When American actress and television personality Whoopi Goldberg proclaimed that “the Holocaust isn’t about race” during the January 31 airing of ABC’s The View, she exposed a blind spot of many Americans when it comes to understanding antisemitism. Goldberg demonstrated the same blind spot later that day on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, when she argued that Jews are white, and that no one – not even Nazis or Ku Klux Klansmen – can tell whether someone is Jewish from their physical appearance.
Although Goldberg apologized for her ill-informed comments, ABC acted appropriately in suspending her for two weeks. We can only hope that during her time off she educated herself on the Holocaust, and came to the realization that the Final Solution wasn’t about “white people doing it to white people.” So, case closed, right? Hardly.
It would be a mistake to simply write off this episode as a gaffe born not of hatred but of ignorance and just forget it and move on. That’s because the opinions expressed by Goldberg reflect the reason why antisemitism is widely misunderstood among Americans, and often ignored or dismissed even by professionals engaged in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work.
According to the American Jewish Committee’s survey on the “State of Antisemitism in America 2021,” 34% of American adults don’t know what antisemitism is, and nearly one in six said they had never heard the term. We shouldn’t be surprised by these findings. After all, Whoopi Goldberg isn’t alone among Americans who hold a rather narrow view of Jews as a “white” religious community (although, ironically, if you ask a white supremacist, we don’t qualify as white at all).
The problem runs deeper than merely discounting the 10%-15% of American Jews who are, in fact, people of color. Americans, particularly progressives, tend to see structural oppression only through the lens of race. Based on this worldview, how can it be that Jews, who are lumped together with the white majority, experience oppression? How can they be vulnerable when attributes such as privilege, affluence and implicit bias (if not outright racism) are associated with being white? How can antisemitism be a pressing issue if its victims are positioned at the top of the oppressive power structure?
To be sure, we Jews who are white-presenting must acknowledge a degree of privilege. Yet, one need only look at the alarming increase in hate crimes against Jews over the last several years to realize that whatever privilege we have doesn’t provide immunity against antisemitism.
People who think like Goldberg have recast Jews into an amorphous grouping that’s entirely devoid of our identity, peoplehood, culture and long history of persecution. Because we are dismissed as just another part of the white power structure – a view that arguably is itself antisemitic – we are neither considered a historically oppressed community nor do we merit the level of support given to other marginalized minorities.
This explains how an FBI spokesperson reporting on the mid-January hostage-taking at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas could initially make the absurd claim that it “was not specifically related to the Jewish community” – in other words, that it wasn’t an antisemitic hate crime. It explains why so many Jews feel abandoned by those whom we would have expected to be allies in the face of rising antisemitism, especially from the far left. And it explains the frequent omission of Jews and antisemitism from ethnic studies curricula.
The fallacy that Jews are white also erases the identity of millions of Israeli Jews who trace their roots to Arab countries, Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. Representing over half the Israeli Jewish population, these are people whose skin color is manifestly not white. Their existence flies in the face of the insidious BDS movement, which would have Americans believe that Israel is a white European settler colonialist enterprise that dispossessed the indigenous (Palestinian) people of color and therefore has no right to exist.
During the Holocaust, Hitler sought to erase the Jewish people, whom he considered to be an inferior “race,” by committing genocide. Now, our distinctive identity and history are being erased by those who insist on pigeonholing the Jews into a black-and-white paradigm, in which we don’t properly fit and by which our concerns about the threat of antisemitism are largely disregarded.
We need to make clear that we don’t accept an erroneous definition of who Jews are based on skin color. If we expect American society to take antisemitism seriously, then we can’t allow the Whoopi Goldbergs of the world to deny the complexity of our identity or negate the reality of our historical experience. ■
The writer is director of Community Relations and Public Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.