Column | Podcast ‘A Muslim and a Jew Go There’ is a fine lesson in the art of disagreement

The hosts frequently disagree, but always with genuine warmth and curiosity about the other person’s point of view

Published - May 09, 2024 03:43 pm IST

The podcast hosts are Sayeeda Warsi (left), a lawyer and former minister, and David Baddiel, a Jewish writer and comedian.

The podcast hosts are Sayeeda Warsi (left), a lawyer and former minister, and David Baddiel, a Jewish writer and comedian. | Photo Credit: Shutterstock

One of the things that has fallen by the wayside in Indian politics over the last decade or so is the idea of respectful disagreement, of civilly conducted debates about the issues that matter in the lives of the people. Admittedly, this is one of the smaller casualties in the larger, state-of-democracy scheme of things, but it does matter. Which is why, I quite enjoyed listening to a recent podcast, A Muslim and a Jew Go There, produced by Jemima Khan’s Instinct Productions.

The ‘Muslim’ part of the title is represented by British lawyer and former Conservative Party minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and she is joined by her compatriot, the Jewish writer and comedian David Baddiel.

In the podcast, Warsi and Baddiel talk about Israel-Palestine, anti-semitism and Islamophobia, the similarities and differences between Islam and Judaism, the English public’s perception of the Israeli government, and so on. Basically, there are issues that bring Muslims and Jews together and there are those that divide them. Warsi and Baddiel frequently disagree, but always with impeccable manners and with a sense of genuine warmth and curiosity about the other person’s point of view. As Warsi says in the first episode, “There are so many conversations happening behind closed doors and we want to bring them out in the open. The kind of things about which people say, ‘don’t touch that, don’t go there!’. Well, we are going to go there.”

Life as a minority

You can see the areas where Warsi’s and Baddiel’s experiences converge, and they shine an important light on the lives of minorities in the U.K. Baddiel recalls going to one of the few public schools in his hometown that had a sizeable Jewish student populace, where he wouldn’t be teased for, say, wearing a yarmulke. Warsi, on the other hand, pointed out that while the yarmulke was a visual marker of Jewishness, in most other situations, Baddiel would be “just another white person”. Whereas Warsi, like a lot of other brown kids growing up in the U.K., was never far from random people calling her “Paki” (a British slur aimed at Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis et al) in the street. “I’ll have to challenge you on that” is an oft-used line on the podcast by both Baddiel and Warsi — it’s their way of expressing dissent, of pushing back against the other person’s ideas. And to their credit, they have often shifted their stances during the course of an episode, too, swayed by the other person’s testimony, the texture of their lived reality.

Sayeeda Warsi

Sayeeda Warsi | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The second episode, where the duo discusses the victory of independent candidate George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election, is a masterpiece in miniature. Galloway won a shock landslide victory over Labour candidate Azhar Ali recently, mostly because of the former’s strident criticism of Israel. Now, Galloway’s sudden re-emergence into electoral relevance is surprising also because in the past, he has made a number of xenophobic, anti-immigrant statements. How, then, did he win this election on the backs of votes by people of colour? Warsi and Baddiel explain the background to this issue: the Islamophobia of the Conservatives and the anti-semitism of the Labour Party are both brilliantly explained. There are some lighter moments as well, when Warsi and Baddiel are in splits discussing Galloway’s infamous appearance on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother, where the politician wore a cat-like leotard, purred and lapped up milk from a saucer at one point.

Pressing issues

This segment also shows how well-chosen the two people at the centre of this podcast are. Warsi resigned from her position as Minister of State for Faith and Communities in 2014, citing the Conservative government’s Gaza policy. To that extent, she is ahead of the curve by about a decade. Baddiel is the writer of the hilarious British film The Infidel (2010), about a British Muslim man who goes through an identity crisis after discovering he was adopted and was actually born into a Jewish family. In the climax of the movie, the man reconciles his dual identities by reading the Talmud and the Quran and realising the similarities between the two (Baddiel talking about his film’s making is a delight on the podcast). Clearly, these are issues that both Warsi and Baddiel have thought long and hard about, and it shows.

David Baddiel

David Baddiel | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Moreover, as the two of them admit during the podcast, there’s no shame in accepting one’s mistakes, saying ‘sorry’ and letting oneself be educated on the finer points of a matter. Warsi has, in the past, apologised for homophobic remarks she made in her early career.

Baddiel, similarly, has apologised for using blackface in one of his comedy skits. These are regular, flawed human beings who accept their limitations and want to find common, broadly progressive ground at a time when polarisation and knee-jerk reductionism is the norm. And for that reason alone, I would highly recommend A Muslim and a Jew Go There.

The author is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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