by Martin Odoni

David Baddiel has continued his bizarre campaign to convince the world that Jews are an unusually oppressed ethnic group in ways beyond any other race in Britain this week. He was interviewed for a podcast by Jason Lee, a black former footballer Baddiel repeatedly persecuted while presenting the BBC‘s Fantasy Football League in the 1990s, by dressing up in blackface make-up and parodying his ethnic hairstyle as looking like a pineapple.

Football fans up and down the country leapt on this and ferociously mocked Lee from the stands for months afterwards. His family were also on the receiving end of some of the cruel mockery, including his scared and bewildered children.

Baddiel’s havering

Curiously, Baddiel has acknowledged on a few occasions that he was wrong to do these racially-charged sketches and apologised into the ether for them, but it was only this week that he and Lee came face-to-face for the very first time, and Baddiel actually apologised in person. The apology was very immediate and eloquent, and certainly sounded sincere.

But one cannot help but feel that Baddiel was rather forced into making this gesture. His current quest for ‘supreme victimhood’ of himself and the rest of the Jewish people (of which I am one, let us not forget) has often met with pushback from people on social media who have been quick, not without reason, to revisit Baddiel’s past transgressions, as if to say, “You‘re a fine one to complain about racism!” What is noticeable at these points is that, far from expressing remorse over the caricaturing of Lee, Baddiel has frequently sneered publicly at those making the point that his past cruelty makes it very difficult for thinking people to take his complaints about racism seriously. Hence the probable real reason for him doing the interview.

In the context of 1990’s cruel comedy

In truth, while I was something of a fan of The Mary Whitehouse Experience back when I was a teenager and knew no better, looking back on Baddiel’s 1990’s comedy career, be it in partnership with Frank Skinner, or teamed up with Rob Newman, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, it is rare to find material of his that was not based around unnecessary cruelty. Particularly disturbing was that he was at least as happy ‘slapping downwards’ as slapping upwards, and thus victimised people who were most vulnerable and had no way of fighting back.

Most unfair, Baddiel has a very vulgar history of mocking looks rather than actions. I dimly remember watching an episode of Fantasy Football League during the 1998 World Cup in which Tracey Ullman scolded both Baddiel and Skinner for constantly making jokes about people’s appearance. She was right. I would argue that the caricaturing of Lee was at least as cruel on a personal appearance level as it was on a racial level. You could leave racism out of Baddiel’s history and you would still find in the main a lot of schoolchild-level nastiness that, to be fair, was sadly par-for-the-course in British comedy throughout the 1990’s; Baddiel and his colleagues are far from exclusively guilty on this.

Baddiel’s explanation

But even so, it is difficult to imagine Baddiel bothering his backside with a direct apology to Lee were it not for him being repeatedly criticised for his long failure to do so. One of the first questions Lee asked in the interview was why it had it had taken so long, and Baddiel’s answer was somewhat inadequate. He admitted that he had not realised that he and Skinner had been encouraging the bullying of black people, especially those in traditional Afro-Caribbean dress. He only realised the enormity of it, he claims, many years later when he was at a football match in the late-2000’s and someone in the crowd heckled him with the anti-Semitic slur, “Y*d!

If we accept Baddiel’s explanation, this was the point when the irresponsibility of his televisual version of “dog-piling” on Lee finally sank in.

Jason Lee playing for Nottingham Forest in the 1990s

I find this plausible enough in itself, but unfortunately for Baddiel, it completely trashes his own wider campaign to convince the world that “Jews Don’t Count.” The point has been made repeatedly that his unending tour promoting his book about the subject itself defeats his argument; if Baddiel believes that being a Jew uniquely leads to unacknowledged mistreatment, exclusion, reduced opportunity, and his complete silencing in public, well, how exactly has he been given so many platforms by varying media from which to proclaim it? Why have so many TV, radio and internet shows eagerly invited him to appear, and then spent entire hours and more pitching him unskeptical softball questions.

Now this statement of Baddiel’s carries the same question back in time.

David Baddiel, the sheltered victim of racism

Baddiel was born in 1964. Despite being a familiar face on British television since at least 1990 (when The Mary Whitehouse Experience switched from BBC Radio 1 to BBC2 TV), and despite his reckless humiliation of Lee happening in the mid-1990’s, Baddiel says that his experience of public racist abuse did not happen until the late-2000’s, when he would have been around 43.

Wow! That is a long way into life for a public Jewish figure to go before getting anti-Semitic abuse in public, especially a figure who has spent so much of his life in large crowds at football matches, and performing stand-up in front of big audiences. (He and Newman in 1993 performed for an audience of twelve thousand at the Wembley Arena; I recall one heckler audibly insulted Baddiel’s weight early on, but were there any noticeable cries of “Y*d!” on the night?)

I am not a public figure and for reasons of expense, I rarely get to attend football matches (I am more likely to be found at the ‘other’ Old Trafford with the cricket field, rather than a football ground, as it is simply cheaper to watch Lancashire than it is to watch Liverpool or the Manchester clubs.) But even without fame to draw attention to me, I was getting anti-Semitic abuse at school when I was just twelve. One particularly horrid pupil at High School – I no longer remember his name nor do I wish to – once smacked me really hard across the back of the head while I was not looking, calling me a “Dirty Jewish tw*t!” and caused me to tumble into a wall I had been standing next to, splitting my lip wide open. It did not stop bleeding for hours, not that I got much sympathy from the teachers.

Baddiel waited until he was 43 just to be called a Y*d? I do not claim to have received anti-Semitic abuse with high frequency throughout my life – part of my point in fact – but my experience when I was 12 is enough to make me quite envious of Baddiel, if he was in middle age when he started to experience just racist public name-calling.

And he is a household name, I am not.

Baddiel’s experiences disprove his theories

It sounds thoroughly implausible to me that in a country with “widespread anti-Semitism” Baddiel’s experiences could be so late in life and comparatively mild, for such an incident to stand out to him. My own experiences appear worse, but more to the point, I will be the first to state that my experiences are not as bad as those of people of black, Arab or Asian backgrounds.

The likeliest conclusion is that the anti-Semitism is not nearly so omnipresent as Baddiel imagines. Maybe the real reason why Baddiel (absurdly, given the anti-Labour Party hysteria of the last six years) thinks anti-Semitism does not get called out as much as other racial prejudices is because, as his own experiences imply, there really is not as much of it around as he wants us to believe, therefore there is little to react to. Certainly no more than other forms of racism. And given the hysteria against perceived anti-Semitism on the left in recent years, it is preposterous to suggest the prejudice is not taken seriously.

As Simon Maginn has pointed out, most of Baddiel’s examples of the prejudice he experiences in modern times seem to come from his interactions on social media, and heaven knows cyberspace is a completely different realm from reality, where the most hideous bigots on Earth hide behind false names and throw abuse around with the abandon of knowing they will probably never suffer any real world consequences. It is completely absurd to think Twitter in particular is a credible analog of real society. But it would give a distorted impression of how pervasive the prejudice is.

Not words of disadvantage but words of privilege

Lee was impressively polite and dignified, but there was still an unmistakeable note of contempt in his expression, suggesting his opinion of Baddiel remains understandably low

No, Baddiel is not holding up a giant mirror to the nation, and revealing to it some grand ‘hidden truth’. He is offering a speculation largely rooted in an unexpected moment of unpleasantness for someone leading quite a privileged life. If Jews really did not count in Britain, why has Baddiel’s ethnic background not created any detectable barrier to him becoming a successful comedian who has never, as far as I can tell, been heckled with anti-Semitic remarks while on stage (and if he has, why did the heckling never give him earlier or more frequent pause for thought about humiliating Lee?) or a successful author?

Either Baddiel’s explanation to Lee for why he took so long to apologise is inaccurate, or his broad assertion about Jews getting an exceptionally raw deal in modern Britain is inaccurate. Or both are inaccurate; they cannot both be true.