David Baddiel: I ‘probably don’t agree completely’ with Sally Rooney on Israel

The writer talked Joyce, Jewishness and boycotts at the Irish Times Winter Nights festival

“It’s incredible how right Leopold Bloom is.” David Baddiel is talking about Leopold Bloom: the most famous Irish Jew, the fictional character at the centre of Ulysses.

“In my experience, non-Jews writing about Jews, they just don’t get it right most of the time. To some extent, they just foreground the Jewishness too much. The one time that doesn’t happen is Leopold Bloom.”

Comedian, children’s author and presenter David Baddiel speaks about James Joyce’s character in a conversation with Irish Times arts and culture editor Hugh Linehan as part of The Irish Times’ Winter Nights. Baddiel’s book Jews Don’t Count argues that in a time of heightened awareness of minorities, Jews don’t count as a real minority, but they should.

“Some great genius on the part of James Joyce realised the Jew is the world’s Everyman. It’s the opposite of the way most people see the Jew, which is that they have to make them singular and weird and a bit too Jewish or whatever, and a bit alien.

“I’m going to make my main character, my most human idea of what Everyman behaviour is, a Jew. And I literally can’t fault Leopold Bloom, in the way he is, the way he thinks. He’s Everyman, yet there is something really Jewish about him, there’s an evanescent quality about him that Joyce absolutely gets.

“And I don’t really know how, particularly as he was hanging out [though he wasn’t literally] with TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and other incredible anti-semites. What I most love about him, is how true Leopold Bloom is to my sense of what a Jew is.”

Baddiel talks about how despite anti-semitism being on the rise, “Jews don’t fit in what you might call the vulnerable sacred circle of minorities”, but are seen as too powerful and privileged, and also as oppressors, referring to them as “Schrödinger’s whites”.

“They are the only minority who have this kind of weird dual status, in the eyes of racists. They are seen as both rats or lower than rats, and yet at the same time in control of the world.”

He also talks about the duality where Jews are “seen as white or non white, depending on the politics of the observer, by which I mean, Nazis and neo-Nazis for years have said the Jews are not part of the white races,” referring to “Jews will not replace us” racist chants.

He describes himself as “one of very few Jews in Britain who is known for being Jewish. I’ve made that part of my personality.”

Baddiel also talks about when “Sally Rooney does that thing of saying that she doesn’t want the book to be sold in Israel. And all these people ask me what I think about that. What I think about it is, Yeah, I can see that she’s got a logic to doing that. It makes sense. I’m not particularly a supporter of BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement]. I can see it, probably don’t agree with [Rooney] completely. But I end up running out of intellectual ground, because I’m not emotionally engaged with Israel in that way.”

He talks about about what separates anti-semitism from anti-Zionism, and “how people’s imagination of Israel and Israeli politics feeds into anti-semitism; that is what I’m interested in. I’m not very interested in the specific politics of Israel.”

He takes issue with “the notion of collective responsibility of Jews for Israel”, saying “you get this weird thing, that Jews are seen as too powerful, and something we have to be concerned about, and somehow that aligns with the idea that Israel is powerful. But that would be to lump all Jews together with Israeli aggression.”

The 2022 Irish Times Winter Nights online festival of conversation, culture and ideas – supported by Peugeot – runs until Thursday, January 27th. Still to come are paralympic medallist swimmer Ellen Keane, rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll, writer and feminist Caitlin Moran and Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole. For tickets, go to irishtimes.com/winternights.

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