George Galloway provoked a Twitterstorm last week with an intemperate and rather ill-judged attack on David Baddiel, in which he described the comedian/author as a “vile Israel-fanatic”. Galloway was reacting to Baddiel having retweeted an appeal by Labour MP Stella Creasy to support a demonstration against Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit to the UK. “There will be no supporter of the Palestinian people marching behind vile Israel-fanatic ‘comedian’ David Baddiel”, Galloway declared. “There will be no opponent of imperialist wars marching behind Stella Creasy.”
There were certainly grounds for criticising Galloway’s tweet, not least that if we all took his advice and refused to protest against Trump alongside anyone we have serious disagreements with on other political issues, the anti-Trump demonstration would very small indeed. Instead, Baddiel’s predictable response was to accuse Galloway of antisemitism. Baddiel argued that he had made it clear in the past that he felt no identification with the state of Israel, so when Galloway had written “vile Israel-fanatic” he must have meant “Jew. Vile Jew”.
This was a disgraceful accusation. Whatever their political differences with Galloway, nobody could honestly describe him as an antisemite. This is a man who calls for Holocaust denial to be made a criminal offence in the UK as it is in some other European countries. When Arutz Sheva, voice of the right-wing settler movement, published a list of “George Galloway’s anti-Semitic slurs” compiled by Israeli antisemitism “expert” Manfred Gerstenfeld, this was accompanied by the loud sound of barrel-scraping. All the “slurs” Gerstenfeld came up with were based on the notorious illustrative examples appended to the IHRA “working definition of antisemitism”, many of which concern attitudes towards Israel and blur the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Gerstenfeld failed to produce a single case of genuine antisemitism on Galloway’s part.
That didn’t prevent Momentum boss and newly-elected Labour NEC member Jon Lansman from jumping in to declare his solidarity with Baddiel and echo the latter’s claim that Galloway’s attack on him was antisemitic — “since he’s a Jew who’s talked about being non-Zionist, there’s no possible reason to call him a ‘vile Israel-fanatic’ other than antisemitism”. Lansman went on to call for Galloway to be sacked from his show on talkRADIO. In response, Galloway has threatened to sue Lansman for libel.
I have to say I’m with Galloway on this one. Lansman’s endorsement of Baddiel’s slanderous attack on him was what we have come to expect from an individual who has played an atrocious role during the hysterical witch-hunt over antisemitism in the Labour Party.
When Ken Livingstone was suspended from the party in April 2016, Lansman took to Facebook to denounce him. “A period of silence from Ken Livingstone is overdue”, he pronounced, “especially on antisemitism racism & Zionism. It’s time he left politics altogether.” This political stab in the back won Lansman the enthusiastic approval of the Community Security Trust. In its 2016 Antisemitic Discourse Report CST crowed over the fact that the Zionist campaign against Ken was backed by the “founder of Momentum and long-time ally of Jeremy Corbyn”. Lansman was also instrumental in getting Jackie Walker removed from her position as Momentum vice-chair after she was stitched up on false charges of antisemitism by the Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poale Zion) at the 2016 Labour Party conference. Hopefully Galloway will sue his arse off.
Baddiel and Lansman’s despicable charge of antisemitism against Galloway was based on an entirely spurious argument, namely that Galloway had assumed Baddiel was an “Israel-fanatic” solely on the grounds that he is Jewish. I mean, ask yourself — is that likely? Nobody can seriously believe Galloway is unaware that there are many Jews who are not “Israel-fanatics” at all and are in fact highly critical of Israeli government policy. So there’s no way he would have taken Baddiel’s ethnicity as proof of his position on Israel. There is obviously some other explanation for the assumption Galloway made about that.
Galloway himself stated that that he had inferred Baddiel’s support for Israel from the fact that he “routinely slanders Israel-critics like me as ‘anti-Semites’”. That may be a slight exaggeration, but there is no question that Baddiel has repeatedly attacked the Left over its supposed softness on antisemitism, claiming that this stems from a left-wing failure to recognise that Jews can be the victims of racism. (He appears oblivious to the idea that if the Left pays much more attention to, say, Islamophobia than it does to antisemitism, that might just be because Islamophobia is demonstrably a much more serious and widespread problem.)
In line with this approach, Baddiel joined the campaign against “left-wing antisemitism” in the Labour Party last year, by launching an ignorant and widely publicised attack on Ken Livingstone. Amid an outbreak of Zionist fury over the Labour Party’s failure to expel Ken, Baddiel published an article in the Guardian, entitled “Why Ken Livingstone has it so wrong over Hitler and Zionism”, in which he succeeded only in showing how little he actually knew about the subject of Hitler and Zionism.
Ken had originally been suspended in 2016 after he came out in support of Labour MP Naz Shah, who was herself briefly suspended over some allegedly antisemitic social media posts dating from Israel’s bloody onslaught on Gaza in 2014.
One of the charges against her was that she had posted a Facebook meme featuring the Martin Luther King quotation “never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal”, accompanied by the hashtag “#Apartheid Israel”. The quotation was taken from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he insisted on the moral obligation to resist oppressive governments, even if they are legally constituted. Ignoring this context, the right-wing witch-hunting Guido Fawkes blog reproduced a screenshot of the tweet (cropped to remove the attribution to Martin Luther King) under the headline “Naz Shah compared Israelis to Hitler”. Shah was already under attack for having posted an image originating with Norman Finkelstein which had jokingly suggested that the state of Israel should be relocated to the United States. The MLK meme was presented as further proof of her supposed antisemitism.
Defending Shah in an interview on the Vanessa Feltz radio show, Ken offered two arguments against the view that linking Zionism with Nazism was necessarily antisemitic. He cited the 1948 letter to the New York Times that Albert Einstein organised in response to Menachem Begin’s visit to the US, in which Einstein and a number of other prominent Jews condemned the future Israeli prime minister as a fascist and a Nazi. Ken observed: “Now, if Naz or myself said that today we would be denounced as antisemitic, but that was Albert Einstein.” Ken’s other argument was that in the 1930s, after Hitler came to power, “his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism — this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. It was of course the latter claim that caused such a furore and provided a pretext for Ken’s political enemies to pressure the Labour Party into taking disciplinary action against him.
In his Guardian article Baddiel took issue with those (“predominantly the good people, of course, of the British left”) who had pointed out that in referring to Nazi support for the Zionist movement Ken was just stating a historical fact. Baddiel retorted: “Ken Livingstone did not state a fact. The statement ‘Hitler supported Zionism’ is not a fact. It’s an interpretation.” This would certainly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the writings of Francis Nicosia, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, author of The Third Reich and the Palestine Question and leading academic specialist in the history of Nazi-Zionist relations, who has provided full details of the Hitler regime’s support for Zionism.
Ken himself, who unlike Baddiel has actually done some reading on the subject, referenced Nicosia’s work in his submission to the Labour Party National Constitutional Committee. Nicosia was also the source of the quotation from Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich that caused such controversy when Moshé Machover repeated it in an article that was circulated at Labour Party conference last year. The quotation, from 1935, reads in part: “The government finds itself in complete agreement with the great spiritual movement within Jewry itself, the so-called Zionism, with its recognition of the solidarity of Jewry throughout the world and the rejection of all assimilationist ideas.” Given that Heydrich later emerged as one of the main architects of the Final Solution, this only underlines the accuracy of Ken’s point about the change in Nazi policy towards the Jews.
Ridiculing the notion of Hitler ever “supporting the idea of a Jewish state”, Baddiel triumphantly quoted a passage from Mein Kampf where Hitler opposed Jews establishing a state of their own, on the grounds that it would only serve as an international headquarters for their criminal conspiracies. Baddiel presented this as irrefutable proof that Hitler couldn’t have supported Zionism. “I may have as much of a tin ear for meaning as Livingstone has for antisemitism”, he observed, ladling on the sarcasm, “but I can’t, for the life of me, make this out to be as pro the idea of the creation of a Jewish state as Livingstone insists it is.”
If he had bothered to make even a cursory study of the subject, Baddiel would know that it wasn’t until the Biltmore Conference in 1942 that the Zionist movement formally adopted the objective of establishing an independent Jewish state. Before that, official Zionist policy had been for a Jewish national home in Palestine under the British Mandate, in line with the Balfour Declaration. It was this policy that the Nazi regime actively supported. As for Hitler, he appears to have modified his earlier paranoid views on the dangers of a Jewish state. In 1937, when the Peel Commission recommended the partition of Mandatory Palestine between Jews and Arabs, some leading Nazis did fear this would open the door to an independent Jewish state and, no doubt taking their cue from Mein Kampf, argued that Nazi support for Jewish migration to Palestine should be reconsidered. But Hitler himself intervened to ensure that the existing policy was maintained.
In addition to his Guardian article, Baddiel also gave an interview to Channel 4 News where it was put to him that Ken was “clearly not antisemitic”. Baddiel replied emphatically “I think he is antisemitic”, before adding “but not consciously”. A year earlier, after Ken was first suspended by the Labour Party over his Vanessa Feltz interview, Baddiel had been even less equivocal in his accusation of antisemitism. Responding to Ken’s statement that he had been a Labour Party member for 47 years and had never heard anyone make an antisemitic remark, Baddiel commented sourly: “If Ken hasn’t heard anything anti-Semitic in 47 years, he hasn’t heard himself speak.”
Where Baddiel differs from many other critics of “left-wing antisemitism”, however, is that his attacks on the Left are not motivated by support for the state of Israel. “I am not, as some of you may know, a Zionist…”, Baddiel wrote in his Guardian piece. “And obviously — as all Jews have to say now when talking about this subject — I do not support the appalling actions of the present Israeli government.” A couple of months earlier, in a Twitter spat with Piers Morgan, Baddiel had expressed his position on Israel in even more forthright terms. So Galloway was (as he has since acknowledged) mistaken in his assumption about Baddiel’s motives, and should have checked his facts before tweeting the accusation that Baddiel was a fanatical Zionist. But that doesn’t excuse Baddiel’s, or Lansman’s, attempt to smear Galloway as a Jew-hater.
Neither Baddiel nor Lansman appears to have given any thought to the fact that this sort of false accusation can have material consequences. As Galloway pointed out, he has been on the receiving end of physical attacks “by supporters of Israel incited by false claims of anti-Semitism”. The worst of these was in August 2014 when he was violently assaulted by a far-right thug wearing a t-shirt with an Israel Defense Forces logo, who shouted “Antisemitic little man, I fucking despise you”. During the frenzied attack Galloway was punched ten times and beaten to the ground. His assailant, Neil Masterson, told police that he felt “morally justified” in carrying out the assault because Galloway hated Jews. Masterson’s Facebook page indicated that he was influenced by the fascist group Britain First, who may also have inspired the murderer of Jo Cox. Thankfully, Masterson was not carrying a lethal weapon. If his attacker had been armed with a knife, Galloway told the court, he believed he would have been killed.
Let us give credit where it’s due, though. Baddiel is not always wrong on the issue of antisemitism. In 2011 he did launch an admirable campaign against antisemitic chanting at football grounds, having had direct experience of this unpleasant phenomenon as a Chelsea supporter. I remember going to Stamford Bridge myself a year or so earlier at the invitation of Show Racism the Red Card and hearing some appalling antisemitic crap being chanted there. I was working for Murad Qureshi at the time, and we wrote to Chelsea FC suggesting that they needed to get this under control. We received a reply from the head of security at Stamford Bridge assuring us that when Chelsea fans chanted “We hate Yids” this was merely an innocent expression of their rivalry with Tottenham Hotspur and there was nothing antisemitic about it at all. So Baddiel’s subsequent intervention on this issue was welcome.
However, while it was laudable that Baddiel had taken a stand against racism in football, some observers noted a bit of a contradiction here. The picture on the left is of Baddiel in 1996, wearing blackface in a Fantasy Football “comedy” sketch mocking footballer Jason Lee, as part of an extended campaign of abuse directed against Lee on that TV show by Baddiel and his co-host Frank Skinner.
As one critic asked in a letter to the Guardian, in response to Baddiel’s campaign against antisemitism in football:
Why is David Baddiel being given a platform to talk about prejudice? Baddiel and his partner Frank Skinner spent the mid-90s ridiculing the ethnic appearance of the black striker Jason Lee. For the crime of choosing to not look white, and instead embracing the combination locks and cornrows iconography of his ethnic heritage, Lee was ridiculed as a “pineapple head”, as looking “like an ancient Egyptian” and — incredibly — via Baddiel “blacking-up”. Viewers were even encouraged to send in pictures mocking Lee’s appearance.
God knows how much damage this did to a generation of young black school children. Professor Ben Carrington in ‘Football’s coming home’ but whose home? And do we want it? p108 noted how this abuse “transcended the normally insular world of football fandom and entered into the public domain as both a descriptive term and a form of ridicule for any black person with dreads tied back”. Taking its lead from Baddiel and Skinner, the Sun even pictured Lee with bananas growing out of his head.
The myth of black primitivism is an enduring racist theme. The assumption that black identity exists to be performed for white people’s amusement only goes back to the minstrel tradition. Both racist tropes permeated Baddiel’s mockery of Lee. Yet we’re now supposed to take lessons in anti-racism from the man?
Some might argue that this was over twenty years ago and we all make mistakes. But has Baddiel ever issued a public apology for his racially-charged bullying of a black footballer? Not so far as I’m aware. (In a belligerent and not entirely coherent response to his Guardian critic, he expressed no regrets over the hounding of Jason Lee and the most he was prepared to concede was that “perhaps” he had been wrong to black up.) So the next time Baddiel is minded to let fly at his left-wing opponents with wild and inflammatory accusations of racism he might perhaps pause and reflect on his own far from spotless record on that issue.
First published on Medium in February 2018