Why JFS's CEO Believes It's Time to Talk about Anti-Semitism
Will Berkovitz to host "Jews Don't Count" author David Baddiel on the normalization of subtle anti-Judaism.
“The plates are shifting.”
A sacred circle is drawn around those whom the progressive modern left are prepared to go to battle for, and it seems as if Jews aren’t in it. Why? Well, there are lots of answers. But the basic one, underpinning all others, is that Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined—by the racists—as both low and high status. Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same way other minorities are—as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking—but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world. Jews are somehow sub-human and humanity’s secret masters. And it’s this racist mythology that’s in the air when the left pause before putting Jews into their sacred circle. Jews Don’t Count, p. 19
I read David Baddiel’s book Jews Don’t Count last year, around the same time I read Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews, as well as sections of Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Antisemitism—for the third time. Something was going on. Smart, influential people were starting to notice anti-Judaism between the lines, in the inhales.
Baddiel, a British comedian and author, wrote this searching, winding, sometimes darkly humorous book not to outline a modern history of anti-Semitism, as he says on page 16. “But it is going to be an attempt to pinpoint something that I think is key to modern antisemitism, which is the left’s confusion over it. By the left, I really mean progressives: the coalition—some of whom may not be classically left-wing—of those who would define themselves as being on the right side of history.”
Baddiel will appear in conversation with JFS’s Rabbi Will Berkovitz on Thursday, January 26, at noon on Zoom. What follows is a conversation with Berkovitz about why it’s time to talk about anti-Semitism.
The Cholent: Let’s just start with the event. How did it come about?
Will Berkovitz: There is clearly something changing in the culture and in the community, both nationally as well as locally, that is becoming more complex. I’ve been hearing from an increasing number of people in the Jewish community who are feeling more isolated. It feels like we need to begin having a conversation at a larger scale. I think the fact that so many Jewish organizations in the community wanted to co-sponsor speaks for itself.
And so what are those conversations like? What are you hearing from people?
I think the title of his book is really illustrative. Somehow the Jews don’t count. You have the obvious anti-Semitism on the right, which is pretty clear and easy to spot. It’s much more nuanced and complicated on the left. It’s like when my kids do something wrong and then I have to point it out to them. I end up being the bad guy for pointing out the thing that they’re doing wrong. When we have to point out that something isn’t right, it comes across as we’re whining or that we’re, you know, not playing along by the rules.
I have an increasing number of people reaching out to me to say, you know, there's this really weird anti-Semitic thing that happened. That is happening on all sorts of fronts these days. One person said anti-Semitism on the right is like a wildfire or a hurricane. Anti-Semitism on the left is more like global warming. It’s something that happens slowly. You can’t always see it when it’s happening until it’s really starting to spiral out of control.
One person said anti-Semitism on the right is like a wildfire or a hurricane. Anti-Semitism on the left is more like global warming. It’s something that happens slowly. You can’t always see it when it’s happening until it’s really starting to spiral out of control.
I think the other thing that I see happening is this creeping of critique of Israel being brought into any conversation about anti-Semitism, regardless of whether Israel is part of the conversation. Then the next thing you know, we’re defending our position or non-position. Israel is somehow part of the mix. And then we’re not talking about the event that happened at all. We’re talking about something totally different. Those are the types of things that are happening at an increasing rate. Sometimes it’s very subtle and it’s not clear if it’s conscious or it’s not conscious.
Much of the Jewish community has been on the liberal side of the spectrum for decades, and in the past maybe 10 years, I’ve noticed more Jews on the right saying, “The left is going to do this. This is what’s coming.” And everyone was just dismissing it. It’s a little tough, because most liberal Jews don’t want to be conservative. They don’t want to switch parties, but they’re sort of having a crisis. And it’s like, was this happening all along and we didn’t notice it?
I think we as a community operated under a series of assumptions. We never bothered to test those assumptions. And then as the dynamics changed and those assumptions started to be brought to light, we started to realize that the assumptions were wrong. Anti-Semitism has been around forever. This isn’t something new. I think it had been more theoretical on some levels for many people up until recently. We’ve encountered it in sort of subtle ways, but it wasn’t happening on the scale in which it’s happening now. It’s no longer this sort of weird theoretical thing. It starts to feel like something very significant, like the plates are shifting.
I think we as a community operated under a series of assumptions. We never bothered to test those assumptions. And then as the dynamics changed and those assumptions started to be brought to light, we started to realize that the assumptions were wrong.
So tell me about your decision to bring David Baddiel into conversation. There are a lot of other people who talk about anti-Semitism. Why him?
Last winter when the hostage event happened, in Colleyville, Texas, I was really shocked by the lack of support. Nobody reached out. And then I asked a bunch of my colleagues, Hey, did anybody reach out to you nationally and locally? And everybody said, no, nobody reached out. Where were our allies? Where were our friends? Where were these folks? So I wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times on that. I had more of a response to that than anything I’ve ever written. Somebody gave me his book and said, oh, you should read this.
I read the book, and I was like, he put words to what it was that I was trying to communicate, except much better. That’s the conversation we need to start having, right? We're not talking about this. We’re not really talking about the intergenerational challenges that are associated with how this stuff is manifesting. And how much more complicated it is for some people than others. And so I think that it was just wanting to spark a bigger communal conversation about something. As is always the case, when you start trying to spark a conversation, you never know where that conversation is going to go. I’ve heard from some people who can’t believe that I’m bringing him from one side of the spectrum, and I’ve heard from people on another side of the spectrum saying, I can’t believe you’re bringing him. And then I've heard from people in the middle saying, what are you doing bringing this guy? That's just the nature of our community. Someone is always going to feel alienated. But on the lines of what JFS does, we must start having conversations as a community on all sorts of things that we are just not talking about.
Is there a part of the book that speaks to you, in particular?
There are so many things in there. I think the Sacred Circle, as he describes it, in terms of who’s in and who’s out. I read an article about Roald Dahl, the beloved children’s author who was a rabid anti-Semite. And the fact that there’s Roald Dahl Day in Great Britain—if it was anything about another minority populations, the guy would be canceled.
There are certain things that are acceptable when done to Jews that are just simply not acceptable. I see that happening time and time and time again. I got asked to participate in a panel about The Merchant of Venice. They wanted to have a panel of Jewish speakers, because that’s the way they’re going to address the inherent, blistering anti-Semitism in the play. They did it on the last day. Everybody who’s not Jewish leaves. So you are basically talking to the Jews, and my thought is, you would just never do this play if this were any other minority population, but it’s the Jews, so it’s okay. And it’s Shakespeare, so it’s okay. Baddiel really brings that to the foreground, and he shines a light on it and he doesn’t walk away from it. Whereas I think a lot of Jewish people, certainly Jewish people who align more on the left, don't want to rock the boat and they don’t want to say the uncomfortable truths.
I don’t think we notice it consciously, but there’s a framing going on. Jews are in that white power paradigm. The left has become much more about power and oppression. It’s like the whole party has embraced a different ideology. And in that shift, Jews who have been historic minorities, have been placed on the top end of the seesaw. It’s like we’re kind of stuck because there’s no ability to push back. This is where language comes in. I see frequently on the far left, people saying “right-wing, conservative Zionists.” But who are we talking about? They are just using that as code for Jews, because what is a Zionist? You’re not using the original definition of Zionist. And you don’t know how anybody votes. It’s like we’re being framed.
I totally agree with you. A really close friend of mine said, the left gives intellectual cover for the right. I think it’s really true. I’m a pretty strong progressive person. I work at a social service agency and have taken pretty significant stands on things which would not be considered conservative by any stretch of the imagination. And I think that what’s become very complicated is the binary nature and the absolute lack of nuance that exists in our discourse. It’s odd to me that in a world where we talk so much about the non-binary nature of things, that there are certain things that are incredibly binary as it relates to some of these very topics.
I don’t live in a world of black and white. The world is gray. And if we can’t learn to think in terms of how to make decisions and learn about nuance and complexity, what are we doing? I mean, it all falls apart. It’s great for a sound bite or it’s great for a tweet or it’s great to rally the troops, but when you actually start looking into it, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s all about trying to engage in complexity and not settling for simplicity.
I don’t understand this binary nature of things either. In the name of progress and deconstructing race and gender, we’re actually reinforcing these binaries. And if you say, hey, actually I don’t want to think about the world that way, you’re thrown off a cliff for wrongthink.
I also don't think everything is a harm. Feeling uncomfortable is not violence. That’s how you get to truth. I fundamentally believe that the only path through this is relationships, deep relationships over time. You can’t build relationships if you don’t feel safe. We talk about needing to bring our authentic selves into places, but yet we’re only supposed to bring part of our authentic self. Just to be clear, I would say if you’re black, you’re only supposed to bring part of your black self. If you’re gay, you’re only supposed to bring part of your gay self. I don’t think that’s unique to Jews. I think it’s across all cultures. But I think it is also true for Jews, right? I think Jews have to cover. The survival mechanism that I feel like I was taught, whether consciously or unconsciously by the community I was raised in, was essentially just keep your mouth shut, stay quiet, don't make waves. You should be happy to be here. And I think for some of us, that’s still how we operate. I don’t want to be making big proclamations about things I don't want to be fighting about. I recognize we live in a dominant Christian society. That’s just the reality. Judaism isn’t just a religion. People don't know what we are. And we clearly have not done a great job of talking about that.
The survival mechanism that I feel like I was taught, whether consciously or unconsciously by the community I was raised in, was essentially just keep your mouth shut, stay quiet, don't make waves. You should be happy to be here. And I think for some of us, that’s still how we operate.
I want us to be able to start talking about this, and I want parents to be able to start talking to their kids about it. And I want grandparents to be talking to their grandkids about it. And I need to talk about it with people in our own community. We’re not having any kind of meaningful conversations because everyone is either in an aggressive stance or a defensive crouch. I’m hoping, back to your original question, that by bringing David Baddiel and having this conversation, we’ll at least be able to start talking about it.
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Linda, your experiences sound painful. You are not alone - many people have felt alienated by the way they were treated or not included or not considered. At the same time, we do have a lot of resources. JFS was created to help poor Jews and immigrants, and they still run a kosher food bank and have lots of workshops and counseling, etc. The Orthodox community runs an informal, very under-the-radar assistance network. I think there's even (or was) a Jewish professional development network. Two things can be true at the same time - our community can be very helpful and supportive, and we can feel alienated and disrespected too.
The door is still open to anyone who wants to stand up for me. Let's see what kind of community and I have around me as an educated, ethical and qualified professional deserving of respect.