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Whoopi Goldberg isn’t the only one who doesn’t understand antisemitism

Of course the Holocaust was about race. But it’s no longer surprising that there’s some dispute about that.

Whoopi Goldberg, pictured at the White House in November 2015, was suspended on Feb. 1 over her remarks on “The View” that the Holocaust wasn't about race. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

On Monday on “The View,” during a conversation about book banning and the Holocaust graphic novel “Maus,” Whoopi Goldberg declared that “the Holocaust wasn’t about race,” because it was “two groups of White people.” Her co-hosts pushed back: Joy Behar noted that the Nazis were obsessed with race, and Sara Haines reminded Goldberg that Jews were not considered White in Nazi Germany. But that was nothing compared with the outrage online, from random Twitter users all the way up to Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League.

Within about eight hours, Goldberg had apologized, saying, “I stand corrected,” that “the Jewish people around the world have always had my support,” and “I’m sorry for the hurt I have caused.” The show announced that Greenblatt would join the panel on Tuesday to discuss the matter further. By Tuesday night, ABC had suspended Goldberg for two weeks to “take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments.”

"The View" co-host Whoopi Goldberg apologized to viewers on Feb. 1, one day after saying "the Holocaust isn't about race" on air. (Video: "The View"/ABC, Photo: Jenny Anderson/ABC via AP/"The View"/ABC)

As a former producer at “The View,” I appreciated the apology and believed it to be sincere. I knew that Goldberg genuinely regretted hurting anyone. But just a few hours later, I watched her on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show, which had been taped before she apologized. Goldberg seemed to double down on her comments, explaining “it wasn’t racial, it was White on White.” She also argued — bizarrely — that if she and a Jewish friend were to stumble upon some Klansmen on the street, only she would run because the hypothetical Jewish friend would likely be able to avoid detection.

Both sets of comments — first on her show, and later on Colbert’s — reflect a disturbing ideology that is growing increasingly rampant: a concerted effort to rewrite the history of the Jewish people and render the nature of antisemitism as nebulous and as nonspecific to Jews as possible. It’s an ideology that tries to turn Jews into White people, that tries to erase Jewish vulnerability and oppression, to squeeze Jews who have light skin into modern American categories of race and ethnicity, and which also myopically categorizes the hatred against them into American considerations of what racism looks like. But Jews predate these categories (and America, as a nation) by thousands of years.

The result is an understanding of antisemitism that focuses not on the Jewish victims, but rather the perpetrators. In 2019, while I was still at “The View,” we covered an antisemitic Jersey City shooting that killed three people. The perpetrators were Black, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching the show. Behar blamed white nationalism. It wasn’t that she knew differently: It’s a live show, and she made a mistake. But the subtext was clear: The default assumption is that attacks on Jews come from white nationalists. Anything that suggests otherwise runs contrary to our conception of race and hierarchy and intersectionality, and it goes unnoticed.

Antisemitism on the left is subtler than on the right. But it’s getting worse.

As I watched “The View” on Monday, I found myself thinking of my Oma, my Berlin-born grandmother. What she remembers most about growing up in Berlin is just how much she wasn’t allowed to do: She wasn’t allowed to go the park, the pool or have a bicycle. She wasn’t allowed into restaurants. She couldn’t go to the theater, the movies, museum exhibits or the beach. Many institutions had signs saying, “No Jews, no Dogs.” She carries the trauma of that exclusion with her to this day. As in the American South under Jim Crow, these racial discriminations were state-sponsored. And the similarities of those legal structures is one reason Goldberg’s comments stung so deeply: On Sept. 15, 1935, Nazi Germany established the Nuremberg laws, depriving Jews of German citizenship and forbidding marriage or sexual relations between Jews and Germans. They later banned Jews from voting and occupying public office. These laws were the legal basis upon which the rest of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies were built.

Those laws were highly specific about heritage: A “full Jew” was one who had three Jewish grandparents. Jews with fewer than three Jewish grandparents, particularly if they were married to a non-Jewish spouse, might “enjoy” the mixed status of “mischling,” or “mongrel.” The categories were based on calculating the amount of Jewish blood in a person’s veins. There were no tests applied to how religious the Jews were. Nazis murdered secular Jews and religious Jews; they murdered Jews who had converted to Catholicism and Jews who had denounced Judaism. They described the physical attributes of the Jewish race: how long our noses were, how our faces were shaped, what size our brains might be. To describe the Holocaust as “not about race” betrays a profound ignorance of what the Holocaust entailed. But it reflects a relatively new prevailing notion that Jews, in America at least, are part of the White power structure — that we can’t be oppressed in the same way that other minorities are, and that we don’t need the same kind of support from allies that others do.

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Talking heads online were quick to blame Goldberg, and I understood why. Watching the segment from home, I felt myself wishing I had a line into her ear, able to yell “Stop! You’re wrong!” But that’s the real tragedy: It’s not that one person deeply and profoundly misunderstood the atrocities of the past, or even that one person had unwittingly fallen into perpetuating antisemitism by minimizing and mischaracterizing the Holocaust. It’s that the person is a talk-show host who gets to speak to millions and millions of Americans every day. The failing here isn’t just Goldberg’s for not knowing better; it’s also that her misunderstanding is all too common.

Antisemitism is older, and different — and in some ways, more deeply embedded — than the forms of racism Americans are used to recognizing. Goldberg’s error on the show is an opportunity: “The View” and the broader media can treat it as a gaffe, a misstatement, an unfortunate turn of phrase to be apologized for and quickly forgotten. Or they can interrogate what it means that she thought — and said — what she did. On Tuesday morning on “The View,” while again apologizing, Goldberg started out by saying, “Yesterday, I misspoke.” She didn’t misspeak, though. She shared a viewpoint that was misguided and ignorant — but it was the viewpoint she genuinely meant to share. The ADL’s Greenblatt joined the segment and explained in no uncertain terms why the Nazi genocide was, indeed, about race. But while the rest of the hosts engaged with him and asked questions, Goldberg remained silent for the duration of the segment.

I worry that she, and the network, missed an opportunity to genuinely address this issue. Suspending Goldberg — although it’s a meaningful step — won’t address why she said what she did. We could have seen a commitment to include Jews in future trainings for the show’s staff to avoid situations like this one. We could have seen the panel embrace Greenblatt’s suggestion to add a Jewish host, acknowledging that representation matters for everyone — including Jews. The discussion could have tried to get at the nature of antisemitism and explored how dismissing American Jews as just another kind of White people at the top of an oppressive power structure is, itself, antisemitic.

As a Jew, it’s incredibly to hurtful to watch as people get pass after pass for expressing antisemitic beliefs. It can be tempting to throw in the towel, to stop speaking out since it feels like no one is listening anyway. But we can’t go that route.

There’s only one thing to do. When I used to be down about something, Oma would tell me what her German-Jewish mother would tell her when she saw the signs forbidding her entrance: “gerade stehen.” Stand up straight.

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