David Baddiel: Jews Don’t Count review – a doc so shocking it sounds like a siren

In this fascinating and timely film, the comedian corners Jewish celebrities to discuss antisemitism – and David Schwimmer reveals he has ‘never felt white, ever’

A year ago, David Baddiel made a documentary about social media and online trolling for the BBC. Inevitably, Jews Don’t Count (Channel 4) – which is a much more robust film – covers some of the same ground, but, here, Baddiel focuses on the ideas that formed his 2021 book of the same title. His central thesis is that “Jews don’t count as a proper minority” when it comes to contemporary notions of prejudice and racism. He sets out to explore why so many people seem to ignore antisemitism, as well as “the dysfunction between progressives and Jews”.

It feels like a particularly bleak statement to make, but it couldn’t be more timely. Anti-Jewish hate crimes continue to rise in the UK and the US. Conspiracy theories and racist tropes about Jews and power continue to be given mainstream platforms. Baddiel’s book lends itself brilliantly to a TV format, which can bring in many other voices. “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Jew’?” he asks, in the first of many monochrome interludes in which he speaks directly to camera. “Let’s ask some Jews.”

This is an all-star documentary. Baddiel speaks to the authors Jonathan Safran Foer, Dara Horn and Howard Jacobson, who are insightful and poignant and funny. He speaks to Friends star David Schwimmer about whether Jews are white – “I’ve never felt white, ever,” says Schwimmer, who goes on to explain why in detailed and erudite terms. He talks to Neil Gaiman, who recalls only recently overhearing someone on a plane espousing a conspiracy theory about “a secret cabal of Jews bending the world to their will”. He meets Sarah Silverman, who has championed his book on her podcast and who talks smartly and openly about actors who changed their Jewish surnames, the term “Jewface”, and the practice of casting non-Jewish actors in Jewish roles. Baddiel speaks to a number of his interviewees about Israel, and has very different conversations, with some agreement and some disagreement. He is adamant that it is racist to expect every British Jew to feel responsible for the actions of Israel. Miriam Margolyes offers a different point of view.

What I like most about this documentary is how conversational it is. The thesis that Baddiel set out in his book (delivered here in the monochrome sections) forms the backbone of the programme, and on screen it feels like the opposite of the kind of back-and-forths that mostly happen online, often anonymously, about the same subjects. He sets out what he believes and meets people who agree with him and who sometimes disagree. It cuts through a lot of online noise and crude finger-pointing. He has a complex and nuanced conversation with his niece, Dionna, who describes herself as “a biracial person”. They discuss whether antisemitism is a “different” form of racism, and if Jews can “pass” as white.

He discusses and explains Jewish history, before moving on to address recent acts of violence against Jews, and terrorism that is rarely designated antisemitic, even if it happens in a synagogue. He returns to his own primary school in London and, as a siren sounds, he explains the security drills Jewish children there must practise, though he is not allowed to show it on camera. It is a shocking moment, at least for this viewer. I naively assumed such measures were something that happened in the US but not in the UK. (Baddiel says they didn’t have security drills when he attended the school.)

It is a sign of a solid documentary, I think, that every time a question came into my head, Baddiel was either asking it, or setting about answering it, as if I had said it out loud. Often, he pre-empts how people will respond to the point he is making. As someone who spends a lot of time on social media, he is used to anticipating what will be thrown back at him. People sometimes send him a screenshot of him in blackface, playing the footballer Jason Lee on Fantasy Football League in the 1990s, asking, “This you?”

He has apologised before and apologises here, once again acknowledging that it was racist. The film ends with Baddiel meeting Lee in person, and saying sorry to his face. “Why has it taken you 25 years to reach out and have this conversation?” asks Lee, before the men have another of the documentary’s frank discussions. As fascinating and newsworthy as it is, it is the only part that stands out slightly. It seems, to me, to belong more to a story about Baddiel as a public figure than to the rest of this film.

Otherwise, it is an entertaining and educational polemic that should lead to the conversations Baddiel says aren’t happening, particularly among progressives. It also makes a clear case against apathy, ignorance and prejudice, in whatever combination they appear.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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