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David Baddiel: ‘I want to be seen as not just Big Mister Jew’

Mark Dapin
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David Baddiel: 'I want to be seen as not just Big Mister Jew'

Published: 22 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The British comedian wants to position Jews in contemporary conversations about minorities by talking about more than Bradley Cooper's nose.

British author, comedian, TV presenter and – somehow, these days – political activist David Baddiel is caught in a surreal snare of his own design.

A few days before Baddiel arrives in Australia to speak at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, a teaser trailer emerges of the Italian/Irish-American Catholic actor Bradley Cooper wearing a monumental (in fact, pyramidal) prosthetic nose to play the Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein in the Bernstein biopic, Maestro.   

“One of the problems with being me is that I am the go-to person in Britain – and, a little bit, in the world now – for things like the Bradley Cooper nose,” says Baddiel, at the other end of a Zoom call to his home in North London.

“I’ve had about 27 different news outlets wanting me to write about it and I am saying, ‘I’m not doing this.’ Because I’ve done it all before: when Golda Meir was portrayed by Helen Mirren with a big nose, I did a big article for The Guardian, I went on the radio. I can’t do this every time! Partly because I want to be seen as not just Big Mister Jew, but also because I don’t like repeating myself.”

The reason Baddiel might be perceived as the UK’s “Big Mister Jew” is his consistent and courageous public identification with his Jewish heritage, even though he is a self-proclaimed atheist with no political or emotional affinity to the state of Israel.  

Baddiel stands up and shouts out, “I am a Jew! Do you have a problem with that?”

And the resounding chorus he hears in reply is, “Yessss! Shut up!”

It particularly grates on him that much of the choir comprises people who would normally identify as "anti-racists".

“Twats will say to me, ‘antisemitism is not racism, because Jews aren’t a race’,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether anthropologically or scientifically Jews are a race. The fact is, throughout history we have been racialised. Racism has been enacted against us.”

Jews Don’t Count is a candid polemic that largely concerns the refusal of 'progressives' to accept Jews as a sometimes-persecuted minority group.

For the past 27 years, while pursuing an extremely successful career in TV comedy, Baddiel has published a stream of generally well-received adult novels and children’s books – but his best-known piece of writing remains his contribution to lyrics of the English football anthem for the 1996 UEFA European Championship, Three Lions.

Then in 2021 came Jews Don’t Count, a thoughtful, candid, serious (if occasionally flippant) polemic that largely concerns the refusal of “progressives” to accept Jews – who were, within living memory, the victims of the worst genocide in world history – as a sometimes-persecuted minority group.

It’s that book, and a documentary movie of the same name, that has firmly established Baddiel as the UK’s Big Mister Jew – with all the onerous and amorphous responsibilities that such a role entails.

Big Mister Jew, whose mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, has to constantly make statements such as: “Anti-Semitism is racism, it’s not religious intolerance. Because I’m an atheist and the Gestapo would kill me tomorrow. And my great-uncle Arno was an atheist, and he died in the Warsaw ghetto. Nazis didn’t ask people whether they kept kosher.”

David Baddiel and David Schwimmer in New York on David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count (Channel 4)
David Baddiel and David Schwimmer in New York on David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count (Channel 4)

This should not need to be said – particularly at a time when “everyone’s getting more and more intense and worried, and wants to monitor how we think about minorities, and how we think about discrimination and racism”.

But it does, because, as Baddiel puts it, “Somehow or other, Jews aren’t in that conversation. And every time you see it happen – which is, like, every day – you think something is more wrong.

All minorities are thought of by racists as alien – only Jews are thought of as powerful and privileged and being in control of the world.”

Many right-wing Zionists equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Many left-wing anti-Zionists believe – like the occasionally persuasive but perpetually deluded lifelong student revolutionary Tariq Ali – that there would be no antisemitism if there were no Israel (neglecting more than two-and-a-half millennia of history in which Israel did not exist while antisemitism did).

Israel is neither the project nor the responsibility of every Jew on the planet, and Baddiel has said it can be antisemitic even to expect a Jew to hold a strong opinion on Israel.

“This is not something which is imposed on any other minority with a relationship to some other country miles away,” he says. “No Muslim is ever asked: ‘Before you talk about Islamophobia, what do you think about what’s happening in Iran?’ No-one does it – especially not someone who thinks of themselves as ‘anti-racist’ – but it happens to Jews like a reflex.”

In Jews Don’t Count, Baddiel recounts example after example of the wildly insensitive, boundlessly ignorant interventions of “progressive” celebrities from Whoopi Goldberg, who claimed that the Holocaust was not about race, to John Cusack, who retweeted a viscerally antisemitic Neo-Nazi meme, and who all have the same “blind spot” about the sufferings of the same minority.

"Casting directors now don’t cast minorities except with an actor who is part of that minority except for Jews: Oppenheimer, Maestro, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel."

Nevertheless, Big Mister Jew knows that the next week or so of his life is going to be all about prosthetic noses. He says (slightly reluctantly), “If you talk about Jews being played by non-Jewish actors – Jews not being within the strictures of authenticity casting – you get people saying, ‘Oh, fuck off – actors should be allowed to act.’ But that is not the world we live in. A long time ago, white people were no longer allowed to play black or brown people, but beyond that, now non-deaf actors can’t play deaf people.

“Casting directors now don’t cast minorities except with an actor who is part of that minority – because they’re too worried about backlash – except for Jews: Jews in Oppenheimer, Jews in Maestro, Jews in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

But here comes Baddiel’s real point, which is easy to miss (especially if you’re determined to miss the point): “I might be fine with that,” he says, but it seems to be only Jews who don't merit casting consideration. “It means that Jews are not a proper minority. We don’t have to quite respect their lived experience.”

As for Bradley Cooper, he says, “I think it’s got a lot of attention, because it’s focused on the nose. Jewface has gone on forever, but suddenly we can really understand it when we see they’ve given him a big nose.” 

Unconsciously (I think), Baddiel touches his nose.

“I’ve seen many pictures of Leonard Bernstein and his nose was not that big,” he says. “It’s weird, but it seems like Bradley Cooper’s nose was a bit like Bernstein’s nose – until they gave him the bigger one.”

David Baddiel will be speaking at four events at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, which runs from August 23-27. For details and tickets, CLICK HERE.

About the author

Mark Dapin

Mark Dapin is a novelist and historian. His military history, “The Nashos’ War: Australia’s national servicemen and Vietnam", won the People’s Choice Prize at the 2015 Nib Waverley LibraryAwards and was shortlisted for the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction. His novel “Spirit House”, about Jewish prisoners of war on the Burma Railway, was shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year.

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