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Trivializing inhumanity                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Feb/07/2022 : Posted by: Mel

Related Category: People, Society,

It is interesting how things work. There is a lot going on in my life and the world around me. Periodically these many things have a common theme rises to the surface. I had a conversation with a rabbi recently and was challenged on the topic of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. If you follow any news you are likely aware of Whoopi Goldberg’s recent comments that seemed to take and entirely new tack on the Holocaust. If nothing else, Ms. Goldberg seems to be redefining the term “race.”

On the January 31st episode of ABC’s “The View”, co-host Whoopi Goldberg claimed that the Holocaust was “not about race.” To be clear, I find Ms. Goldberg a very accomplished entertainer. She has earned a Tony, a Grammy, and Academy and an Emmy Award. To my knowledge, the list of people whose resume includes those four awards is very short. But, none of those credentials qualifies her to speak knowledgably on events of the day.

I have never been a fan of listening to the political views of entertainers and sports figures. Because of their popularity, there is a desire to listen to everything they have to say, but it is seldom well qualified. As a friend once told me, “stay in your lane.”

“The View,” host Whoopi Goldberg claimed the Holocaust was “not about race.” That’s historically confused and minimizes the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people. In addition, it misrepresents the nature of the Nazis and therefore makes it more difficult to oppose fascist authoritarian violence, whether that violence is directed at Jewish people or at others. Initially, though, she said the Holocaust was not racially motivated because Jewish people are white. “This is white people doing it to white people. Y’all go fight amongst yourselves.” I’m sorry, isn’t that a version of “all white people look alike to me.” I know the labels I would get if I used a different colored version of the same thought.

Definitions vary, but in general race is defined as any one of the groups humans are divided into based on physical traits, national origin, or sociocultural groups.

The problem with Whoopi’s definition of race is that it takes the simplest possible interpretation based solely on the physical characteristic of skin color. It’s clearly also lacks any cultural construction. Different people have been racialized — or targeted on the basis of perceived, false biological differences — at different times in different ways. Trying to apply racial categories that fit the present to the past can end up obscuring racism in both.

English art and poetry, for a long time depicted Irish people as subhuman nonwhite others; when they immigrated to the U.S., though, they slowly became perceived as white. (Noel Ignatiev’s book, “How the Irish Became White.”) Similarly, Italians, Eastern Europeans and Jews weren’t exactly viewed as white, either. These days, light-skinned people in all these groups are generally perceived as white — though it’s not hard to still find racialized attacks on Jewish people regardless of skin color.

Scholars will debate the origins of the Holocaust. Some say German Nationalism after the defeat of WWI, others will tie it to Hitler’s belief in a “Pure German.” There is of course the advantage to creating blame during the depression in order to inspire a new nationalism. It could be as obscure as Hitler blaming the Jewish doctor who couldn’t save his mother from cancer. In truth, antisemitism has been common across Europe since the middle ages. With the spread of Christianity, many were taught that the Jews killed Jesus, so the hatred came easily.

I can remember getting on the school bus at a young age and being accused of killing Jesus. I was brought nearly to tears. I didn’t know who Jesus was and had never killed anything beyond jumping up and down on some ants. I guess all the Christian kids in my neighborhood had the same Sunday school lesson the previous day.

In truth, the Holocaust targeted Jews, people with Jewish grandparents, Catholics, gypsies, and generally any whose loyalty or heritage was not purely German by some Nazi definition.

The Holocaust was specifically intended to wipe out Jewish people as a (perceived) race. That’s why the Nazis targeted Christians with Jewish grandparents. And it’s why they didn’t try to convert Jewish people before killing them, in contrast to that earlier forms of European antisemitism such as the Inquisition.

Goldberg apologized a few hours later, acknowledging that the Nazis targeted the Jews because they were a group “who they deemed to be an inferior race.” Goldberg did say on “The View” that it was important to teach about the Holocaust. In particular, she expressed support for Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (which was recently removed from a Tennessee school curriculum) because it helps students “learn about man’s inhumanity to man, however it exposes itself.”

Whoopi clearly wants to set aside racism in its various forms and talk instead about a generalized inhumanity to man. Her motivation there seems laudable; she wants everyone, everywhere, to feel like the Holocaust is relevant to them. “The minute you turn it into race, it goes down this alley,” she said. “Let’s talk about it for what it is. It’s how people treat each other. That’s the problem.”

But when you take the racism out of the evil ways in which people treat each other, you make it more difficult to identify racism as the source of, and a warning sign for that evil are more easily ignored. Pretending that some forms of racism do not really exist make it easier for them to propagate. This is critical to remember when studying violence since so much of it traces back to the racism of one group against another.

White Jewish people are not the main focus of prejudice in the United States, as they were in Germany. The U.S. concentrates most of its racialized violence on people with dark skin and specific ethic groups. But Jewish people of every skin tone could become targets again. We need to understand that the evil of racism is inextricably linked to the way it picks out specific people for hatred and destruction.

For the sake of a little background it should be noted that Whoopi Goldberg was born Caryn Elain Johnson. As a comic she adopted the stage name of Whoopi in response to a reference to the “whoopi cushion.” The origin of the surname “Goldberg” is a little sketchier. The story is that while growing up in New York and attempting to find comic work, her mother Emma Johnson told her that her surname was “not Jewish enough” for her daughter to become a star. Whoopi does not appear to practice any religion, but claims to have adopted the faith from some distance heritage. She has also told a newspaper that “I am a Jewish-American princess.”

As a comic and entertainer, clearly the failing is on us. Looking for insights and intelligent discussion on the day’s news events should be the bailiwick of scholars and journalist. I loved her performance in Ghosts and left the theater believing she should get an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Being a Jew is not exclusively about identifying with the Holocaust. Being a Jew is about certain beliefs and identifying yourself as part of a people with a long history. That history includes the Holocaust, but is only one part of over 5700 years of history. It is also important to note that identifying yourself as part of a people who are less than 1% of the world’s population is not always easy.

Publically stating that this is “…white people doing it to white people” trivializes the Holocaust making it easier for such hatred to be politically acceptable in the future.
Much like the challenges with social media; in our modern era it is easy to get confused over the quality of discussion on current events. There may be no real fix except to turn the TV off and play an old record. As a minimum I think someone needs to educate Ms. Goldberg on a more world view definition of racism.

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