This week has seen an explosion of indignation from British Jews after BBC2’s Politics Live asked four non-Jewish panellists to discuss ‘should Jews Count as an ethnic minority?’
For the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the question was insensitive. To others, it was offensive, moronic and grotesque. As both a Jewish woman and someone who has worked at the BBC on and off for decades I am both disappointed and defensive – because I know the BBC is better than this.
The reason we are angry is that, as Jews, we live amid constant reminders of anti-Semitism, and not just in hate speech. With the Holocaust still in living memory, and despite lockdown in 2020, there were 1,668 anti-Jewish incidents in the UK. The very real risks mean all our community institutions are heavily guarded, with schools behind tall fences and high security in front of synagogues. My children’s school bus was swept for bombs every day.
Yet somehow when it comes to totting up the figures on ethnic diversity we are invisible, as David Baddiel points out in his excoriating new polemic. His view that we are consistently overlooked as an ethnic minority by those on the progressive left has struck a chord with many.
Which is why the timing of the release of the BBC’s new Diversity & Inclusion Plan couldn’t be more ironic. I’ve searched the 52-page, two-year plan in vain for any reference to Jews. Just as telling, the History of Diversity slideshow on the BBC website rightly encompasses “Black and Asian personalities, blind presenters, diverse heads of BBC departments, drama about race, representation of the trans and LGBTQ communities, class portrayal, the lives of traveller groups and increased visibility of disabled people”. But the likes of Michael Grade and Claudia Winkleman? Not so much.
I’m one of the many Jews who have worked at the BBC for decades and loved every challenging and creative and moment of it, and I can’t wait to return.
There’s no real evidence that the BBC is, as some tweeters would have it, “institutionally anti-Semitic”. Far from it – I’m one of the many Jews who have worked there for decades and loved every challenging and creative and moment of it, and I can’t wait to return. I’ve never been aware of any racial hostility and, in fact, as an older woman who is also Jewish I’d say it’s never been better.
There have been three Jewish chairs of the BBC, and though no Jewish director general yet, numerous senior executives including Danny Cohen and Jane Lush. Prominent talent on screen and radio includes Vanessa Feltz, David Shukman, Katya Adler, Dr Robert Winston, Matt Lucas, David Baddiel, and many others.
The broadcast output includes world class documentaries about the Holocaust and the Haredi community, programmes about Jewish identity, and cooking, and art and music. In 2001 and 2005 I was delighted to be asked to produce Holocaust Memorial Day – a live event that no other broadcaster expressed an interest in, but it was there in primetime on BBC2.
Yet somehow people inside and outside the BBC simply don’t see us – as the current terminology would have it – as BAME, maybe because we are perceived as having arrived, broken through and succeeded. In his book, Baddiel points out that when Mohit Bakaya was appointed head of Radio 4 in 2019 he was widely congratulated for being the first ‘diverse’ controller of the channel – despite the fact that the Jewish Mark Damazer had got there before him.
This lapse and others hurt because the BBC is a cherished national institution, and it isn’t that long since Jews felt they had to fight for acceptance.
Though I would defend the BBC to the hilt against charges of widespread anti-Semitism, there have been moments apart from this latest blunder that have tested my own love of the Corporation. In 2015, a BBC reporter said to the daughter of a Holocaust survivor at an event marking the terrorist attack at Paris’s Hypercacher supermarket that ”Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well”.
Simon Schama fulminated that the reporter’s conduct was “appalling”. To make matters worse, an internal investigation found that there had been no breach of BBC guidelines – despite the fact that holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel is clearly defined as anti-Semitic by the IHRA.
This lapse and others hurt because the BBC is a cherished national institution, and it isn’t that long since Jews felt they had to fight for acceptance. My refugee dad was so convinced there were Jewish quotas that he warned me not to waste my time applying for BBC jobs – and he was probably only a few years out.
To all of this the remedy should be simple: make sure that the BBC’s much-hyped Creative Diversity Board sees us and includes us in all its teaching about representation and opportunity, not to mention its diversity monitoring.
Let us share our experience, our worldview and our insights, and above all make sure that Jews do count.
Gaby Koppel is a freelance series producer for BBC Studios. Her novel Reparation is published by Honno, the Welsh women’s press. Follow her on Twitter at @gabykoppel