Don’t the Jews?

In the world of “identity politics”, the Jews are the only ones who do not appear on the radar. This perplexity is formulated by David Baddiel in Jews Don’t Count: How Identity Politics Fails One Particular Identity, a book published by the Times Literary Supplement.

With a delightful mix of humour and paranoia, Baddiel gives an example: John Turturro, an Italian-American actor, plays a rabbi in The Plot against America. Someone asked him if this was not somewhat bizarre – an Italian American posing as a Jew.

Turturro replied: “I feel like an honorary Jew. My wife is Jewish, my children are Jewish. I grew up in New York City, so I’m basically Jewish!”

Now, imagine a heterosexual actor defending his gay character with the words: “I feel like an honorary gay. My brother is gay, my children are gay. I grew up in San Francisco, so I’m basically gay!” Would this reply be tolerated?

I agree with Baddiel: in the hierarchy of oppression, Black, trans or gay people take the top spots, followed immediately by women, Muslims, people with disabilities.

Where are the Jews, surely one of the most persecuted groups of all times?

There are reasons for this oversight. Some might say, for instance, that the Jews have no colour; unlike black people, they are white and can circulate anonymously in a gentile society.

Other, more sophisticated, people, will say that hostility towards the Jews is not towards the Jews but to the Jewish religion. If all religions are obscurantist, Judaism is no exception.

Baddiel was not convinced by any of these possibilities, and rightly so: first, because antisemitism persists despite “whiteness”; and then because in Auschwitz there was no distinction between Jews who went to the synagogue and Jews who were atheists.

There must be other reasons for this amnesia – and here, Baddiel’s essay becomes personal: the author is both a Jew and left-wing. A progressive, in his own words.

But he does not tolerate the fact that many progressives do not place antisemitism on the same level as other phobias or racisms.

This is explained, first and foremost, with a simple word: Israel. The reasoning is known: yes, antisemitism is a regrettable prejudice, but Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians does not help, right?

Baddiel’s reply is short and sharp: “I don’t care about Israel”. He is not an Israeli. He is English. If an African American suffers police brutality in the United States, can this crime be relativised by the way Zimbabwe treats its white population?

Reducing geographical, cultural or historic differences to the mere colour of the skin would be grotesque and, quite frankly, racist. How do we tolerate that this is done to Western citizens who only happen to be Jews? What do they have to do with Israel and the Palestinians?

Nothing. The same way that an African American is thousands of miles away – physically, historically and existentially - from a Zimbabwean.

However, there is a second explanation for the victimisational invisibility of the Jews among left-wing progressives: in the old Marxist scheme of things, Jews belong to the plutocratic classes. They are the oppressors, not the oppressed.

This is not borne out by the numbers. According to New World Wealth, 56,2% of the world’s millionaires are Christian; 6,5% are Muslim; 3,9% are Hindu; only 1,7% are Jewish. Who cares about the numbers?

Every year, my students are amazed when I tell them that the Jews in Nazi Germany represented less than 1% of the population. From old Adolf’s genocidal hysteria, they imagined that the Jews represented half or even more of the population.  

And here is David Baddiel’s final question for his fellow travellers: isn’t it ironic that contempt for the Jews in “identity politics” should be exercised with typically extreme right-wing arguments?

Folha de São Paulo, February 8, 2021