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Op-Ed: Whoopi Goldberg was wrong … and right

Whoopi Goldberg on the set of the "The View"
Whoopi Goldberg has apologized for saying the Holocaust was not about race.
(Jenny Anderson / Associated Press)
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On Monday, Whoopi Goldberg ran into trouble when discussing the recent banning of Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir “Maus” on “The View.” She insisted that the Holocaust “was not about race” and that it was instead an example of “white-on-white” violence. The blowback was immediate. She was accused of both minimizing and misunderstanding the Holocaust, and ABC suspended her from the show for two weeks. Commentators took to the news to explain what Goldberg had gotten wrong: The Nazis very much saw Jews as an inferior race, and one that needed to be eradicated. European racial scientists considered Jews to be biologically different from “Aryan,” Nordic or Germanic people.

But Whoopi Goldberg did get something right. What race meant in Europe and the United States was not identical. Despite their pseudoscientific claims that Jews were physically different, Nazi policymakers feared that Jews could pass as white. Indeed, this was precisely why they constituted such a grave threat to the body politic. Nazi propaganda emphasized that when the Eastern European or Orthodox Jew shaved off his beard, he could creep undetected into politics, business and entertainment, as well as into the arms of “Aryan” women, and thus surreptitiously corrupt the German race and its culture.

‘The View’s’ Whoopi Goldberg was suspended for misinformed comments on the Holocaust. Her error is a chance for us all to examine our misperceptions.

Feb. 2, 2022

The infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935 codified the belief that a Jew — even one who was unreligious or a convert to Christianity — remained a member of a distinct race. But the point of the Nuremberg Laws was that Jews needed to be better defined as a “race” precisely because their outward appearance could be deceiving. This was why the regime created guidelines based on genealogical research rather than on visual cues: The standard for full Jewishness was whether one had at least three Jewish grandparents. Even as the Nuremberg Laws defined Jews as a racialized group, they reflected the slipperiness of race as a category.

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The Nazi regime itself was aware of the problem. When its members looked at Jim Crow laws in the United States, they envied the ability to visually recognize Black people through outward features such as skin color and hair.

Part of why Whoopi Goldberg’s statements struck a nerve is that they tapped into a long and fraught conversation in the United States about the connections between anti-Black and anti-Jewish violence. Since the start of the Third Reich in 1933, Black writers have struggled to understand whether Hitler’s persecution of the Jews mirrored their own persecution in the United States. Was Hitler “another Klansman” or a “Southern cracker”? Did his hatred of Jews spring from the same source as anti-Black hatred in the United States?

In the 1930s, commentators in the Black press grasped that the Nazi war against the Jews was a race war on the European continent, and they expressed a camaraderie with those who were suffering. At the same time, there was frustration and pain that the same white Americans who condemned Nazism refused to confront the homegrown persecution of African Americans — the lynchings, the anti-miscegenation laws and segregation.

The controversy surrounding Goldberg’s recent statements taps into this longer history of a Black-Jewish relationship shaped by both camaraderie and tension at a critical moment.

Consider what is happening. Multiple states and school boards are trying to forestall an honest and painful reckoning with anti-Black racism in America by banning the teaching of critical race theory. We are witnessing steady attacks on voting rights that threaten to disenfranchise African Americans in particular. Meanwhile, school districts are banning Holocaust literature, and antisemitic hate crimes are on the rise.

Perhaps unwittingly, Goldberg tapped into a longstanding concern that a focus on Jewish Holocaust trauma within U.S. political culture has come at the expense of a full confrontation with the legacies of slavery and racial violence. Why, for example, did a Holocaust museum open on the National Mall in Washington more than two decades before a museum of African American history? It remains a question worth asking.

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Yet this also feels like a perilous moment for American Jews in a climate of rising antisemitic violence, Holocaust denialism and the circulation of conspiracy theories that traffic in ancient tropes of Jewish world domination. Indeed, the punishment raining down on Goldberg feels disproportionate, especially considering that an hour on the internet can uncover far more egregious examples of blatant and malicious antisemitism.

And yet Goldberg’s insistence that Jews are white feels painfully off the mark. If you are being marched to a gas chamber, it matters little whether your persecutor considers you a member of a distinct race. If you are being held at gunpoint in a Texas synagogue, you are not thinking about whether antisemitism is a form of racism. And her claim that the Holocaust is above all a story of human cruelty obscures the distinct vulnerability that has shaped the Jewish experience.

For American Jews, the fear is that, precisely because contemporary antisemitism manifests so differently from anti-Black racism, the threat it poses will be obscured and there will be no widespread public outcry against it. It is thus no surprise that Goldberg’s comments hit a nerve. At moments of heightened danger, we tend to safeguard our own suffering.

Jonathan Wiesen is a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is writing a book on German views of anti-Black racism in the United States.

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