Discussed in this essay: People Love Dead Jews, by Dara Horn. W.W. Norton, 2021. 272 pages.
Jews Don’t Count, by David Baddiel. TLS Books, 2021. 144 pages.
To speak is to act. Utterances do things—they alter our conditions and those of others. We know this intuitively, and yet it was not until 1962 that the philosopher J.L. Austin provided us with a thorough appraisal of all the different ways that speech can constitute action. He began by trying to ruthlessly categorize language, cordoning off descriptive, true/false statements like, for example, “the grass is green” from performative ones like “I christen this ship.” But he soon realized that the distinction between these categories is easily collapsed. “When we issue any utterance whatsoever, are we not ‘doing something’?” he asked. To argue, to profess, to declare is always to exert a certain force over others—and in doing so, to unleash an unknowable string of potential effects.
What kind of speech act, then, is the assertion, “people love dead Jews,” the title of a recent collection of essays by the novelist Dara Horn? What about “Jews don’t count,” the title of a recent polemic by the writer David Baddiel? On the surface, these are simple descriptive statements—ones that, the uninitiated reader assumes, reflect their authors’ observations and will be substantiated in the pages that follow. But Austin tells us that descriptive statements are always also performative ones: These titles cannot claim to be merely describing the current state of affairs, for they also exert their own pull, influencing and altering the very discourse that they set out to critique. Uttering their titles in public is almost guaranteed to elicit a response: Shortly after Horn’s book came out, I asked a friend whether she had read it. She raised her eyebrows at the title and said, “Well, it’s true.” When I asked another, she cleared her throat in disgust. (Neither had read it yet.)
Really, these titles are dark inside jokes. They wink and smirk at their readers, who may find themselves nervously chuckling, wondering where the irony begins and ends. Anyone who has been belatedly initiated into someone else’s private joke knows what this feels like. The point isn’t quite clear, and the punchline seems deflated or indiscernible. Inside jokes are, by definition, meant for an exclusive audience—if you find yourself on the outside, you will naturally want to be let in. But once inside, you may discover that the premise is unconvincing or even insulting, and want instead to be let out. Despite Austin’s ultimate conclusion that all speech is active, he does not spend much time on expressions of irony, which he considers “etiolation[s] of language”: reverberating echoes of some primary utterance that can leave their hearers awash in words, unable to make out their meaning.
Reading Horn’s and Baddiel’s books provokes a similar feeling. People Love Dead Jews, and Horn’s accompanying podcast, “Adventures with Dead Jews,” aspire to critique a culture in which, according to Horn’s diagnosis, dead Jews attract more attention than living ones. “Jews were people who, for moral and educational purposes, were supposed to be dead,” she writes. In being dead, they become instructional objects, their stories instrumentalized to teach the living about the dangers of antisemitism. Her examples of the cultural “affection for dead Jews” include the global popularity of Anne Frank’s diary, which Horn argues offers humanity “grace and absolution from a murdered Jew,” and the growth of tourism in the Chinese city of Harbin, where regional authorities have invested $30 million to reconstruct a decimated Jewish world in order to attract foreign visitors. Her primary body of evidence concerns the extensive and lucrative place that the Holocaust has assumed in contemporary American life: the “thousands of Holocaust books and movies and TV shows and lectures and courses and museums and mandatory school curricula.” As she describes her encounters with these cultural phenomena, her tone is sarcastic and often glib, as if she is letting her audience in on a joke in which they themselves are the objects of ridicule. “Dead Jews are supposed to teach us about the beauty of the world and the wonders of redemption—otherwise, what was the point of killing them in the first place?” she writes. “That’s what dead Jews are for!” She intends to lament this characterization, but her earnest dismay is often obscured by her sarcasm.
If Horn’s affect is, alternately, derisive, disgruntled, confused, and mournful, Baddiel’s conveys the outrage of the self-righteously aggrieved. A significant portion of his book recapitulates his own recent Twitter exchanges (more than a few tweets are reprinted in its pages), and his prose often takes on the tone of someone who, confronted with his late-night posts in the harsh light of the morning, feels obliged to reconstruct his train of thought.
Baddiel’s prose often takes on the tone of someone who, confronted with his late-night posts in the harsh light of the morning, feels obliged to reconstruct his train of thought.
Baddiel, a British comedian and writer, is trained in the art of distilling a complex sentiment into a single soundbite. Accordingly, his book’s title is the simplest form of his argument, which is that “Anti-Semitism is a second-class racism.” Among progressives, he observes that “Jews, although marginal, are not thought of as marginalised,” and therefore that “Jews can’t be seen as representative of a modern Britain that is intent on shifting marginalised experiences into the mainstream.” In other words: In the hierarchy of oppression that he sees as characteristic of contemporary political life, antisemitism has no standing, because “Jews don’t count” among the oppressed. He argues that Jews have been “left out, by the left, of identity politics,” and hopes they will be let in. He turns this argument into the hashtag #JewsDontCount and tracks its use across the internet, watching as his neologism circulates and spins.
The journeys of a hashtag are as good a reminder as any of another one of Austin’s arguments: that all speech acts are, to some extent, unpredictable, unregulatable. Once uttered, they take on their own lives, and assume the power to reveal and provoke our basest beliefs. When Stanley Cavell revised Austin’s theory of speech acts, he introduced the idea of the “passionate utterance,” which recognizes language “as everywhere revealing desire.” He understood that every speech act, no matter how thoroughly masked in politeness or erudition, is a statement that comes with demands—a performance that indexes wants, needs, objectives. This interpretation contains a kind of warning: If even supposedly descriptive utterances are in fact confrontations, then every use of language, in staking its claim, “risks, if not costs, blood.” Beneath its veil of irony, Horn’s titular catchphrase asserts a demand very similar to Baddiel’s. “How macro does an aggression against Jews have to be to be seen as an aggression?” Baddiel asks. Horn likewise argues that contemporary instances of antisemitism are dismissed because they are, in her words, “not the Holocaust.” Both call for increased deference to Jewish victimhood by invoking a Jewish past defined by persecution, claiming, contradictorily, to want to move beyond a history from which they do not seem to want their readers to escape.
Horn’s book opens with a striking anecdote that is intended to illustrate her thesis: When she was 17 years old, staying in a hotel with her fellow competitors in an academic tournament, one of her roommates, a Christian girl from the South, looked at Horn’s blue eyes and blonde hair and remarked, “I thought Hitler said you all were dark.” It’s a chilling encounter from which Horn takes the lesson that American schoolchildren “had learned about Jews mainly because people had killed Jews. Like most people in the world, they had only encountered dead Jews: people whose sole attribute was that they had been murdered, and whose murders served a clear purpose, which was to teach us something.” To most people—including many Jews, Horn suggests—to be Jewish means to inhabit a “state of non-being,” that is, of “being alienated, being marginalized, or best of all, being dead.”
Horn’s retelling of this exchange reflects a deep and understandable discomfort with contemporary memory culture and Holocaust education. There is undoubtedly something rotten about it, and Horn circles various sources of the decay: Perhaps it begins with the fetishization of Anne Frank, or the proliferation of misleading Holocaust fictions; or with the hyper-descriptive museum exhibitions that not only illustrate how the genocide was perpetrated but also, to Horn, seem to set the standard by which all other acts of antisemitism are judged; perhaps the memory has become so well-worn, the event so hyperdetermined, that we have forgotten what we were supposed to remember, and why. But while Horn suggests that this encounter with antisemitism shows the pitfalls of a “dead Jews”-centric curriculum, it’s not clear from her narration whether her roommate had learned anything about Jews, dead or otherwise. The girl’s remark suggests that, in fact, she had not received the lessons that Holocaust education is supposed to provide, and could have used quite a few more lectures on the subject.
This beginning anecdote is not the only place where Horn struggles to locate the precise source of her disturbance. In another chapter, about Harbin—where, in the early 20th century, a vibrant community of resettled Russian Jews briefly flourished—Horn describes how the city’s obliterated Jewish community has been turned into a source of commoditized kitsch, the names of former Jewish businesses reappropriated by local Chinese establishments for their charming vintage vibes. This spectacle is disconcerting to be sure, but Horn is most unsettled by the city’s new Jewish museum, established in one of Harbin’s recently renovated synagogues. There, an exhibition on the city’s vanished Jewish world would seem to fulfill Horn’s desire for a memory culture that remembers the dead as they were in life, however flawed its execution of that intention may be. (The exhibit includes plaster sculptures of “Jewish industrialists” and their children in various domestic scenes.) But still, she struggles with a discomfort that she finds hard to articulate until she realizes: “Nothing in this museum explained why this glorious community no longer exists.” The display of a blown-up photograph of a banquet from the 1930s, in which “rows of Harbin Jews in their tuxedos gathered to say goodbye to yet another Jewish family fleeing,” conspicuously fails to articulate what they were fleeing from. (The 1931 Japanese occupation of Manchuria kicked off a wave of violent attacks on the Jewish community by the Japanese-supported puppet regime; that year, the Old Synagogue was set aflame.) Horn wants the museum to explain why the Jews of Harbin are dead and disappeared, as well it should. But wouldn’t this addition risk indulging in precisely the kind of “affection for dead Jews” that she disdains?
Horn struggles to navigate the contradiction between her conviction that Jewish suffering has been made overly totemic and her argument that it’s inadequately attended to.
Throughout the book, Horn struggles to navigate this contradiction—between her conviction that Jewish suffering has been made overly totemic and her argument that it’s inadequately attended to. She raises serious and urgent questions about our memory culture: Have the “popular” Holocaust stories lost their force? How should we, the living, obey the commandment to remember the dead without slipping into a morbid fascination with victimhood? In the hands of another writer, these questions might have yielded deeper insights about how we might reconfigure our approach to Jewish history—and how we can better acknowledge that the living are in constant conversation with the dead. The solution is not to stop teaching students about those who have come before (what would there be left to teach?), or to call into question the utility of covering the Holocaust when its place on mandatory school curricula is already imperiled. Horn might rather have sought to reconcile the contradictions that trouble her by calling for a Holocaust education that is attuned to its own failures: that teaches students not only about history but also about its manipulation; that is alert to the possibility of its own misuse.
Instead, Horn seems paralyzed by her suspicion that, for Jews, there’s no way out of the bad feelings we’ve inherited. She narrates her own fatigue with stories about murdered Jews, whether they were killed in second-century Egypt or 21st-century Pennsylvania. She is disturbed by reports of synagogue shootings but finds the “most convincing” argument for their occurrence to be the “most boring” one: Now that Holocaust survivors are dying, “the public shame associated with expressing anti-Semitism was dying too. In other words, hating Jews was normal.” Yet it’s not only shootings targeting Jews but mass shootings in general—and white supremacist violence against minority groups—that are on the rise; this explanation, if no less “boring” than Horn’s, has the benefit of being both more capacious and more reflective of reality. (As Rob Eshman points out in The Forward, Horn is not an entirely reliable narrator: To take her title at face value is to overlook the fact that “the vast majority of people like living Jews, they really do.”) Occasionally, Horn seems to grasp that irreparable loss is a shared condition, as in one scene where she wonders if her local Walgreens is built on an old Native American burial ground, “whether I am treading on someone else’s ancient sacred space. I know that I must be. We are always walking on the dead.” But this powerful, political realization is quickly buried beneath a sense of grievance that is at once omnidirectional—all forms of commemoration are insufficient, no one can bring back the dead—and specific in its implication that dead Jews are uniquely fetishized and uniquely overlooked.
If Horn’s sense of grievance is sometimes muted by more reflective affective modes, Baddiel’s is unadulterated. His body of evidence includes his own disturbing encounters with contemporary antisemitism: He tells of attending a football match in London where, as soon as the screen flashed scores from a Tottenham Hotspur game, the crowd began chanting, “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz,” and “hissing to simulate the noise of gas chambers.” But his polemic does not take aim at this kind of generalized antisemitism and its adherents. Instead, Baddiel, whose book is now being turned into a documentary for the British public television network Channel 4, narrows his concern to the marginalization of Jewish suffering that he observes among British progressives.
Baddiel’s diatribe is as prone to contradiction as Horn’s. He points out that white supremacists do not view Jews as white, and instead of contesting this characterization—or stopping to consider the constructed and unfixed nature of the category of whiteness itself—he endorses it, describing how he uses the hashtag #Jewsnotwhite on social media. “I mean that being white is not about skin colour, but security,” he writes. It is difficult to understand what he means here—surely he understands that the security of whiteness is indeed tied to skin color, and that white Jews benefit from it in many contexts? Elsewhere, he insists that he is not engaging in an oppression olympics by arguing that Jewish victimhood is overlooked. “It is my position that racism should not be a competition: that all racisms should be regarded as equally bad,” he writes. But, in arguing over who “counts,” he inevitably participates in the kind of one-upmanship that he claims to disavow.
In arguing over who “counts,” Baddiel inevitably participates in the kind of one-upmanship that he claims to disavow.
The core of Baddiel’s complaint is that he has discerned, among British progressives, that all racisms are not regarded as equal—that some are indeed considered worse than others. He takes particular aim at the oversights of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who, Baddiel argues, is so attuned to anti-capitalist sentiments that he does not see that they sometimes “blur” into antisemitism. Among the British left, Baddiel observes not only a rising indifference to verbal attacks against Jews, but also “the emergence of a particularly modern form of anti-Semitism, which is an association of anti-anti-Semitism with Establishment values. Saying ‘this is anti-Semitic’ for some, puts you firmly into the camp of the oppressor.”
Does it? This is not a progressivism that I recognize, but rather a caricature of the left’s worst arguments—one that draws on Twitter anecdata while ignoring more substantive forms of evidence. Baddiel points to Corbyn’s supposed flirtation with antisemitism, for example, without acknowledging that accusations of anti-Jewishness have been used to justify his near-expulsion from political life; an extensive purge of his followers from Labour’s ranks; and the party’s adoption of what more or less amounts to a ban on criticism of Israel or statements of solidarity with Palestine. Baddiel’s argument also fails to account for the real structural differences between antisemitism and forms of racism that, in the UK as in the US, are upheld and perpetrated by the state. In the US, where police officers are regularly caught on camera murdering Black Americans, Jews are the primary beneficiaries of a nonprofit security grant program—expected to receive $360 million in funding next year—that pays, among other things, to station cops in synagogues; in the UK, the Home Office recently renewed its financial support for the Community Security Trust, allocating ﹟14 million to protect British Jews in 2022. Any progressivism worth its name fiercely opposes antisemitism while also resisting its weaponization on behalf of what Baddiel calls “establishment” politics: its instrumentalization to suppress left-wing voices and justify the engorgement of the security state.
Both Horn and Baddiel seem stuck between imagining Jewishness as overburdened with cultural meaning and as virtually invisible. They each grasp for viable representations, for ways of being that somehow acknowledge the complexity of identity in our age of assimilation. Finding none, they revert to slapstick, to the reliable syntax of Jewish jokes. (In response to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville—during which white supremacists chanted “The Jews will not replace us!” while holding tiki torches—Baddiel tweeted a photograph of the marchers with the caption: “Well obviously not. The tiki lamps, the shirt, the dumb self-serious expression: we couldn’t do any of it.” The tweet is reprinted in the book.) Humor is said to be a balm for unprocessed grief, for the kind of recursive heartbreak that contemporary Jewishness entails. Per the modernist scholar Marilyn Reizbaum, jokes—including sly uses of sarcasm and irony—are passionate utterances par excellence, for they leave so much unsaid, transmitting what Cavell calls unarticulated “traces of rage.” “In the mode of passionate exchange there is no final word, no uptake or turndown, until a line is drawn . . . perhaps in turn to be revoked,” Cavell writes. There can be no end to these debates, nor to the utterances they unleash. No end to the grief, no way to pin it down and snuff it out, as both of these authors seem to desire.
Instead of interrupting the discourses that disturb them, Horn and Baddiel have inflamed them with titles-turned-hashtags that swirl around Twitter (for Baddiel, the original scene of the crime). One user posts a photo of a form that asks for ethnic origin, with the caption: “@Baddiel – classic #jewsdontcount here- every ethnicity under the sun, but not Jewish.” Others use Baddiel’s rallying cry to call attention to a spate of attacks on Jewish residents of London, or to argue that the mainstream media overlooked the Jewish character of Highland Park, Illinois, in coverage of the mass shooting at the city’s July 4th parade. Horn’s hashtag is used to denigrate historical efforts that fail to satisfy the tastes of their audiences: a History magazine issue titled “Anne Frank: Her Inspiring Life”; an effort to restore Egyptian synagogues; new Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer’s tweet about his visit to the Berlin Holocaust memorial.
Both Baddiel’s and Horn’s laments about antisemitism being dismissed in diaspora lend themselves easily to Zionist arguments, which present the Jewish state as the only possible safeguard of Jewish survival. As one poster insists: “#peoplelovedeadjews #mizrahim live because of #israel.” In response to the US State Department’s report stating that the origins of the bullet that killed the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh could not be determined, one person suggested, on Twitter, that Israel deserved an apology for accusations of her murder, but that “No one will apologize because #JewsDontCount.” (Reporting by multiple news outlets, including the AP, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, has concluded that Abu Akleh was killed by the Israeli military.) Baddiel would likely disavow this usage of his own words: He professes that he doesn’t care about Israel “more than any other country, and to assume I do is racist.” But the utterance now has a life of its own, and is no longer only Baddiel’s to deploy.
How to break out of these familiarly dizzying circles of sarcasm, grief, and rage? In her final chapter, Horn begins to find her way out of the wormhole, cultivating a sense of calm by participating in Daf Yomi, a daily practice of Talmudic study. She discovers a model for reckoning with the grief that animates her writing, learning that ancient sages and scholars studied the words of God “like mourners obsessing over the tiniest memories of a beloved they have lost.” The lesson she takes from this experience is that “there are ways to rebuild a broken world, and they require humility and empathy, a constant awareness . . . that requires practice, vigilance, being up at all the watches.”
Her embrace of a textual tradition weighted with painful history, and the accompanying dedication to the never-finished work of finding a way to live with the past, offers a moving, literary alternative to the defensive sarcasm that often characterizes the preceding pages. But the book ends too quickly, before Horn has much time to dwell in this place of possibility, or consider what “being up at all the watches” now requires—what kinds of alertness and empathy she would like to see practiced, and what forms of solidarity those practices might reveal. If nothing else, this glimpse of vulnerability is a reminder that, despite their declarative tone, Horn and Baddiel’s utterances arise from a sense of confusion, an inchoate discomfort with the inheritance of a traumatic past as well as its contemporary manipulations and misuses. By loudly expressing their outrage, both writers perhaps hoped to write their way out of this thicket of bad feelings and bad memories. But neither harangue coalesces into any kind of proposal for moving forward; instead, they remain trapped in their own inside jokes, modeling how to stay stuck in a performance of pain.