LONDON (JTA) — David Baddiel, a comedian turned anti-Semitism activist who calls himself “one of the UK’s few famous Jews,” was in the basement of one of Britain’s best-known television studios. .
As a reporter hurried to the exit, Baddiel slumped in his chair, apparently exhausted from the interview he had just completed about the upcoming documentary based on his 2021 bestseller, “Jews Don’t Count.”
“I’m talking to a lot of people as the last journalist who hadn’t thought about any of this in his life,” he said.
The “it” Baddiel was referring to was the idea, outlined in his book, that progressive anti-racists are guilty of hypocrisy towards Jews by not seeing them as worthy of similar protection or defending them as other minorities because they are seen as white, privileged. and tasty
When the book was published last year, it received rave reviews, and Baddiel has since been seen by some as a “voice of british jews.”
He often litigates the finer points of contemporary anti-Semitism as a guest on radio and television, and has been quick to take on trolls and critics on Twitter.
Now, with the premiere of an hour-long documentary also called “Jews Don’t Count” on Britain’s public channel Channel 4, Baddiel gets a prime time slot to make his case to a larger audience.
Featuring interviews by Baddiel with Jewish pop culture stars in both Britain and the United States, from comedian Sarah Silverman to novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and actor Stephen Fry, the film argues that “in a culture where all forms of of racism are being monitored, called out and held accountable, one way is apparently invisible”.
Screened on Monday night, the program was acclaimed in The Guardian as “fascinating”, “timely” and “a document so shocking it sounds like a siren”.
“With the intensification of identity politics and concerns about minorities, offense, inclusion and representation, all of that seemed to have no follow through for Jews,” Baddiel explained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as the general point of his work. . “It seemed like we weren’t part of that conversation. There seemed to be less resentment of anti-Semitism and less inclusion and representation of Jews.”
Baddiel, who rose to fame in the 1990s when he collaborated with fellow comedian Frank Skinner on a BBC football sketch show, is also known as the co-author of “Three lions”, which has become the de facto anthem of the English soccer team and has recently enjoyed a revival during England tournament racing. She has also appeared on various television shows and has published several children’s books.
He became a more prominent voice as an activist against anti-Semitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s scandal-plagued tenure as Labor Party leader from 2015 to 2020 – although he wishes to emphasize that neither the documentary nor his book is about “Jeremy f-ing Corbyn”. His move into documentary filmmaking follows his appearance in a well-received BBC documentary, “Confronting Holocaust Denial”, which aired last year.
Baddiel said he cares less about the specific arguments under the umbrella of his broader argument. With respect to The “Jewish Face” Debatefor example, on whether or not Jewish actors should play Jewish characters on screen, Baddiel claims that he is “not really interested” in any way, despite the fact that the subject occupies a large part of his documentary, appearing in conversations with actors like Silverman, Miriam Margolyes and David Schwimmer.
“What I’m interested in is that it’s empirically the case that in the casting directors’ offices they’re saying, ‘This is an autistic role, so we have to get an autistic actor.’ Or that ‘this is a gay role, so we have to get a gay actor,’” he continued.
“Whether it is correct or not is not the point,” he added. “They’re not saying ‘it’s a Jewish role, so we have to get a Jewish actor.'”
Perhaps controversially, Baddiel, while acknowledging that there is a certain privilege in being able to “pass” as white, has argued that being white is more about being “protected because you are a member of the majority culture” than the color of your skin. . He says that anti-Semitism is racism, and not about “religious intolerance.”
In the documentary, Schwimmer says, “I’ve never felt white.”
“I’m very aware that I pass for white and I enjoy many of the privileges of being a straight, white, non-disabled male, I get it, I get it, and I’m very aware of my privilege,” says Schwimmer. before mentioning the killing of two Jewish civil rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964. “I never felt white, because to me, white means safety.”
I am well aware that I pass for white and I really enjoy the privileges of being a straight, white man… I never felt white, because for me, white means security.
Schwimmer, who recently spoke at the Anti-Defamation League conference in New York City, goes on to say that while “Friends,” the sitcom he starred in, has been criticized for its lack of diversity, it did include a minority presence. There were several Jews, in the form of Schwimmer’s Ross Geller character and his sister Monica, along with Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel Green.
“You know what would happen if you said that,” Baddiel says in response. “People would get aggressive about it.”
Schwimmer responds: “You’re right, people would say: ‘not a real minority’.”
Baddiel hardly speaks for all British Jews. One case in his book and documentary involves the fact that British Jews are not offered “Jew” as a choice in the census when asked to select their ethnicity. (The same issue has been debated in the United States, where White respondents in the 2020 census were asked to write in their racial “origins.”)
“It’s strange and alienating” that Jews don’t have a different box of options, Baddiel said.
But the view that Jews should not have an ethnic choice has historically been and remains the position of the main representative body for British Jews, the Board of Deputies, as well as the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a think tank who studies demography. of British and European Jews.
The Office for National Statistics, which administers the census, investigated the possibility of adding a Jewish ethnicity option ahead of the 2021 census in England and Wales. The ONS consulted with Jewish groups and, in cooperation with the polling firm Kantar, concluded that Jews in Britain found it “highly unacceptable” given historical concerns about discrimination and “the racialisation of religious groups”.
ONS and Kantar found that the majority of Jews “did not identify as an ethnicity” and that adding an ethnic option would be counterproductive, as “its inclusion may cause participants to question whether they wanted to complete the census.”
Baddiel disputed the conclusion, arguing that the most recent research was “a long time ago” and that such views were “vastly outdated notions of what representation and inclusion look like”. She said she had “certainly” felt the demand for a Jewish option “from the people who speak to me.”
Baddiel’s book got mainly positive criticism, but Josh Glancy, a British-Jewish journalist, wrote in the Jewish Chronicle that Baddiel’s ideas involved “emphasizing and expanding all aspects of Jewish victimhood” to a point that would require “a level of self-imposed martyrdom that simply does not align with most contemporary Jewish lives.”
Stephen Bush, a prominent black and Jewish journalist who made a landmark report on racial inclusion for the Board of Deputies last year, and who is interviewed for a few seconds in the documentary: argued in The Times that Baddiel was “so preoccupied with asserting his own lack of privileges that he forgets his obligations to others: especially speaking and listening to them.”
Baddiel’s idea that “progressives turn a blind eye and dabble in only one form of racism, and that the experiences he deals with would not occur if he were black, Asian or another ethnic minority” “he would fight to survive a conversation with more than three people from any other minority,” Bush argued.
Baddiel said he’s “not that interested” in people’s responses, adding: “Glancy is wrong. She doesn’t understand the book.
In response to Bush, Baddiel said: “That’s not something most minorities are asked to do. I think that most minorities, particularly now, when they come forward with testimonials about their lived experience of racism, would feel racist if I said to the majority, ‘why should I listen to this, because you don’t seem to be talking about any other minorities.’
“That’s a ‘Jews don’t count’ phenomenon you’re talking about,” he continued, “that it’s up to the Jews to have to make more space.”
Among the parts of the documentary that have attracted the most interest in Britain is an apology Baddiel offers to Jason Lee, a former professional soccer player whom Baddiel mocked in blackface for a sketch in the 1990s. Many feel that Lee’s career was negatively affected by the Baddiel sketch, even though he shot down that idea in a recent interview with the Guardian. Baddiel has accepted that his portrayal of Lee was racist.
How does it feel to be the person who saves the Jews?
Lee, who has since campaigned against racism in soccer, was also interviewed in The Timestalking about how he had felt “violated on so many levels” by Baddiel’s sketch.
To his fellow Jews, Baddiel is less conciliatory. He claimed not to be aware of the criticism within the Jewish community about his thesis. “Literally no one,” he said, had come to him with a concern, he said. He often feels “whatever the Jewish equivalent of the Bat-Signal is” and recalled how a senior Labor Party politician “came up to me yesterday and said: How does it feel to be the person who saves the Jews?”
At one point during his interview with JTA, Baddiel interrupted a question about why he hadn’t chosen to speak to visibly Orthodox Jews, despite their presence in the background of several shots in the documentary, by repeatedly asking, “What’s your problem? What is your problem?”
“I’m not really interested in understanding Jews,” he said. “I am interested in the ways in which our current way of looking at racism fails Jews.”
ToI staff contributed to this article.