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Whoopi Goldberg is not someone I would normally rush to defend. Our politics are too far apart on too many issues. And many will doubtless take delight in the fact that the queen of cancel culture has just found herself canceled.
But the pile-on against Goldberg for expressing a non-conventional view about the Holocaust needs examination – less for the content of the furore it has provoked than for what that furore tells us about power relations in our society. And for what the furore says about the things we hold dear and the things we don’t.
What seems to have done for Goldberg – leading to her suspension from a popular daytime TV talk show, The View, even after she apologized – was her comment that the Holocaust “isn’t about race.” Rather, she said, “it’s about man’s inhumanity to man, that’s what it’s about. These are two groups of white people…”
We don’t know exactly where Goldberg was heading with this particular line of thought because nervous fellow panelists shut it down. But she had a chance to clarify later on the Colbert Show, where she appeared to suggest that distinctions of “race” relate chiefly to the color of one’s skin.
“Race,” of course, is a socially constructed idea. Goldberg’s critics are right that calling Jews “white” in the context of the Holocaust is not only historically inaccurate but unhelpful to a clearer understanding of what the Holocaust was about. In Nazi Germany, it was the Nazis, not Whoopi Goldberg, who got to decide which groups constituted a “race.”
Nonetheless, her later apology seemed a good corrective: “On today’s show, I said the Holocaust ‘is not about race, but about man’s inhumanity to man’. I should have said it is about both … I stand corrected.”
But that, of course, was not enough. Much of the coverage has subtly implied that Goldberg skated a little too close to Holocaust denial or antisemitism. Kim Godwin, president of ABC News, reinforced that impression with a statement that presumed all Jews were offended by Goldberg’s remark: “The entire ABC News organization stands in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, of the Anti-Defamation League, went even further, labeling Goldberg’s comment “dangerous.” But in what meaningful sense was her remark dangerous rather than naïve, ignorant or misguided?
Goldberg wasn’t excusing or even minimizing the Holocaust. Nothing in her remarks makes a repetition of the Holocaust more likely, or encourages hatred or prejudice towards Jews. She simply reframed the Holocaust in ways that made sense to her given her own experiences of racism. Like many people, she struggled to see clearly enough another person’s viewpoint. We all do that, most of the time.
The question is: So what? Isn’t that what we have TV talk shows for? So people get to talk and exchange ideas, often worthless ones on subjects they know little about.
Moments after she had made her initial comment, Goldberg sought to expand on it in more interesting and helpful ways: “You’re missing the point … let’s talk about it for what it really is. It’s about how people treat each other. It’s a problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white, Jews … everybody eats each other.”
Within the limits of TV talk shows’ soundbite culture, she appeared to be making a universal point about how each of us is susceptible to being manipulated into hatred and violence against other groups, especially if those groups have been demonized.
‘Reflect and learn’
That was a reminder – one we hear too rarely – that the Holocaust was not a crime only against Jews. It was equally a crime against the Roma people. Half of each “race” was exterminated. The Nazis also sent other groups to the concentration camps, including socialists, gays and the disabled, none of whom could be described in racial terms.
With Western politicians and the media dehumanizing the Russian, Chinese and Iranian peoples by vilifying their leaders – and thereby driving us towards potentially catastrophic wars – it is no bad thing to be reminded that Hitler had larger ambitions even than a genocide of the Jewish people.
It is worth being reminded too that propaganda, and groupthink, occur in every period of history. It is not just one state at one time that has duped its people into committing crimes against humanity. And similarly, many groups and “races” have been victims of others’ greed and fear. To pretend otherwise is to make the repetition of such crimes more likely.
It is quite possible for Goldberg’s comment to be unhelpful or simplistic – this is daytime TV, after all – without it being especially harmful.
Nonetheless, not only was she required to apologize but she was barred from the show for two weeks “to reflect and learn.” It seems a Black woman is in greater need of reflecting on her racism than the ABC News organization and her white colleagues.
That makes sense only in the modern world of souped-up liberal identity politics, where each “race” gets to have exclusive rights over their own concerns. Black Americans can talk about slavery, though not so much about poverty and the justice system. Jews, or rather Jewish organizations, get exclusive rights to define and contextualize the Holocaust. Hispanics get … well, it’s too early to decide what they get.
And whites – the rich ones, at least – get to act as referee while all the other “races” argue about who’s been victimized most.
Schooled on racism
But here we get to the trickiest part of the Whoopi Goldberg episode. The Anti-Defamation League’s Greenblatt appears to have adopted the role of mentor as Goldberg “reflects” on her black privilege. He accompanied her as she made a second apology live on The View, the seeming first step on her path to re-education.
Does Goldberg really need to be schooled on racism by those like Greenblatt who shout their offense loudest?
In fact, Greenblatt joined the pile-on against Goldberg fresh from dealing with another pressing problem that needed his attention. He and the Anti-Defamation League had just emerged from dealing with the renowned human rights group Amnesty International, which offended their sensibilities even more grossly.
The misnamed Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is only very secondarily concerned with defamation. Its real purpose is much narrower. It works day and night to shield Israel from scrutiny so that the self-declared Jewish state can continue being a racist state oppressing and dispossessing the Palestinians it rules over. (A documentary, “Defamation,” by the Israeli film-maker Yuval Shamir, on the ADL’s role in manipulating public discourse about both the Holocaust and antisemitism is a must watch.)
That is why the ADL has just invested so much of its energies in vilifying Amnesty. This week the human rights group joined Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, an Israeli group that monitors the Israeli army’s abuses of Palestinians in the occupied territories, in declaring Israel an apartheid state. Israel is increasingly being understood as the successor to apartheid South Africa.
Victims, not perpetrators
Let us back up a minute. Remember Greenblatt said Goldberg’s comments – including her highlighting the universal message of the Holocaust as “man’s inhumanity to man” – were “dangerous.” That seems a strange assessment until we consider what the Holocaust represents to Greenblatt and other fanatical defenders of Israel.
Whoopi Goldberg had observed that all of us are capable of behaving inhumanely towards others: “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Jews … everybody eats each other.”
That is precisely a message Israel’s supporters like Greenblatt have tried to make taboo – and they have used the Holocaust as their most effective tool of enforcement. Greenblatt and the ADL need to sustain a narrow orthodoxy about the Holocaust: that it is by far the worst crime in history; that the Jews were the central, if not only, victims of it; and that for those reasons Jews should always be considered victims and never perpetrators.
The Holocaust has long served as Israel’s get-out-of-jail card, wielded by figures like Greenblatt.
Goldberg inadvertently threw a spanner in the works. She disrupted the entire narrative of Greenblatt and the rest of the Israel lobby by observing both that there were other historic victims of the Holocaust and that all of us, in the right circumstances, can end up being perpetrators of crimes against humanity, even Jews.
That should not need stating. As Amnesty and the human rights community have been warning us, Israel – the self-declared Jewish state – is an apartheid regime. Apartheid is a crime against humanity. Israel’s leaders should be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court, and would be if that court ever found the backbone to take on the United States and other Western states that protect Israel.
But there is no hope of the racist leaders of Israel ever being held to account for their crimes against humanity so long as racist apologists like Greenblatt are able to shield them. So long as he can weaponize the Holocaust and antisemitism against Israel’s critics, creating endless tripwires to terrorize everyone else into silence or submission, we will struggle to stop the Palestinians being brutally oppressed and dispossessed.
So long as we collude in allowing Israel’s apologists to make a Whoopi mountain out of a Whoopi molehill, we play our own small part in perpetuating this modern crime against humanity. Goldberg made a misguided point clumsily. She apologized and clarified. That should be the end of it. Everything else is manipulation. Everything else is bad faith. Everything else is racism.