Suppose you explain to someone spouting racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory ideas that they are prejudiced. You may begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt. You tell them you are sure they do not realise how badly they are behaving. You assume they are decent people at heart who have merely made a mistake they will be more than happy to rectify once you set it out.
Then you attempt to enlighten them. You tell them why they are prejudiced and why their prejudices lead to hatred and death. You tell them repeatedly, again and again, until your arguments become so familiar you can mouth them in your sleep and you are sick of the sound of your own voice. And they don’t change. They carry on as before. Or, for this happens too often, they turn on you and declaim that you are only pretending that they are prejudiced to trick them into furthering your grubby interests.
Would you still think them decent?
These are arguments that women have with men, blacks with whites, and you know which side you must join. In the good corner are progressives ‘on the right side of history’ and in the bad are the bigots and reactionaries who block their ears so they never have to give up their unearned privileges. Except when it comes to Jews, the roles flip. A portion of progressive opinion has decided the best way to show it is on the right side of history is to repeat anti-Semitic ideas and accuse anyone who tries to reason with them of being engaged in a plot to further Israel’s interests or divert attention from the real suffering of less privileged ethnic minorities.
David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count is out this week; a piercing 28,000-word essay that throws you back to the age of pamphlet wars. His central and unanswerable contention is that, in a time of identity politics, when every persecuted minority is listened to, there is one ethnic minority large numbers of progressives do not want to hear from: Jews, one of the most persecuted minorities in history. Baddiel builds his argument by weaving in examples so skilfully all but the most bigoted reader has to accept he has a case. A few are familiar. The people on the UK left who stuck with Jeremy Corbyn after he defended a mural showing hook-nosed capitalists, that might have come straight out of Nazi Germany. But many are drawn from a world that is unfamiliar, to me at any rate. I never knew, for instance, that Alice Walker, author of the idolised novel, The Colour Purple, took the time and trouble in 2017 to sit down and write a poem bubbling with hate entitled ‘To Study The Talmud’.
“Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not onlyThat, but to enjoy it?Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?Are young boys fair game for rape?
It was grotesque. But the idea that an African-American author could ever be cancelled for racism against Jews remains unthinkable to right-thinking people, even though Walker went on to endorse the works of David Icke, whose anti-vax lies could incidentally lead to the deaths of, among others, a disproportionately high number of black people suffering from Covid-19. In 2019, a musical version of the Colour Purple came to the UK. There was a hell of a fuss because Seyi Omooba, one of the cast, had once written an anti-gay post. The producers fired her, of course. Omooba’s prejudice was unforgivable, while Walker’s was, if not quite forgivable, then a matter of no consequence.
They tolerate the revival of medieval hatreds because they think all Jews are rich – itself a throwback to the Nazi and Communist stereotype of the Jew as banker and the medieval stereotype of the Jew as usurer. ‘Anti-Semitism, at this point in history, is primarily experienced as prejudice and hostility towards Jews as Jews, largely without aspects of material dispossession (such as structural unemployment) that manifest in other forms of racism,’ explained the communist writer Ash Sarkar, who had the grace to go on to criticise the 'left’s lack of literacy' on anti-Semitism.
Too many on the left think that Jews are rich and white therefore we should not worry overmuch about them. Except that not all Jews are rich or white. And even if they were, their richness and whiteness does not spare them from violence and murder.
A left that claims to be anti-fascist can only encompass anti-Semitism and genuine Jew haters by refusing to understand modern fascism. ‘White lives matter!’ ‘Jews will not replace us!’ fascism’s foot soldiers reportedly chanted at Charlottesville as they bawled out the central claim of today’s far right: that Jews are conspiring to flood the West with Muslims. Viktor Orban, in a direct echo of the 1930s, maintains his power in Budapest by convincing credulous Hungarians that the Jewish financier George Soros is plotting to overwhelm Christian culture with migrants. Did progressives not notice?
Baddiel, a lifelong leftist, writes with discernible pain. 'A tiny part of me died,' he says, when he saw the actor Robert Lindsay mourn Corbyn’s departure or heard others he’d once admired dismiss anti-Jewish hatred as an incidental idiosyncrasy that in no way blemishes the shining goodness of the left’s flawless face.
For all his virtues and for all his literary skill I wonder if Baddiel fully understands the worst of the left. He makes one argument that too few acknowledge. The Jew was the Christian world’s ‘other’ for centuries. Islam may have taken its place at times but in in our inherited culture the face of Satan is the swarthy and hooked-nosed face of the Jew. ‘The left, for all its anti-racist credentials, has never balked at that – the Jew face, the Jew hair, the Jew fat banker smoking his fat cigar – imagery. It remains the primary way in which to portray the scheming, evil, capitalist enemy.’ These prejudices run deep, so deep that many on the left cannot acknowledge their existence or their power.
Others, however, possess all too conscious prejudices. The Stalinist tradition is as explicitly anti-Semitic as the far-right tradition, as is today’s radical Islam. To parts of the left, anti-Semitism is not just about Jews, it never is, but part of a wider far-left world view that encompasses support for Vladimir Putin and Iran, and also a contempt for democracy as fierce as anything you will find in the Trump movement. For if the 'Zionist lobby' controls everything from Keir Starmer’s Labour party to the media, how can elections be free, how can democracy be anything other than a sham?
I ended Baddiel’s book wondering whether he still thought progressives could be made to see their prejudices. Was he writing more in sorrow than in anger in the hope of educating them, or just in anger? As someone who has walked down this street, I believe there are decent people on the left who have found themselves trapped by party loyalties and groupthink into defending outright racial conspiracists. They are worth arguing with. As for the racial conspiracists themselves, you cannot argue with them, you can only fight them.