I was going to start writing this article with the words “Arguments have been raging about whether Jews are an ethnicity or a religion.” But actually, that’s not true. Statements have been made that Jewishness is based on ethnicity and there has been no debate at all. It seems to have passed unchallenged with the newest example being David Baddiel’s polemic Jews Don’t Count.
“Antisemitism” he maintains “has very little to do with religion”.
“One’s Jewishness, just like one’s skin colour, is an accident of birth”.
The Baddiel argument is focussed almost exclusively on those who abandoned all religious aspects of Judaism but are still targeted overtly by racists on the right, less overtly by progressive bias that excludes Jews from the support of eg BAME. He makes the point that his Grandparents were not asked if they were kosher when the Nazis came along. It’s true and it’s not trivial.
But there are repercussions if we accept the principle that you are Jewish by virtue of your ethnicity and not your religion.
Converts to Judaism have existed as long as Judaism itself. Ruth was one. You cannot convert into being a different skin colour. A Black Woman cannot say I am Black as an accident of birth but I now want to be considered White. Not only could she not, but if she was actually proud of her heritage she would not. Baddiel’s Twitter handle is a Jew. It is not a Proud Jew. He is as he says “An accident of birth”.
I know many converts from within my community, friends and wider family. To bring into question their right to be called Jewish, to be accepted as Jewish, is not progressive. It is anti-progressive.
Within Christianity, the same applies. Within Islam, the same applies. Who are any of us to deny converts the Right to identify themselves by religion?
Historically, it has been practising Jews who got slaughtered, mainly in the name of Christianity. In fact, if you agreed to convert out of Judaism, that was specifically the thing that saved your life. The faith-keepers were the ones who got burnt or thrust through with a sword. Convert or get killed.
The Disputation of Partis in 1240, The Disputation of Barcelona in 1263, The Disputation of Tortosa in 1413 were debates initiated by powerful Christians to prove Judaism wrong, burn our books and forcibly convert practising Jews. Change religion or get killed. Not ethnicity. Religion. To be Jewish was a religious offence. You were a Heretic.
These weren’t Jews in the disputes who had a Grandfather who was Jewish but practising Jews. Rabbis. Not just any Jews but the Greatest Religious Jewish leaders of their time, defending the right of Jews to practise Judaism.
“One’s Jewishness, just like one’s skin colour, is an accident of birth” says Baddiel. It’s simply not true for converts who have made a deliberate choice.
What about adopted Jewish children? If I adopt a baby who was born of two Black parents and brought that child up within the Jewish faith, is that child not Jewish? Does that child not have the right, without question, to call themselves Jewish, based not on the colour of their skin but on their religion?
It was the Nazi regime who went those stages further with their laws of racial purity. It was the Nazis for whom Jewish ethnicity was a crime – worthy of gassing or shooting. Determine that Jewishness is ethnicity, closer by perception to race, and you end edging closer to the Reich. Maybe another Reich may determine that you only need one Great-Grandfather to be Jewish?
If it were up to me, we would run as fast as possible away from the concept of Jews as an ethnicity. Modern antisemitism is really just antisemitism. To quote Ecclesiastes , There is Nothing New Under the Sun.
Were it not for the thorny issue of modern day Israel.
9 out of 10 Jews support the Jewish State. But I heard David Baddiel on Newsnight, interviewed by Emily Maitlis, say something like oh not many Jews support Israel. I can’t find that particular clip online but I know what I heard and I know it went unchallenged.
I wouldn’t say that he lied because he may believe he’s right. But’ he’s not right – and it is dangerous if the public perception is with him. The UK public just heard that Jews don’t support Israel. So the next time you get asked about Israel, and you say you support it, your’e one of the few, rather than one of the many.
Baddiel says it is even “racist” to ask him about Israel, arguing that Israelis aren’t “very Jewish anyway…They’re too macho, too ripped and aggressive and confident”.
Let me follow through the logic of this statement. Israelis are macho, ripped, aggressive and confident. Baddiel loves to take imaginary scenarios, so allow me to replace the word Israeli with any other country’s citizens. Could you write about Americans this way? Or Russians? The Chinese? If the French were attacked like this, we might expect it say on the front page of the Sun but hardly in a debate within the progressive movement.
But it’s worse, because if Israelis are “not very Jewish anyway”, then Baddiel has just stated a number of what he believes to be Jewish characteristics. To be generous to him, these would be Not macho, Not ripped, Not aggressive and Not confident. Follow my logic. Jews are therefore in his thinking unmanly, weedy, passive and insecure.
The IHRA definition of antisemitism starts with “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews”.
Now, why exactly is David Baddiel’s book being lauded by the Jewish community and beyond?
One of my children is a 20 year old British Jew who has left the UK and become an Israeli citizen. He in training in the army. Has he undergone some kind of metamorphosis by virtue of his change in nationality?
No. He is still not macho, yes he’s pretty ripped, he’s not aggressive but he is confident. Is it possible that Jews – like all other people on the planet – cannot simply be lumped together?
There is I suggest a psychology at work here both in terms of what Baddiel says and in terms of its near universal acceptance by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Baddiel holds strong atheist views. This is a very progressive indeed. Society is terrified of the G word. In fact if you want to know where Jews are not represented at all in the media, try and search for a Jewish person who wears a kippa and is not a Chassid. Despite the enormous success of Shtisel, modern orthodox progressive Jews are nowhere to be seen. In fact, traditional Jews are nowhere to be seen. Any element of belief in a positive aspect to religion is being crushed by our mainstream media.
The number of children going to Jewish schools has risen massively. It’s now over 35,000. I send my kids to Jewish Schools. They learn to celebrate the Jewish religion and to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. That number has been rising steadily and the demands for new schools is constant. People are actually moving houses to be in the catchment area for JCoSS and JFS. These are not all as Baddiel has called them “frummers”. JCoSS was founded on progressive principles. One of its declared aims is “to enable students and staff of all faiths and none to explore and celebrate the differences and diversity found in the variety of forms of worship in the Jewish tradition.”
The parents of these JCoSS kids, the kids themselves, are absent from the debate.
Conversely, Jews who marry out, Jews who reject Judaism as a religion, are feted.
A shining example of someone who bucks this trend is the multi-award winning doubly-Oscar nominated, British, Jewish actor writer and producer Sacha Baron Cohen. His wife converted into Judaism. How is he described by David Baddiel? I quote “more Israeli” than Jewish. Somehow other from acceptable British Jews. The very fact that SBC is to – use an expression – tall dark and handsome makes him less Jewish.
Are we not offended?
It’s not difficult to see the psychology at work in Jews Don’t Count. I don’t think David is a nasty piece of work or deliberately antisemitic. I am sure he genuinely believes he is fighting a corner against what he calls modern antisemitism. In that he is contributing to a debate. But he cannot close the debate. Our media loves to take one person’s views and make them a champion of what they are not. Baddiel cannot become the acceptable face of Jew-ness.
The full range of Jewish voices need to be heard. From the Chief Rabbi who surely needs to speak up loudly for the religion, rather than ethnicity, of Orthodox Judaism, to the more progressive Rabbis. From ardent supporters of Netanyahu to Jewish State supporters who can’t stand him. In our creative arts, our writers, directors, producers and crucially our commissioners and media outlets need to show the very thing that Baddiel says UK Jews do not have.