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As Ministers crack down on the NUS amid claims of antisemitism, are there lessons for UK higher education in David Baddiel’s ‘Jews Don’t Count’?

  • 15 May 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

For those of us who first entered higher education in the 1990s, David Baddiel will always be one half of Newman and Baddiel, the first comedians to sell out Wembley Arena and the men behind the wonderful History Today sketches, which punctured those obscure academic debates that are pumped up way beyond their true value. Later, we watched him as one-half of the Fantasy Football League duo with Frank Skinner and listened to him sing Three Lions. Today, we buy his children’s books for our kids.

Baddiel’s newest non-children’s book, published in paperback in February 2022, is much less funny than all of these – and designedly so. It argues ‘progressives’ often leave Jewish people out in considerations of racism. For example, it ends by discussing a Tweet from the actor Robert Lindsay that said Jeremy Corbyn ‘certainly isn’t racist’. Referring to Lindsay’s most famous character, Baddiel closes with the words: ‘on realising that for Wolfie Smith, Jews didn’t count, a tiny part of me died.’

Antisemitism today

Baddiel, whose self-description on Twitter is just the one word ‘Jew’, makes too many good points to summarise in a short review – even though his piece is more like an extended essay than a full-length book (and, appropriately, published by the Times Literary Supplement). One claim that particularly struck me was his contention that ‘racists say Jews aren’t white’ while others think they are ‘and, therefore, not really deserving of the protections progressive movements offer to non-white people facing racism.’ From this, Baddiel argues, many problems stem.

He also highlights the challenges faced by those seeking to draw attention to antisemitism. He compares the way Corbynistas responded to claims of antisemitism with the far right’s response to #BlackLivesMatter: ‘the reflex need always to follow the phrase antisemitism with “and all types of racism” is the left’s All Lives Matter.’

This book is aimed at self-proclaimed progressives more than others, as Baddiel focuses on the gap between what progressive politics claims to stand for and how it sometimes treats Jewish people. The most striking section reads:

I think what was never understood by those in the Labour Party who became defensive around the issue of antisemitism between 2015 and 2019 is how scared, at base, Jews are. Jews, particularly those of my generation, were brought up under the shadow of the Holocaust. My mother was born in Nazi Germany. I only exist by the skin of my teeth.

To address the issues that he raises, Baddiel argues that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) – despite its flaws as a category, which mean it has lost favour – should be understood to include Jewish people. He also argues that microaggressions affecting Jewish people should in future be treated in the same way as those aimed at other minorities: ‘It is my position that racism should not be a competition: that all racisms should be regarded as equally bad.’

To those who respond to such claims by implying or even stating explicitly that Jews are different to other minorities because they supposedly have money, Baddiel simply says ‘fuck off’, before pointing out: a) as a general rule, it is not true; and b) if it were true, money does not protect you against racism, as illustrated by what happened to Baddiel’s own relatives in 1930s Germany.

Censorship

The problem with censoring mainstream media is you need to apply the rules fairly, and Baddiel shows persuasively that – often – this simply is not done. He doesn’t ask for things to be cancelled: ‘I’m not interested, for the purposes of this book, in the overall rights and wrongs of cancel culture’. He simply calls out many instances of unequal treatment, leaving the impression that either more stuff should be cancelled or less stuff should be cancelled but – whichever it is – the rules should be applied more equitably.

He is surely right about inconsistent policing. One example that strikes me (not mentioned by Baddiel) is that, while the BBC has infamously removed parts of the ‘Don’t Mention the War’ episode of Fawlty Towers and accompanies what is left with a warning (and briefly removed the whole episode from its UKTV platform), Diana Mosley’s Desert Islands Discs remains on BBC Sounds with no clear negative warning about the content, which is merely described as ‘contentious’.

Yet while fantasising about life on a desert isle (and just before Wagner was played), Lady Mosley denied the scale of the Holocaust, telling Sue Lawley, ‘I don’t really, I’m afraid, believe that six million people [died]. I think it’s just not conceivable’. What rational policing policy could excuse greater leniency for this interview than for a fictional sitcom?

It is not a perfect book. Some will find Baddiel’s reliance on Twitter as his main source frustrating, although he rightly explains this is where many of the battles over identity politics occur. The text is unpolished in places, and the numerous chatty asides in the footnotes leave the impression that the author could not be bothered to weave some of his thoughts into the main text. The few really important footnotes, such as the one in which Baddiel apologises for the book being less relevant to Jews of colour, risk getting lost as a result. In the end, however, if the sign of a good book is that it makes you think, then this is a very very good book.

Higher education and antisemitism

Baddiel’s timely arguments are perhaps especially worth reading by those of us working in UK higher education because our sector, most notably the student movement, has been accused by many of having issues it needs to address. Looking just at the National Union of Students (NUS) in the past few weeks for example:

  • 21 past NUS Presidents, including the former Labour Cabinet Ministers Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and Jim Murphy as well as Wes Streeting and Shakira Martin (who I regard as the last effective NUS President), have ‘sent an unprecedented private warning to the organisation’s trustees, urging them to address concerns from Jewish students’;
  • Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, has referred the NUS to the Charity Commission for ‘fostering a “culture of discrimination”’; and
  • Michelle Donelan, Westminster’s Minister for Higher and Further Education, tweeted last Friday: ‘Enough is enough. I’ve prepared a package of sanctions against @nusuk following concerning incidents over many years. Disappointed it has come to this but proud to stand up for Jewish students.’

Universities are microcosms of society and anyone wanting to tackle the increase in antisemitic attacks – according to the Community Security Trust, 2021 saw the most antisemitic campus-related incidents in any calendar year – will find helpful material in Jews Don’t Count on how to confront the underlying causes.

universities that have yet … to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism may want to doublecheck the reasons for their stance

The minority of universities that have yet to fulfil the request of the Government, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Union of Jewish Students to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism may want to doublecheck the reasons for their stance. Are they absolutely certain they are not falling into the traps Baddiel identifies? To many inside and outside our sector, failing to adopt that definition could seem a strange hill to defend.

Back in the 1990s where I began this review, I once argued as an undergraduate that it wasn’t necessary for our students’ union to adopt a motion opposing Holocaust denial because – even though, as a History student, I knew all such denials are ridiculous – the issue did not seem to link closely to the contemporary student experience. I was wrong. Completely wrong in fact.

Educational institutions and their students’ unions have a duty to protect their members. Action was needed back then to make sure their Jewish members were safe – just as, sadly, continues to be the case today.

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