There are many ways of being Jewish (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

February 18, 2021   5 mins

It’s only recently that I came across the idea of “Schrödinger’s whites”. This is the notion that Jews are considered to be white or non-white depending on the political perspective of the viewer. To those on the murkier reaches of the far-Right, Jews are not white; indeed their non-whiteness is considered a threat to the purity of whiteness. But to those on the progressive Left, Jews are often considered archetypally white — powerful, privileged, wealthy. Whether you see a Jewish person as white or BAME has more to do with you than it does with them. It’s a matter of perspective.

Which brings me to a question about my youngest son. At eighteen months, he has an extraordinary crop of luminous golden hair. His cheeks are pink. He comes from a comfortably middle-class family, complete with all the advantages of a household full of books and two parents with PhD’s. The only signals that give away the fact that he’s not unquestionably a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) are the Hebrew words that he uses to describe the four corners of his world. Mummy is “ima”. Home is “bayit”. Milk is “halavi”. Sleep is “lishon”.

So where does he fit in with the “progressive” view of whiteness? Is he BAME?

David Baddiel’s new book, Jews Don’t Count, is a broadside against the widespread progressive assumption that Jews don’t fit in with the “minority ethnic” framework of today’s identity politics. In a culture where you can receive considerable censure for misgendering a transgender person, the refusal to count Jews as belonging to an ethnic minority is widely unnoticed.

Baddiel opens with an example from a recent book review in The Observer, which reprimands the narrator for operating from a “white-male-cis-het perspective”. Yet the character in question is called B Rosenberg. He wears a tie that proclaims “100% Kosher”. People shout things like “Fuck you, Hebrew” at him. It cannot be that the reviewer failed to notice any of this. Nonetheless, the book is still apparently written from the perspective of “white-male-cis-het” privilege.

I sat in my church and, in one sitting, read Baddiel list example after example of this sort of blindness, my indignation rising with his. Back in 2019, for example, Sajid Javid was widely hailed as the first BAME Chancellor of the Exchequer, totally ignoring — and thinking it irrelevant — that Nigel Lawson had been appointed to that role back in 1983, his paternal grandfather having changed the family name from Leibson to Lawson in 1925 (as my family changed it from Friedeberg in 1917). Likewise in 2017, progressives were up in arms that not a single BAME person was on the list of the BBC’s highest paid broadcasters — even though it included Vanessa Feltz and Claudia Winkleman. Apparently, Jews don’t count.

Part of the issue here is that Jews are widely perceived to be wealthy and powerful, and so not so deserving of the attention of anti-racists. They seem to forget, of course, that it is also one of those standard anti-Semitic tropes beloved of the racist far Right. It also fails to explain why my son’s prosperous ancestors, who ran a factory in Lodz (my side) and were well-heeled doctors in Lvov (my wife’s), were still dispatched by the Nazis to the camps to be murdered.

The church also rightly comes in for criticism. In July of last year, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the current Archbishop of York declared that “Jesus was a black man”. Now it is indeed extremely important that our perception of the historical Jesus is reclaimed from those who have depicted him as fair and white. He was very probably dark skinned. But nowhere in the ensuing discussion was the most obvious point about his ethnicity even touched upon: Jesus was Jewish. Perhaps this was just assumed. But given that the church has, since the earliest of times, sought to distance itself from the Jewishness of Jesus, I am not convinced.

And it is here that Baddiel skates over an important issue. For while he is very clear that, as an atheist, he has little use for religion as a category through which to understand Jewishness, it’s a connection which simply can’t be ignored.

Yet this is becoming increasingly common. In March last year, for example, a report published by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research recommended: “For the purposes of representation we should adopt an inclusive definition of the Jewish people and present ourselves as an ethnic minority.” In response, The Independent ran an article — under the headline “British Jews are urged to ‘rebrand’ as ethnic minority” — that offered the following observation: “After 5,000 years of believing they are God’s chosen people, a high-powered committee of British Jews has ruled that being Jewish has little to do with religion.”

There was so much wrong with the article that I find it hard to know where to begin. The idea that Jews were “rebranding” themselves as an ethnic minority suggests that it was a duplicitous ploy, something invented to gain some sort of advantage. It’s a take on Jews being shifty.

But it also misunderstands the nature of religion itself, as well as the origins of the very concept of Jewishness. As the best scholarship on this issue makes clear — see Shaye Cohen’s masterful The Beginnings of Jewishness — before the second century BCE it makes little sense to talk of “Jewishness” but rather of “Judeanness”; those who come from Judea.

The Greek word Ioudaioi originally referred to the ethnos of Judeans in Judea. In other words, the idea of Jewishness, of being a Jew, begins not with something we might now call “religion” or “belief” but in ethno-geography. Indeed, it might even be said that the very idea of belief as constituting the essence of a religion is an originally Christian idea.

Nonetheless, by about the first century BCE, the idea of Jewishness became rooted in religion and included everyone who worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple, whatever their ethnic or geographical origins. In other words, being Jewish came to be seen in various terms: ethnic, geographical and, most importantly, religious.

We tend to separate out these categories in ways that did not exist in the ancient world. So Baddiel’s desire to understand being Jewish as something ethnic shouldn’t be seen as some new invention, nor even a response to the renewed focus on the status of ethnic minorities in the light of Black Lives Matter. But that doesn’t mean it should become the only way to isolate Jewishness.

After all, the trouble with associating being Jewish exclusively with ethnicity also ignores the generally accepted Rabbinic law that the child of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father are not half-Jews but fully Jewish. Jewish law does not have any equivalent to being mixed-race. The Rabbis may not get to define Jewishness exclusively. But neither can they be ignored.

I also wish Baddiel had more to say about the discrimination Jews experience as followers of God in a world increasingly suspicious of belief. And I worry about Baddiel’s attitude towards Israel. Baddiel is, of course, absolutely correct to highlight the ways in which all Jews are often held responsible for the politics of the Israeli government in ways that other people are never held responsible for theirs.

But I do get a little bit twitchy when he writes: “Israelis aren’t very Jewish anyway, as far as my relationship with Jewishness is concerned.” Too macho, too ripped and aggressive and confident. As one of the characters in a film he wrote puts it: “Jews without angst, without guilt. So not really Jews at all”.

I admit it: I laughed. And, being married to an Israeli myself, I do recognise that he is on to something about the very different ways people are Jewish in Israel and in Britain. In fact, Israel has to be one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world; with Arab Jews and originally European Jews, Ethiopian Jews and so on. But I do feel that there is an absence of solidarity here — not least because Baddiel acknowledges that being “being white” has become a euphemism for “being safe”.

And that, after all, is why my little lad is “minority ethic”, notwithstanding his appearance. The Nazis produced a nasty little book called The Poisonous Mushroom, explaining to children that while some mushrooms may look edible, they can be, despite their deceptive looks, poisonous. Given the prevalence of this type of thinking, “safe”, for my little boy, will always also mean Israel. That indeed is the very purpose of its existence.

The report published by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research was called “A Community of Communities”. It’s a fitting title; there are various ways in which Jewish identity is expressed — secular and religious, national and international. Baddiel rightly highlights one particular aspect of this surprisingly fluid identity. But there are other ways of being Jewish. And Jews have been made to pay for all of them.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.