A Fortnightly Review.
By HOWARD COOPER.
HERE’S THE THING. David Baddiel is a very funny man. As a comedian, he’s never hidden his Jewishness and indeed declares himself “one of the UK’s very few famous Jews”. Lest anyone should imagine, heaven forbid, that this is just a narcissistic boast, he’s quick to explain what he means: “one of the very few people in this country whose Jewishness is one of the principal things known about them”. Move over Howard Jacobson, Melanie Phillips, Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon Schama, Esther Rantzen, Philip Green, Emma Barnett….(reader, feel free to join in).
So we get it. Being Jewish is very important to David Baddiel. It’s at the core of his identity. And this existential reality makes him particularly sensitive to the anti-Semitic tropes, rhetoric and activity he detects all around him. That, and the fact that his mother was born in Nazi Germany and whose scarring experiences are an acknowledged part of the author’s psychic inheritance. Interestingly, in a book detailing his finely-tuned alertness to anti-Semitic undercurrents in the arts, the media, on football terraces and across the political spectrum, the word paranoia never appears. It can’t, because Baddiel’s fundamental axiom is, in light of the Holocaust, “how scared, at base, Jews are.”
Baddiel’s vitriol is aimed particularly at left-leaning ‘progressives’ who, he claims, care about every other ethnic minority but Jews. At the heart of this passionately felt, intellectually confused polemic is a question he poses to the reader: do you think of Jews as part of the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community? Pinning you against the wall with his garrulous, bar room rhetoric, Baddiel argues that if you don’t, you should. The problem with this is that feeling something is true doesn’t make it so.
BAME was an invented analytic category, originating in the 1991 census to help with government policy making. Its usefulness has increasingly been contested over the years, often by specific minority groups (the Chinese community, for example) who don’t consider themselves as fitting into this artificial framework. Baddiel doesn’t discuss this – nor does he mention that Jews have never been included as a sub-community of BAME for official purposes. Objective analysis of anti-Semitism – and the conscious and unconscious antipathy he describes is, of course, real – is of no interest here. Like the anti-Semitic discourse he decries, priority goes to the inviolable supremacy of personal feeling. And in ‘identity politics’ nobody is allowed to argue with that.
Baddiel shows how Jews are stereotyped by racists in contradictory ways: they are thieving, deceitful, dirty – and privileged, rich and powerful. Although this is not an original insight, what is novel is his capacity to generate a quartet of errors (count them yourself) in the solitary sentence in the book that describes any aspect of the Judaic heritage: “The Talmud is a book of exegesis of the Old Testament, codified in the fourteenth century and containing the basis of all the archaic rules and laws of Judaism…”
One doesn’t need to be a pedant to point out that the Talmud is not a book of Biblical ‘exegesis’ — it’s a multi-volume compendium of law and lore, theology and storytelling; the term ‘Old Testament’ is a Christian concept, not a Jewish one — the phrase is itself redolent of old-style anti-Semitism; it was codified in the sixth century, not the fourteenth; and to say it contains ‘the basis of all the archaic rules and laws’ is a pejorative and bowdlerised formulation with its own unconscious anti-Semitism encoded within it. There’s no shame in being a self-confessed Jewish atheist but it is a shame, while defending the integrity of Jewishness with such vigour, to present oneself, unwittingly, as an ignorant one.
Baddiel’s text is filled with the dispiriting echo-chamber back-and forth of his Twitter feed that belies the aching hollowness at its heart. One can’t help but think that if the author spent less time fulminating on Twitter and more time exploring the richness of his millennia-old heritage he might communicate his genuine concerns with real depth of insight rather than as an avatar of the dark obsessional ruminations of late Lenny Bruce.
Howard Cooper is a psychoanalyst, rabbi and writer.
A note from the author: This review was commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle. However, it was shortened and edited in such a way that I welcome this opportunity to publish it as originally written.