The Baffling Appeal of "Jews Don’t Count"

Why is a silly new documentary about anti-Semitism that breathlessly reveals David Schwimmer has “never felt white, ever” getting such a rapturous response?

David Baddiel and David Schwimmer in Jews Don’t Count.

David Baddiel and David Schwimmer in Jews Don’t Count.

COLUMN
Jan. 16 2023
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

It’s been a tough few months for the Jews.

We all know the cliche “Twitter isn’t real life,” but social media is, more with each passing year, where friendships are made and broken, where people explore their identities and beliefs, and even where elections are influenced and decided. Lately, Jews around the world who, like everyone else, spend much of their lives in this virtual sphere have had to contend with a deeply disturbed rapper wearing a sock over his head and babbling incoherently about how he will no longer let the Jewish mafia suppress his admiration for Hitler. Though it’s fair to say the response last year to Kanye West’s anti-Semitism was overwhelmingly negative, no one likes his status as the chief problem in the world being a constant matter of debate. The timing, therefore, couldn’t be more perfect for a new documentary, Jews Don’t Count, by the UK comedian David Baddiel.

Baddiel has been a familiar figure in British popular culture for decades. A regular on the comedy and late-night TV circuit, he made his name with the hit song “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home).” Written to celebrate England’s hosting of the 1996 European Championships, it managed to capture the spirit of the “Cool Britannia” era that combined the worldwide success of Britpop, working-class patriotism, and progressive politics, culminating in Labor’s landslide victory in the 1997 elections. More recently, Baddiel has reinvented himself as a Jewish advocate, fond of explaining why those on the British left from which he hails have let the Jewish community down and need to become better allies. His 2021 book Jews Don’t Count, on which the documentary is based, made a big splash in the UK. The eponymous television adaptation, where he interviews influential Jewish celebrities from both sides of the Atlantic, aims for an even wider audience, having been hailed in the press as a “a doc so shocking it sounds like a siren,” “relentlessly irrefutable,” and a “powerful and important film about a veiled prejudice.” Alas, viewers of the documentary will not gain a better understanding of anti-Semitism, or how to combat it.

In Jews Don’t Count, Baddiel offers a specific thesis, which we will get to in due course, but it tends to get lost in a thicket of miscellaneous complaints that his VIP interviewees have about their lives. Sarah Silverman laments that Jewish actresses are only ever cast for the role of bitchy best friend and never the beautiful main character, apparently oblivious to the filmography of Natalie Portman, Gal Gadot, Scarlett Johansson, or Mila Kunis, which might indicate that being unsympathetically stereotyped is a more specifically Sarah Silverman problem. She goes on to remonstrate about how unfair it is that, in her estimation, Winona Rider would not have been cast in The Age of Innocence had she kept her name Horowitz, to which Baddiel gravely responds, “that’s very important.” The theme of being offended by hypotheticals continues when Baddiel, righteously indignant about the bigotry of comments no one ever made, speculates about what would happen if David Schwimmer were to argue that Friends was a diverse show because 50 percent of the main characters are Jewish. In one bizarre moment, the novelist and literary critic Howard Jacobson remarks that “we’re frightened that if they discover we’re Jews, they’ll get rid of us.” (It’s OK, Howard, everyone knows you’re Jewish.) Things get stranger still, when, in a conversation that should perhaps be reviewed by social services, Baddiel and the writer Neil Gaiman discuss, tears visibly welling up in their eyes, conversations they have had with their half-Jewish children about their relative likelihood of surviving in Nazi Germany given the length of their noses.

 

Underneath this potpourri of assorted grievances and anxieties, however, a running theme eventually emerges. There is, according to Baddiel, a “dysfunction between Jews and the left” because too many of the latter regard the former as “not being a proper minority.” Even worse, they regard Jews as white.

It is impossible to overstate the degree to which David Baddiel wants you to know that, despite what your lying eyes might indicate, he is not white. Over and over again Baddiel returns to his profound unhappiness with “there being a sense in which Jews are essentially just white people.” For Baddiel, “by insisting that Jews are white, you place them outside the sacred circle,” a circle that he very much wants to be part of. Though this is ostensibly a documentary about anti-Semitism, there is remarkably little attention given to the classic anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty, say, or controlling the banks. The message seems to be that you can think Jews control world finance if you must, as long as you understand, as the actor Stephen Fry aptly puts it, that “I’m not just an example of a perfectly ordinary white person.”

If Baddiel wanted to demonstrate that Jews are not white, his best bet would have been to point out that the Jewish population of Israel is of roughly 50 percent non-European ancestry. But that would present a quandary: he wants to create a sharp distinction between Jews and what he calls “Israel schmisrael.” Baddiel dislikes the nationalist and jingoistic culture of Israel, even regarding it as un-Jewish, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he views the right-leaning Mizrahi population with not a little disdain. Certainly, none of them are given a chance to speak in Jews Don’t Count.

Instead Baddiel offers two arguments. One is that the far right does not classify Jews as white, and, indeed, invests almost as great pains as Baddiel to expose them as non-whites. The other is that Jews are not white because over the years they have been through more than their fair share of persecutions and oppressions. David Schwimmer formulates the argument with an admirable lack of guile: “I never felt white, because for me, white means safe.” It would be gratuitous to dissect the sophistry here, so let us take a step back and try to understand what this special pleading is supposed to achieve.

It is possible to approach the issue of anti-Semitism from two perspectives, the practical and the theoretical. The first perspective observes that hostility to Jews exists in many quarters, and calls us to think practically about how to minimize its harmful effects. When a Jew in Brooklyn is punched in the street for being a Jew, it does not matter in what ways the thoughts in the heads of his assailants are related to different historical anti-Jewish tropes and theories. What matters are the concrete measures that can be put in place to deter such attacks and make it safe for visible Jews to live their lives in peace.

From the other perspective, the great challenge of anti-Semitism is to capture the underlying essence that can unify the hatred felt and expressed towards Jews from people of a dizzying variety of nationalities, religious affiliations, political perspectives, and social status. Attempts to form a unified theory of anti-Semitism have occupied many of modernity’s great minds: there’s Emile Durkheim and his theory of anti-Semitism as a coping mechanism for the anomie caused by modern economic relations; or Engels and his understanding of anti-Semitism as an expression of reactionary opposition to capitalist economic progress; or Sartre and his analysis of anti-Semitism as a bad-faith attempt to flee from the responsibilities of dealing with a complex world; or Leon Pinsker’s idea that anti-Semitism is a response “to the abnormality of Jews being somewhere between a national existence and a lack of a real foundation for that existence.”

On either score, Jews Don’t Count has little to offer. From the practical perspective, Baddiel and his interviewees spend most of their time focusing on trivial, or even imaginary, threats to their dignity. When he briefly turns his attention to matters of some substance, depicting an armed-shooter drill in a British Jewish school, there is total silence on who the feared armed shooter would be. Yet to the extent that Jewish schoolchildren are in danger in the UK these days, it is not because the left thinks they are white, or the far right thinks they are not: it is because of homegrown Islamist extremists. If the unthinkable happens, and the shocking atrocities committed against Jews in France cross the channel, all Jews Don’t Count seems to offer is the hope that the deceased will not have to suffer the indignity of being remembered as white.

On the theoretical side of things, Jews Don’t Count is even more barren. Granted that Baddiel is not setting out to explain anti-Semitism in general, and that it would be unfair to expect him to think as well as Sartre or Pinsker, but even on his chosen subject of left-liberal indifference to Jewish pain, he does no more than scratch his head in bemusement.

We do not, however, have to share in Baddiel’s sense of bemusement. Though the documentary leaves us none the wiser about why Jews don’t count, if we take a dispassionate perspective on 21st-century identity politics, it’s all clear enough: an ethical system that accords moral superiority based on membership of a wronged minority group necessarily entails a hierarchy of victimhood. When the interests or preferences of two different victim groups clash, as they inevitably must, it is necessary to determine which one is the greater victim to arbitrate the dispute. Any hierarchy is a zero-sum game, and for one group to go up, another one must go down. Inside the “sacred circle” which Baddiel yearns to join lies an endless contest for status, based on who can most credibly claim to be downtrodden.

There are many things to be said about a political idea that inverts success into a crime and competence into a blemish, but if one accepts the premise of victimhood politics—which Baddiel is at pains to emphasize he does—then it must be said that Jews don’t count for good reason. After all, British Jews, to their credit and to the credit of the British political system and society, are doing pretty well. Just as “an ordinary white person” is expected to recognize his privilege and understand that a certain amount of groveling and quiet toleration of insult is his just due for having won the lottery of birth, so should British Jews.

 

Though Jews Don’t Count may be a weak and frivolous exercise in moaning, it has nevertheless struck a chord with that section of UK Jewry who, by virtue of their acculturation and success, are best positioned to make their voice heard. Of course, no one is completely immune to the kind of narcissistic self-pity that Baddiel and his guests have to offer, but this popularity is still, at first sight, surprising. Surprising, that is, until we understand its subtext, which contains an attempt to answer the central question of what Shaul Maggid has called “post-Judaism”: what does it mean to be a post-ethnic and post-religious Jew?

In Jews Don’t Count, Baddiel interviews over a dozen Jews, but there are few Israelis, religiously observant Jews, or Zionists among them. He thus deemphasizes or excludes something like 80 percent of the Jewish people from his analysis. The only time we see a yarmulke is in the background when Baddiel visits a New York deli and observes that Jews like pickles. Jews Don’t Count is, in other words, very clear about what Judaism isn’t (religion, Israel, and, of course, being white), but it is silent on the question of what positive content being Jewish has. Baddiel has stated elsewhere that “I’m really interested in and connected to the culture, the comedy, and obviously the identity, which is core to my being.” (Baddiel is, of course, a vocal atheist, and someone who doesn’t even care enough about Israel to oppose it, though he makes no bones about not liking it very much.) But what does that identity, which is the core of his being, consist of? What exactly is Baddiel identifying with?

In lieu of any indication that there is something other than anti-Semitism that Baddiel finds interesting about Judaism, the alarming answer to that question appears to be that Baddiel’s Jewish identity consists precisely of being a member of a persecuted group. The otherwise baffling popularity of Jews Don’t Count indicates he is far from alone. While, historically, many Jews have abandoned their faith and people in order to shed the burdens of being a loathed minority, the post-Jew does the opposite: clinging desperately to that legacy of persecution as the essence of being as a Jew. For some Jews, a denial of God’s existence, the divine authorship of the Torah, or their eternal connection to the Land of Israel is more than just an argument they disagree with: it’s an attack on their fundamental being. For post-Jews, the same blow is received when someone tries to gently point out that they are not a victim of anything but their own inability to quit while they are ahead.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, David Baddiel, Politics & Current Affairs