It’s our fault, really, that we treat celebrity opinion on matters of actual importance as any more significant than insane graffiti scribbled on public bathroom walls. Maybe the guy who wrote “9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB” on a stall at Denny’s simply didn’t have as good of an agent as Mark Ruffalo, who is humoured when he talks about the strange ways the towers fell, because he was excellent in The Avengers series. People nevertheless pay attention when the guy from Titanic lectures us on the planet or when the female lead from Shallow Hal doles out advice on vaginal health, because celebrity seems to confer a level of authority that gets extended far beyond matters of script and screen.
To be fair to Whoopi Goldberg, whose ramblings on the Holocaust earlier this month would be better suited to a contemporary Der Stürmer than to a bathroom wall at Denny’s, her job as one of the co-hosts of The View is expressly to offer her opinion on social and political issues (the question of why an actor is best suited for that position is something to take up with producers at ABC). That is indeed what she was doing when, during a segment about a Tennessee school board that recently banned the graphic novel Maus, which is about Nazi death camps, the Oscar-winning actress remarked that the Holocaust was “not about race” but rather, about “man’s inhumanity to man.”
She doubled down later on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where she said that “the Nazis had issues with ethnicity, not race.” The Nazis were white, Ms. Goldberg elaborated, and so were most of the people they were targeting, she said, so “how can you say it’s about race if you are fighting each other?”
“This was about white on white.”
Anyone with a basic understanding of the Holocaust – or even someone who reads the first page of Maus, which is printed with the Adolf Hitler quote, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” – understands that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews specifically because they saw them as racially inferior. The Holocaust was not two groups of white people “fighting each other,” as Ms. Goldberg mused, but a genocide committed by those with power in the Third Reich against those who did not fit the Aryan ideal.
Ms. Goldberg issued a written apology that day, though she was still suspended for two weeks by ABC so that she could “take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments.” While some viewers wanted to see her fired, the action the network did take still seems unnecessarily punitive; what Ms. Goldberg said was dumb and wrong, but she didn’t appear malicious. Indeed, it’s unclear what exactly would be accomplished by cancelling people for being embarrassingly uninformed.
In a clearly unintentional, very clumsy way, Ms. Goldberg made herself an example of how antisemitic rhetoric functions in a uniquely pervasive manner. Unlike most forms of hatred or prejudice, which follows a clear direction or ideology, antisemitism festers in all directions, largely because Jewishness is so hard to define. It is not really a race, because there are Black, white, Asian and Hispanic Jews. It is not merely a religion, because there are nonpractising Jews (and the Nazis certainly didn’t check to see who kept kosher before sending families off to death camps). It’s not just a culture, because someone can’t just declare himself or herself Jewish; people are either born Jewish or undergo a religious conversion. And it’s not a specific ethnicity, because there are Jews of various ethnic backgrounds.
Because Jewish identity is so imprecise, it can be portrayed in all sorts of different ways depending on who or which group wants to peddle a certain narrative. Jews certainly weren’t considered white by Nazis, and they aren’t by white supremacists today, but in modern American and European circles, Jews have reached a level of integration such that they are often now considered white (which is probably why Ms. Goldberg was so confused).
To the Soviets, Jews were “rootless cosmopolitans” who were disloyal to the state, while at the same time, during the Red Scare of the 1950s, they were suspected communists, leaking American secrets to the enemy, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Contemporary antisemitism from the left sees Jews as powerful capitalists who control financial networks, which was among the tropes uncovered by the investigation into antisemitism within the U.K. Labour Party a few years ago. And while antisemitism from the right shares that view, it also sees Jews as a poisoning influence on a white ethnostate; the perpetrator of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018, for example, was influenced partly by the synagogue’s involvement in helping refugees settle in the United States.
These sorts of contradictions make antisemitism the ultimate adaptable prejudice, which has allowed it to thrive across continents for centuries. They help explain why and how someone could come to believe that the Holocaust was merely a battle between white people (Jews are part of the dominant powerful culture; how could they possibly be persecuted?) and confirm that those seeking informed political commentary are just as well off reading the graffiti at Denny’s as they are listening to celebrities with daytime TV shows.
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