Recently, for those who are just joining us for today’s episode of Trashy Celebrity Gossip Intersects With a Complicated Message About Social Justice, a la “That Funny Feeling” by Bo Burnham, Whoopi Goldberg has recently screwed up. As a cohost on talk show The View, during a discussion about the book Maus being removed from school shelves, Goldberg incorrectly identified the Holocaust as not being about racial or ethnic cleansing. She insisted the event, which was by definition about race, was “not about race”, and characterized it instead as “white people doing it to white people”. Although Goldberg did publicly apologize for her statements across numerous platforms, she was suspended from her position at The View.
Naturally, as is the modern custom for whenever a celebrity says something offensive and is then relieved of their public duties, this has devolved into a really unproductive debate about “cancel culture”. There are people, either who themselves have been personally or historically affected by the Holocaust, or who are just virtue-signaling for clout, who believe that Goldberg’s suspension is not enough. Still others, including both those who are and are not of Jewish heritage, decry this as an overreaching attempt at political correctness.
(Since, y’know, the Holocaust was about us, I am choosing only to supplement with op-eds from other Jewish people.) (Also, in case anyone is new here, I am also somehow Jewish. Yes, it surprises me, too.)
What is missing from this national debate, as is often the case, is nuance. Let’s begin with some background. Goldberg has a very unorthodox (pun totally intended) relationship with the Jewish people. Her given name is very not-Jewish, and she has no Jewish ancestry; she gave herself the surname “Goldberg” after her mother quipped that their original surname was “not Jewish enough” for celebrity. Growing up in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, it is worth speculating that Goldberg did have a lot of exposure to Jewish culture in her upbringing. I would say that it is plausible that Goldberg both considers herself a friend to and fan of Jews, but also that there may be some weird fetishization at play. As a Jewish person myself with family working in Hollywood, I guess I don’t know what there is to fetishize–but, as they say, “the grass is always greener”.
This brings us to another question: was Goldberg downplaying the Holocaust? Absolutely not. (To be fair, she has voiced support for her friend, known anti-Semite Mel Gibson. I am frankly more irritated and offended by her friendship with Mel Gibson that than I am this incident.) At no point did she dismiss or invalidate the atrocities of the Holocaust. She simply misrecognized it for what it was: an ethnic cleansing. What seems substantially obvious to, well, I’d hope most people, was not obvious to Goldberg. Because of her background and understanding of race relations, which have been undoubtedly informed by her lived experiences as a Black woman in the US, she looked at the Holocaust and saw two groups of white people in conflict, rather than a dominant class systematically murdering a racial and ethnic minority.
It’s an age-old question for Americans: are Jews white? In the US, anti-Semitism is given its own name and described in its own terms; it’s a different phenomenon for us than, say, anti-Asian or anti-Black prejudice. Jews in the US both enjoy the status and prosperity associated with white privilege, but face discrimination and prejudice by white supremacists, who do not consider us white. It’s also worth noting that the term “holocaust” can refer to any mass slaughter or destruction–including, in my opinion (which is not popular amongst the Jewish community at large), what is currently being done unto the Palestinians by Israelis as a result of both Israeli and American imperialism. However, we refer to the Holocaust as the Holocaust, capitalizing it and denoting it with such symbolic significance, though it is not hardly the only time a major ethnic cleansing has resulted in the mass extinction of a population.
It is foolish and shortsighted to deny both that Jews have a major presence in American society’s highest stratum, and that we continue to face widespread subjugation and persecution. It feels sometimes that we can only make one of those statements and not the other.
Doesn’t this incident, more than anything, reflect upon how arbitrary and asinine race is as a social construct, that one person from one time and place can look at the Holocaust and see two groups of white people in conflict? Anyone who has studied the Holocaust even the littlest bit knows that the Third Reich instructed Europeans to look at Jews as a totally different race, and this wasn’t hard, because Jews had been relegated to our own segments of society for several centuries by that point. It is debatable whether or not there is a “truly Jewish phenotype”, though the genetic nuances of Jews is well-studied. Our historical tendency not to marry outside the Jewish faith, which was both self-imposed and on account of prejudice and discrimination, has led to the prevalence of certain genetic mutations occurring more often within Jewish populations. However, the same can be said for some American fundamentalist Mormon populations, for similar reasons, yet they are not considered their own ethnic group. It seems totally arbitrary to class Jewish people as a separate ethnic or racial class, but the reality is that we are our own racial and ethnic class, because we have historically been deemed as such in so many different parts of the world.
I’m choosing to look at it from Goldberg’s vantage point. She is a Black-American woman, who grew up in a housing project in Manhattan during a time when she undoubtedly saw Jewish people continue to develop a foothold in her dream industry: show business. She is not a professor of sociology or a Holocaust historian; she’s a comedian with her own opinions and interpretations of history. And, well, she fucked this one up, honestly pretty badly. But firing her from The View closes the door on these kinds of conversations. It’s really worth exploring, both for the sake of Jewish-American and Black-American advocacy, why Whoopi Goldberg ever thought that the Holocaust was not about race.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, himself expressed support for the idea of “counsel culture”, in which redemption is possible for those who admit wrongdoing and committing to do better–and he made it clear that he and the ADL were both willing to invite Whoopi Goldberg for her own teshuva, or redemption. We Jews need as many supporters as we can get, and it’s worth educating those supporters who love us but may not necessarily have their shit together.