonstration of some of the toxic views available in public, pronounced without apparent embarrassment.
The book, which for my money is brilliant, was well received. The Sunday Times named it book of the year for 2021, Roland White calling it a “challenging and thought-provoking read”. Stephen Fry, perhaps the UK’s most domestic intellectual and also Jewish, described it as a “masterpiece”. The ripples spread by the pebble Baddiel had dropped went further. The Jewish Museum Berlin commended it as a “brilliant combination of contemporary observations, personal experiences, and painful punchlines”. The Times of Israel called it “fast-paced and forceful”. Significantly, with this book Baddiel has broken America.
When the book was first published, US comedian Sarah Silverman read it and liked it so much she discussed it on her podcast a few weeks later. She became an enthusiastic advocate for the message Baddiel had set out, arguing that “the conceit that Jews are rich is why the Holocaust happened”. Later that year, picking up an issue he had identified, she talked about the representation of Jews in film and drama by non-Jewish actors, which she called “Jewface”. For the book’s US publication, its popularity already considerable, Baddiel revised it with a new preface, an updated final chapter and extensive footnotes.
Recently Baddiel appeared at an invitation-only Behind the Spine interview at the Groucho Club. It was timely. Jews Don’t Count has inspired a documentary film on Channel 4 (of which more below), but anti-semitism has just elbowed its way to the front of the news agenda again. Last month Kanye West tweeted a typically rambling and aggressive message announcing that he was “going death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE”, defending himself on the grounds that he was not “Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also [sic]”. Showing the paranoia which often hitches a life with anti-semitism, he warned “You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda”.
Whatever West’s tweet meant, it was threatening and inflammatory. This was not his first Jew-hating rodeo, after all, and he has a history of remarks which flirt with, or enter a committed relationship with, anti-semitic tropes which are as a sinister as they are unoriginal. But it was just a spark. While many of his commercial partners ended their relationships and endorsements (Madam Tussaud’s even removed his waxwork from public view), what Baddiel found troubling and genuinely upsetting, he told his audience at the Groucho, was that some celebrities had decided to come to West’s defence.
Perhaps the most prominent was Dave Chappelle, whom Baddiel regards highly as a comedian. Appearing on Saturday Night Live, Chappelle pretended to read out a prepared statement. “I renounce antisemitism in all its forms and stand with my friends in the Jewish community. And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time.” His wry smile was greeted with applause and laughter. Some of his routine was sharp observations on the reality of the entertainment business. “I’ve been doing this 35 years. Two words in English language words you should never say – ‘The’ and ‘Jews’. No one does good after they say that.”
More serious remarks, however, sailed close to the wind of acceptability.
I’ve been to Hollywood and this is what I saw: It’s a lot of Jews. It’s a lot. But that doesn’t mean anything. There’s a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri, but that doesn’t mean we run the place.Dave Chappelle – Saturday Night Live, 12 November 2022
He went on, surely missing the spirit of Baddiel’s book, to describe the sensitivities which people feel obliged to observe around discussing anti-semitism. “If they’re Black it’s a gang. If they’re Italian it’s a mob. But if they’re Jewish it’s a coincidence and you should never speak about it.” Maybe things are different in America, but that reticence is not much seen in public life here in the UK.
Most disappointing for Baddiel was Chappelle’s support for basketball player Kyrie Irving, suspended by the Brooklyn Nets for tweeting a link to a fiercely anti-semitic film Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America: this three-hours-plus slog of a movie is a sub-Birth of a Nation polemic which endorses the misconception that black Americans are the true descendants of the Israelites, and that their religious identity was stolen by modern Jews. Chappelle did not, of course, endorse the film, but he tried to show Irving as a victim, saying “I know the Jewish people have been through terrible things all over the world, but you can’t blame that on Black Americans”.
Elsewhere, there is some progress. Baddiel told interviewer Mark Heywood that there was one issue of which he was proud. When Jews Don’t Count was published in the US, he discovered that one of the main campaigning groups against prejudice and discrimination, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), did not actually include anti-semitism in its definition of “racism”, which ran contrary to one of his main arguments. The ADL described racism as “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people”, which belies its American origins. However, Baddiel subsequently made his case to ADL officials, and they were persuaded that the definition must be revised.
So now Jews Don’t Count moves to the screen. On Monday 21 November, at 9.00 pm, Channel 4 will screen a 75-minute documentary made by Mindhouse Productions, co-founded by TV legend Louis Theroux. David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count sees the author talk about the increasing volume and venom of anti-semitic prejudice of which he has become aware, and seeks to explore why progressive “identity politics” has so signally and uniquely failed the Jewish people.
The documentary gives Baddiel the opportunity to speak to many prominent and influential figures across the public sphere, including Friends star David Schwimmer, Sarah Silverman, Stephen Fry, Countdown co-host and activist Rachel Riley, current sweary persona grata Miriam Margoyles and others. However successful the book has been, Baddiel understands that the reach of television is of another order. And he thinks it is especially important that it was Channel 4 which commissioned the programme.
My critique is aimed mainly at progressives, at those people who care about minorities and racism – those people who consider themselves on the right side of history – and I think of a lot of those people as Channel 4 viewers.
David Baddiel has, perhaps without volunteering, become a leading figure in the controversy over how we as a society and a political spectrum deal with such a persistent prejudice. Jews Don’t Count was a hugely important contribution to the conversation on anti-semitism, and Baddiel has rightly been lauded for it. It is especially pleasing that a British author has managed to gain traction in the US on such an important issue.
Now the fight moves to the screen. Baddiel knows that his documentary will stir up controversy. He has decided to leave Twitter before it airs because of the inevitable abuse which will follow. “I know this film will generate a lot of noise and some of it will be hate and some of it will definitely be anti-Semitic.” That is a sad but accurate comment on the state of our public dialogue. But battle has to be joined before it can be won, and, while one can forgive Baddiel for leaving the social media platform, Jews Don’t Count is a film that needed to be made and needs to be seen. Let us see what the reaction is when it airs on Channel 4. This isn’t over yet. But it should be another step in the right direction.