Tell us a little bit about what we can expect to see in the documentary?
The documentary is an examination of a thesis I’ve got – a polemic of the Jews and Jewish identity and the issue of anti-Semitism being low down in what you might call the identity politics conversation. This is partly why I wanted to do it on Channel 4, which I would say, is the most radical of the broadcasters, a channel that you’d imagine is watched by people who really care about minorities, representation, and inclusion. It’s a woke channel, the wokest of all the channels, and my polemic is directed towards those people because my feeling is that Jews have been dialled down in the mix of that conversation, and that’s the space where that conversation is going on. There is a lot of quite complicated racism that is expressed towards Jews. Antisemitism is difficult to spot and sometimes it happens unconsciously or unintentionally and that is what the Jews Don’t Count phenomenon is. It’s about Jews not being mentioned and not being included when people talk about visibility. A good example of this, which isn’t in the documentary, is when you’re online, you’ll see a lot of visibility months – a lot of Pride marches, a lot of Days. Where’s the Jewish visibility month, the Jewish history month, the Jewish Pride day? They’re not there, those things don’t exist, and why is that? And that is because we are a minority who has, over centuries, faced a certainly equivalent violence and discrimination as any other minority, and historically worse because it goes back so long. Yet we seem to be continually not quite accepted at the table of what’s happening at the moment, which is that the majority culture correctly is paying more attention to minorities, is more cautious around minorities, more worried about minorities, but seemingly less so about Jews, and that’s what it’s about. The documentary features some of me talking about the subject, showing examples of it, and some of it is me speaking to some very big stars that I’m very proud feature in the documentary. They include David Schwimmer, Sarah Silverman, Miriam Margolyes, Stephen Fry, Rachel Riley – all sorts of people – thinkers, writers, actors – mainly Jews. I’ve gone for mainly Jews because that’s one of the things I want to do, create a sort of world in which Jews are presented as a real minority with real issues and a real identity. That’s what you would see I think, if this was any other minority that we were talking about, it would be mainly that minority giving you their lived experience.
When you were writing the book, did you have making a documentary in mind?
No, absolutely not. Channel 4 came to me about six months after the book came out and said, have you thought about doing this as a documentary? The book was written as a polemic and I know I’m interested in talking about whatever I want to talk about on many different mediums so in other documentaries I’ve done, they have sprung from things I’ve written elsewhere so I guess that’s often in the air. But no, I didn’t particularly. Also, it’s slightly different from some of the other documentaries I’ve done in that, there, I’ve asked questions and gone on what in TV tends to be called a journey (in David’s BBC Two documentary, he asked what social media is doing to us) whereas this is a bit more of a polemic in that I know I have my own opinion about what’s going on here. And I’m trying to explain that to the viewers, getting other people’s opinions on the same subject, rather than it being me going on a journey to find something out. I’m trying to express something that, as far as my own opinion goes, I already know. So it’s kind of a hybrid of a YouTube explainer and a more conventional talking heads documentary – many things are going on in it, but it seems to hang together okay.
There is a plethora of excellent talking heads featured in the programme. Is there anyone you particularly would have loved to have spoken to – alive or dead?
Dead or alive? Simon Wiesenthal. I mean, no, not really because the cast of the programme is a version of what I would want. So arguably, I wouldn’t have minded speaking to Larry David because I think he is someone who is demonstrably Jewish in the way he carries himself and Curb Your Enthusiasm is a very Jewish show. I’d quite like to talk to him and he’s a big hero of mine but at the end of the day, Sarah Silverman is a brilliant comedian and is more actively interested in the subject of how you combat antisemitism in progressive spaces, and I don’t think Larry would be very interested in that. So in terms of saying that, he comes to mind because I love Larry David, but he probably wouldn’t be exactly right for this documentary. I’m very happy with the people we’ve got.
As a Jewish atheist, how do other Jews view you? Do you get criticism and what form does it take?
Well of course you get criticism. You get criticism when you make any kind of statement, particularly if you make controversial statements or statements about controversial subjects like racism and antisemitism, especially now where there are a thousand different voices always available for you on your computer. So of course you get criticism, and with Jews – the famous thing is you know, when people talk about Jews controlling the world or all thinking with one voice is completely wrong because Jews couldn’t put three of them in one room without having 15 different opinions – that’s well known about Jews. In general, the response from Jewish people has been really great because it feels to me that with the book, and hopefully now with the documentary, this is something a lot of Jews have felt. Sarah Silverman says it’s like there was something in the air that a lot of Jews could sense, but I’ve made it tangible. Actually historically a lot of Jews, even though there’s a notion of Jews being quite conservative, the truth is a lot of Jews have been very active over the years in political causes, have been allies to other minorities or in other political spheres. And I know from the way they’ve spoken to me and sent me letters, that they have felt for a long time, but perhaps not articulated it, that they’ve been felt left out of that conversation as regards their own experiences and their own identity. So what I get every day is another Jewish person coming out and saying thank you for writing the book because it articulates what we knew was there, but no one had put it down before. Having said that, of course there are some Jews that don’t like it or sometimes have a go at me and start saying ‘well, how did you become the spokesperson for all British Jews?’ Of course that isn’t what I am. I wrote a book about my feelings and some Jews, quite a lot of Jews, have agreed with it but that doesn’t make me the spokesperson and lots of Jews will think differently. So I get it from both of the sides. For example: both the book and the documentary are deliberately noncommittal about Israel and say I don’t think it’s incumbent on non-Israeli Jews to have an opinion about Israel, so I don’t really have an opinion about Israel, because I don’t want the conversation about antisemitism to just be about Israel. Some Jews hate that and say no, no, you have to include Israel, anti-Zionism is antisemitism and all that stuff, so I get that. Then on the other side, I get some very left wing Jews who are just angry because they think my own approach is anti-Corbyn or whatever. It isn’t really. This whole thing goes back centuries. But in the middle, most Jews seems to be quite keen that I’ve done this.
Has anyone presented an argument to you that opposes your views, but you were quite compelled by?
No one has ever said this is why Jews shouldn’t count. People are quite keen to tell me that Jews do count in one way or another, and although it doesn’t change my opinion, the argument I listen to is that sometimes people will say, well all minorities feel this, all minorities feel they are not championed enough, not understood enough and saying that Jews particularly don’t count is wrong. I get that and I can’t speak for other minorities but what I would say is two things – one, I am not in any way trying to throw any other minority and their struggle under the bus by highlighting this. In my opinion, there should be an unbounded space to talk about racism and discrimination, and me raising my hand and saying Jews should be in that conversation is not trying to push anyone else out of it at all. The second point is, what I’m trying to do is to be specific about the specific types of racism and neglects of the issues I think Jews have and that’s different from all minorities. I’m not trying to suggest that all racism is the same. I’m trying to isolate and outline that this is what Jews tend to experience in that conversation about identity and inclusion and it might be different from what other minorities have, and indeed all racisms are quite different. It’s absolutely not the case that antisemitism is exactly the same, it’s definitely not. Every minority has a different type of discrimination that they face but what I’m saying is all minorities should be included in the conversation and I sometimes feel Jews aren’t.
What do you think would need to change in society to be able to say that Jews Do Count?
Well okay, so the first answer to that is not an answer which is to say I am not creating a manifesto. My point is not to say this is how things should change, it’s to say this is how I see things as they are, this is my breakdown of how I think things are, now let’s talk about it. Sometimes people say to me about the book, oh do you want every tiny little offence against Jews to be involved in massive cancellations blah blah blah. Not really. That’s not what the book is about, it’s not about what should happen, it’s about what is happening. I don’t think that sort of sense, that very trigger offence that can surround and often not from the minority itself, but from the people who feel they are the guardians of morality, that sort of very trigger offence will ever quite happen for Jews. And maybe Jews don’t want it to because Jews, I think, have a fairly ironic approach to it all. But I think things have shifted and in all honesty, I think the book is part of that. I think things like the Royal Court Theatre thing, where they were called out for lazily giving an unscrupulous billionaire character a very Jewish name, and then being forced to think about it and change it, I don’t know if that would have happened three or four years ago and some of the discussion around it coalesced around the hashtag Jews Don’t Count. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that because some people might say, well, you know, art has to be allowed to just flourish and not be under the threat of that happening to it, the fact is, it happens elsewhere and it’s not happening for Jews and the documentary talks about why that is. So I’m glad the conversation is happening for Jews but where it goes, I don’t exactly know, and I don’t exactly think that’s my point to know where it should end up.
In the documentary, you and your brother Ivor sit in the stands at Chelsea and discuss antisemitic chanting that has happened at football for years now. Do you think people who chant the word Yid aren’t aware of the meaning of it or what it stands for?
One of the things about the chanting of the Y word is that when me and my brother first made a film about it in 2011, and brought it up, the first response was a really interesting one, a very offensive one but a very interesting one, which is people saying but it’s nothing to do with Jews, they just mean Spurs fans, it’s just football fans, which is a weird form of something that wouldn’t have been around them which is cultural appropriation. It’s like saying, well I know it sort of means Jews and I know it’s a hate word for Jews, but as a Spurs fan said to me on Twitter at the time, we own it now, it’s our word. I think okay, who gave you permission to do that because I promise you, hate words for other minorities are not allowed to be owned by people who are not members of that minority. But that’s the argument you’ll get is they imagine the word has been emptied of Jewish hate identification and it’s just about football, but that should be up to Jews. As a Jew, I can tell you, that’s not how it feels. It feels that when a whole crowd is chanting ‘we hate the Yids’ as happens at Chelsea, they might think they’re talking about Spurs fans, I feel as a Jew, very uncomfortable. It’s incredibly offensive to Jews that someone would say, well it doesn’t mean you anyway. That’s not your decision to make. I think that’s changing, and there’s definitely less chanting the Y word which used to be absolutely par for the course at Chelsea, not just when we played Spurs, but when we played anyone at all. It’s less now but it’s still there. Just this morning, someone sent me on Twitter a picture of a t-shirt that said Yid Army and said what do you think about this – and it was a proper t-shirt that had been printed by someone.
You talk to several people including your niece and Sarah Silverman about Jewish people having changed names to disguise their identity - are you ever concerned that will happen again?
It still happens, I mean it certainly still happens in showbusiness. People are still not that comfortable with very Jewish names. In terms of the fear, I don’t like operating from fear in general. Sometimes people will say to me about Israel, but don’t you think Israel’s a sanctuary for Jews and that’s why it’s great? I kind of think like, well I don’t think in the fight against antisemitism, that we should be thinking in terms of where we can run to, we should be thinking in terms of how we change antisemitism rather than oh there’s no way we can fight it so at least we’ve got this place to run to. As regards the name thing, my name is kind of complicated in that because I’m well known, people know I’m Jewish now but it’s not obviously a Jewish name although some people do think it is because there are a lot of very orthodox Jews called Baddiel but it’s not like Goldberg, so I don’t know. I think there is still a sense in which a Jewish name to most ordinary white Christian people sounds a bit different and odd. When a white Christian person hears you’re called Mr Feigelstein, they do instantly think you’re Jewish and do make assumptions from it. I think that is the case.
So Jason Lee. You’ve apologised to him previously in print, online and on TV on several occasions but this is the first time you meet face to face.
Because I deal with it early on in the programme and talk about how a similar thing happened to me on Bo Selecta when he portrayed me as a grotesque cartoon of a Jew, and the difference in the way that was perceived, I felt I should return to it towards the end of the programme, because I wanted to do more than just engage with it intellectually. I wanted to engage with it on a human level - talk to Jason, to try and restore what needs to be restored in any conversation really about racism, discrimination and about people not being treated properly which is to restore a human element to it, to remember we’re always talking about human beings here, not cartoons. That’s something which I forgot, me and Frank Skinner forgot too much when we did those sketches about Jason Lee. So considering that Jason has said in the intervening years that he wanted us to come and talk to him about it, I felt here was an opportunity. I mean I should have done it before – of course - but the opportunity was there as part of this project because I’m making a film about discrimination and racism. And so I decided to do that, and it was difficult and uncomfortable for me, and he didn’t let me off in any way, but it was in the end a good conversation, a constructive conversation. I thought it was very beautiful that at the end of it, he started talking about how he would like to be a Jewish ally and if there is antisemitism in football, which obviously the documentary shows that there is, that he would want to do something about that and totally be behind fighting it. I thought that was fantastic.
It came about via a complicated but actually rather constructive series of communications where I said, let’s meet Jason Lee (who is now a diversity executive for the PFA) and at the same time, he’s doing a podcast about diversity and antiracism in sport, and he said, okay, come on the podcast. For anyone who’s interested, after the documentary airs, there will be a much longer conversation available on his podcast. Absolute Lee. I know from my Twitter feed that there will always be people who’ll want to weaponise that situation and this won’t be enough for them, and they’ll still be saying it’s not right, it’s not how it should be, this isn’t a good enough apology, whatever, but after we’d done all the filming where we’d had this very long and very difficult conversation, and this isn’t on camera, as I left, I went up to him again and said, look once more, I’m really sorry, and thanks for letting me come and speak to you. And he said it’s done now, meaning you don’t have to say this anymore, and shook my hand, and that’s what matters.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the documentary?
As ever, what I really want to do is start a conversation about this. As far as I can make out, both with the book, and with the few people who have already seen the documentary, what it does is it doesn’t just tell you what you already know. Sometimes television does that, especially sometimes right on and politically correct television, it tends to tell those people, that they are right about the world and that everything should change in the way they want it to change. I don’t think this does, I think this presents people with arguments they might not have heard before and makes them think, oh I didn’t know that, or I didn’t think of it like that and that’s what I want. Hopefully people watching will find it challenging and interesting and it will then lead to a further conversation.
The first episode of AbsoluteLee with David Baddiel will be available on all podcast platforms from 10pm on Monday 21st November https://www.youtube.com/@absoluteleepodcast