A month ago, I, and probably many of you, would have uttered a puzzled “Huh?” upon reading the title of this column. Today, with the comments about the Shoah by comedian/actor/talk show host Whoopi Goldberg having their 15 minutes of fame, many more of us recognize her birth name.
Here are a few of my thoughts — admittedly still a work in progress — on this brouhaha.
1. Whoopi Goldberg, who didn’t show animus to Jews or deny or downplay the horrors of the Shoah, is not an antisemite. To call her one makes that word meaningless. Yet too many members of my community — one that is so careful to ensure that the words Shoah/Holocaust do not lose their significance by applying them to inapposite events — have done so. They are wrong, have trashed the English language, given succor to true antisemites, and foolishly may have made an enemy out of an ally. They should be ashamed. And they should stop.
2. The criticism of her name change from Johnson to Goldberg, ubiquitous on social media, is silly. She simply followed in the tradition set by Theodosia Goodman, Nathan Birnbaum, Emanuel Goldenberg, Issue Danielovitch Demsky, Betty Perske, Jacob Cohen, Bernard Schwartz, Natalie Hershlag, and Israel Beilin. You know, Theda Bara, George Burns, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Rodney Dangerfield, Tony Curtis, Natalie Portman, and (Sharon’s favorite, who shares a birthday with her) Irving Berlin.
3. Many conservatives who traditionally bash what they call (erroneously in my view, but that’s for another column) “cancel culture” cheered ABC for suspending her. This brought the word irony — or is it hypocrisy? — to mind. I note that some of my conservative friends generally opposed to “cancellations” decried her suspension for exactly that reason, and I admire them for their principled stance. (Yes, I have many conservative friends.)
4. Now to substance.
As is now only too well known, Goldberg said on “The View,” where she is one of the hosts, that the Shoah “is not about race. It’s not. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man. This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves.”
There was quite a bit of follow up. A further statement on the “Steven Colbert Show,” a written apology, and an on-air apology. The apologies were as good as apologies get; she said she was wrong and regretted her comments, realized her words upset many people, recognized that the Shoah was about race, acknowledged that words matter, and noted that she stands with the Jewish people. It was certainly not a non-apology apology that I (“If You’re Going to Apologize, Apologize”) and so many others have decried. Nonetheless, shortly thereafter ABC suspended her for two weeks.
My first reaction was dismay over the fact that so many refused to accept her apology and called her an antisemite. (See paragraph 1 above.) I did agree, however, that her statement was inartful and omitted important facts. For example, whether or not Jews are a race (see below), the Nazis, in word, law, and deed, certainly considered them an inferior race — itself an important element in the Shoah. And framing it as white people vs. white people is both wrong (Nazis persecuted and killed many people of color), and irrelevant — it was in the context of a world war that impacted on the freedoms of our entire multiracial world.
But the critique against her was similarly erroneous, non-nuanced and, sadly, included ad hominem attacks and invective for which no apologies were given. Moreover, her comments, when carefully parsed and understood, raised important issues to which analysis and discussion rather than assault and denunciation should have been the reaction.
Underlying her comments were, I think, two interrelated points. First, just as hatred of Jews has a specific name — antisemitism — assigned to it, the hatred and evil shown primarily to African Americans in the United States also has a traditional name — racism. Broadening racism to include many other types of hatred where people of color do not play a part weakens its impact.
This argument raises serious questions. Why is antisemitism, a grave evil, not specific enough to fully cover what happened in the Shoah? Why are so many so fixated on also ascribing racism as a cause? As I noted, Jews are rightfully protective of important words relating to their experience, like the Holocaust and antisemitism. Call anything a concentration camp other than one run by the Nazis and we reject that claim with justification, even if the phrase technically applies; assert the canard that Arabs can’t be antisemitic because they themselves are Semites (which they are), and we rightfully object.
Likewise, many Blacks believe that racism describes in unique ways their American experience and mistreatment since before our country’s founding; indeed, racism is still an existential problem for them, as evidenced, for example, by the bomb threats just last week against 17 historically Black colleges and universities. Even if one disagrees from a definitional point of view, the lack of sensitivity to this legitimate feeling was disheartening.
Second, she was arguing that Jews are not primarily a race but a religion. And from her racial perspective, if not perhaps from that of some Jews or the Nazis, both the Jews and their oppressors in fact shared membership in the white race. She therefore doesn’t see racism as the essential factor underlying the Shoah; she sees “man’s inhumanity to man.” I would have fine-tuned that to include antisemitism as well, but her point about inhumanity is hard to deny.
Let’s turn, for a moment, to the merits. Are Jews a race? The Nazis’ Nuremberg race laws and other historical theories (see the medieval limpieza de sangre — purity of blood — concerns) would seem to say yes. And yet Nazi belief and laws are not dispositive. Remember, while they also considered as Jewish anyone with a Jewish grandparent, many Jews reject this definition when it comes to determining who is included in the Jewish people. The Nazi definition of Jews as race should not necessarily have greater weight.
Moreover, the fact that antisemites hate Jews by choice and Jews of color just as much as they hate white Jews by birth also points away from Judaism as race, as does the fact that Jews have no standard skin color; just look at the multiracial makeup of Israel, where Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and others all live together as one people. Similarly, a Christian can convert and become a Jew but a white person can’t convert and become Black. See too the book “Once We Were Slaves: The Extraordinary Journey of a Multi-Racial Jewish Family,” where the argument is made in the title. Indeed, even a thoughtful article arguing that Goldberg’s comment was wrong notes that “Jewish identity doesn’t conform to Western categories…. It’s not quite a religion … but it’s also not quite a race … and it’s not simply a nationality…. Instead, Judaism is an amalgam of all these things.”
So was Goldberg wrong? In some ways yes, as discussed above. But what we need to remember is that she wasn’t a historian delivering a lecture or a scholar writing a book. She’s a talk show host who, as is typical of those in her profession, raised important issues in a casual, perhaps glib, and somewhat uninformed and unsophisticated manner. What should have been central to our reaction, though, was not vituperation and back-of-the-hand dismissal. Rather, we should have taken seriously and shown sensitivity to the two issues she raised that I highlighted above, which are not — can I say it? — black and white.
Though Goldberg may have erred, too many of us also erred in missing an opportunity. Rather than attack, we should have discussed; rather than condemn, we should have taught; rather than denounce, we should have explained; rather than express anger, we should have shown sensitivity. And rather than smugly assert that only we are right, we should have also asked questions, listened, and hopefully learned.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.