Whoopi Goldberg is back in the habit of making ignorant and offensive statements about the Holocaust. Last weekend she once again appeared to insist that the Holocaust was not about race, despite the undeniable fact that the Nazis literally killed more than six million Jewish men, women and children because they believed (it was literally enshrined in the Nuremberg Race Laws) that Jews were racially inferior and needed to be exterminated. These new comments come only months after she “apologized” for dismissively referring to the Holocaust by saying “This is white people doing it to white people. Y’all go fight amongst yourselves.”
This time the apology took only a few days, with Whoopi now explaining that although it sounded like she was repeating her positions, in actuality she was just inartfully explaining what she had gotten wrong in her earlier comments. But even taking that at face value and assuming she did not intend to double-down, she still made it abundantly clear to the reporter that in her opinion the reaction to her earlier comments was completely overblown. But it wasn’t, and the lesson bears repeating.
Some people (Goldberg among them, at least for a time) believe that racism is not racism unless it involves discrimination based solely on the color of a person’s skin. In fact, racism is the belief that innate inherited characteristics biologically determine human behavior. In the United States, for example, laws protecting against discrimination based on race, including everything from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, have all been held to apply to discrimination against Jews, as a race, and courts consistently reiterate that antisemitic harassment and discrimination against Jews amounts to racial discrimination. Even during the Holocaust itself, the United States immigration laws (namely the Johnson-Reed Act) treated Jews as a distinct racial group—and a less desirable one at that. And in terms of what racists actually think, when white nationalists marched in Charlottesville in 2017, they yelled “Jews will not replace us.”
Whether or not Jews should be considered a separate race may be an interesting philosophical question, but the fact of the matter is that the Nazis were not and are not the only ones who believed and still believe that Jews are a different race and should therefore be treated differently—and worse. Racial discrimination takes place when bad people treat other people badly because of their perception of that other person’s race. That type of hate is wrong whether or not Whoopi or anyone else agrees with the racists’ categorizations. There is no zero-sum game when it comes to discrimination, and it is possible for there to be more than one kind of racial prejudice. Goldberg’s “purity” of discrimination test is both silly and wrong; one can be against both antisemitism (anti-Jewish racism) and anti-black racism at the same time, without diminishing either of them in any way, or cheapening the memory of the Holocaust.
To say that the mass extermination of Jews was just two groups of white people fighting completely minimizes the atrocity and pain of millions of innocent human beings who were systematically exterminated for their perceived racial inferiority.
To be clear, it is not debatable that the Nazis killed the Jews because of race. They openly did not care whether the Jews they killed were religious or only culturally Jewish (as most German Jews were, as a matter of fact). They cared only about the purity of their blood. To say that the mass extermination of Jews was just two groups of white people fighting completely minimizes the atrocity and pain of millions of innocent human beings who were systematically exterminated for their perceived racial inferiority. But the strange insistence that it could not have been about race, and even the casual downplaying of why comments like that matter, also speaks unintentional volumes about how antisemitism persists.
In a time of rising anti-Jewish sentiment, Goldberg’s reiteration of her beliefs—even if, as she says, she didn’t mean to repeat them per se, and only meant to explain why her position was still eminently reasonable if wrong—is problematic because the comments reflect a deeper issue. Despite the fact that this one “position” of hers stands somewhat alone for being uncommonly easy to disprove and uniquely (obnoxiously) ignorant, it still reflects the consistent and dangerous antisemitic pattern of othering Jews in whatever way is necessary so that they are not worthy of societal protection.
Here is an example of how this form of othering works using Whoopi’s not so innocuous comments. Within living memory, an entire one-third of all world Jewry was murderously annihilated explicitly because of their race. You would think that qualifies Jewish people for protection when discrimination is based on their perceived race. But now, when anti-racism is finally in vogue, Jews across the country are being gaslighted and told that they do not fall under the umbrella of that conversation about discrimination, and that their struggles should not be part of that discussion, because they are not actually a race. This same idea plays out all the time on the international level as well. As James Wald has noted, “In the past Jews were rendered alien to the West by being orientalized. Today, Jews are rendered alien to the Middle East by being redefined as European.”
The takeaway from Goldberg’s interview is that she does not seem to understand why some comments are objectionable, which is not entirely surprising: “Goldberg” of course was born Caryn Elaine Johnson, and in an act of cultural appropriation that would be shock-and-cancel-worthy if it involved any other racial or ethnic group, took on the stereotypically Jewish stage name Goldberg to help ensure her success—you know, because Jews run Hollywood. But instead of just parroting that she now knows the Holocaust was about race (even as she continues to explain to reporters why reasonable people might disagree), it is important that she finally understand why it was about race and why that matters, so that she stops making these casual “mistakes” and spreading her misconceptions.
Dr. Mark Goldfeder, Esq. is an international lawyer and Director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center.