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‘Jews don’t count?’: the debate about racism and anti-Semitism

FBI criticised for claiming synagogue attack ‘not specifically related to the Jewish community’

The FBI has sparked widespread anger by claiming that a gunman who held a rabbi and three other people hostage at a Texas synagogue was not “specifically” targeting the Jewish community. 

In a statement after suspect Malik Faisal Akram was shot dead following an 11-hour stand-off at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville on Saturday, FBI Dallas Field Office boss Matthew Desarno said the attacker had been “singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community”.

Akram, a British national, “was calling for the release of terrorist Aafia Siddiqqui from a prison in nearby Fort Worth”, the Daily Mail reported. But critics said that “a sympathiser of an Islamist extremist choosing to hold a synagogue hostage was not a coincidence”, the paper added.

The timing of the attack, during the congregation’s Shabbat service, was “clearly intentional”, said The Jerusalem Post, which described the FBI claims as “absurd”.

American Jewish Committee representative Avi Mayer tweeted that there would “attempts” to make the attack “about everything under the sun – except anti-Semitism”. “Don’t let it happen,” Mayer wrote, adding: “This was an act of anti-Semitism, plain and simple.”

Jews not ‘real minority’?

Writer and comedian David Baddiel also tweeted criticisms of the FBI statement, asking whether the US security agency would have taken a similar stance “if it was another minority community centre or place of worship”.

Baddiel published a book last year, Jews Don't Count, that explored if and why racism directed towards Jewish people may be treated differently from other hate crimes. 

David Baddiel

Comedian and novelist David Baddiel

David Levenson/Getty Images

Described by published HarperCollins as a book about “how identity politics failed one particular identity”, the bestseller argues that Jews are not viewed as a “real minority” by people who consider themselves to be “on the right side of history” in “fighting the good fight against homophobia, disablism, transphobia and, particularly, racism”.

Baddiel points to examples including the lack of outcry when work by artists accused of expressing anti-Semitic views, such as Roald Dahl, T.S. Eliot and Alice Walker, are given a platform. 

Double standards

US novelist Walker, author of The Color Purple, “has flirted with anti-Semitism for years”, according to Vox. Critics have pointed to her poem It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud, published on her website in 2017, and her endorsement of an anti-Jewish book by conspiracy theorist David Icke.

Yet in what Baddiel cites as a gross double standard, actor Seyi Omooba was axed from a West End adaptation of The Color Purple after being accused of posting homophobic messages on Facebook, but the “musical went ahead” despite the ongoing controversy surrounding Walker.

Baddiel also shines a spotlight on high-profile figures who dismissed the concerns of Jewish people over allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. A “tiny part of me died” when actor Robert Lindsay tweeted regret about Corbyn’s departure in October 2020, Baddiel wrote.

Echoing that sentiment, the Financial Times’ Robert Shrimsley asked: “How, with the Holocaust still a living memory, do so many on the Left feel content to dismiss the fears of one of the most persecuted peoples in history?” 

‘Jewface’ row

Baddiel points to the portrayal of Jewish characters in films and on TV as further proof of how “Jews don’t count”. A string of non-Jewish actors have been cast in notably Jewish roles – a term that Baddiel describes as “Jewface” – including Gary Oldman playing screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in Mank, and Kathryn Hahn portraying Joan Rivers in upcoming series The Comeback Girl.

But while support is growing for gay roles to be reserved for gay actors, for example, Maureen Lipman faced a fierce backlash after telling The Jewish Chronicle that she was uncomfortable abou Helen Mirren, who is not Jewish, playing Israeli leader Golda Meir in forthcoming film Golda.

Maureen Lipman with her DBE

Maureen Lipman after being appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to charity, entertainment and the arts in October 2021

Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images

In a recent article for The Guardian, Baddiel wrote: “My position on this lack of parity is: whether you want parity or not, it’s worth pointing out.”

Baddiel continued that “yes, actors should be allowed to act. But that isn’t the world we or casting directors live in now, and the question then has to be asked: why should things be different for Jews?”

‘Unconscious bias’

Anti-Semitic bias became a hot topic in the world of theatre last year, after a play at the Royal Court came under fire over the apparently Jewish name of a manipulative tycoon character said to be based on Elon Musk.

“Apparently [the Royal Court] claim they didn’t realise ‘Hershel Fink’ was a Jewish name,” tweeted Baddiel. “Hmm,” he added, “somehow it just sounded so right for a world-conquering billionaire”.

Following an outcry, the theatre changed the character’s name in the play, Rare Earth Mettle, and acknowledged that giving him such an obviously Jewish name was “an example of unconscious bias”. Baddiel described the incident as a “very instructive Jews don’t count episode”.

‘Misunderstanding of Jewishness’

Baddiel has various theories why hate crimes against Jewish people may be perceived differently from other forms of racism. He suggests that one possible reason is that majority of Jews identify as white and that in the eyes of many progressives, white people “cannot suffer racism”.

Another theory is that that stereotyping of Jews as rich capitalists over centuries has been so powerful that they “are not seen as underprivileged or marginalised”, said Shrimsley in the Financial Times.

Baddiel has also pointed to  “the misunderstanding of Jewishness as a religion rather than an ethnicity”. But “as far as racism goes”, he explained in an article for The Times last year, religion is “irrelevant”.

“I’m an atheist, but I think saying that would not have got me any free passes out of Auschwitz,” he wrote.

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