A couple of days after the public shaming and suspension punishment of Whoopi Goldberg for saying that “the Holocaust isn’t about race,” I combed the Internet to see if any Jewish leader would cut her some slack.
Finally, I found one, Rabbi Sharon Brous of the Ikar community in Los Angeles. She tweeted, “If what you want is to change someone’s mind, I have to think education is more effective than public shaming and punishment. Particularly when that person shows a sincere willingness to learn and apologize.”
Goldberg did in fact apologize on the same day of her initial statement, saying: “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. As Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League shared, ‘The Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people—who they deemed to be an inferior race.’ I stand corrected.”
That Rabbi Brous’s taking exception to the shaming and punishment of Goldberg took some courage is a pathetic commentary on what our society has come to be—one in which people have become increasingly terrified of saying anything because they know it’s impossible to have 100% sensitivity as to what may be offensive to somebody and, these days, career ending.
Does any Jew really think Whoopi is an antisemite who is minimizing the Holocaust? Or is it obvious that she simply failed to make a distinction. While Nazis did in fact deem Jews to be inferior race to justify their annihilation of them, the fact is that how Jews are categorized has long been debated, even among Jews.
“Jews have long debated whether they are a ‘race’ or something else,” noted Gabe Friedman in the Times of Israel in reference to the Whoopi controversy. “Judaism is a religion. . . . But Jews do not have to be practitioners to regard themselves or be accepted by other Jews as Jews. The Jewish tradition of ‘matrilineality’—defining as Jewish a child born of a Jewish mother—points to a biological definition of Jewish identity. But Judaism also accepts converts. Taken all together, these various understandings have led Jews to regard themselves (and others to regard Jews) variously as a people, a nation, a tribe, a family and a faith—sometimes in various combinations, sometimes all at the same time.”
The irony of all this mishegas over Whoopi is that it’s quite possible that many Americans will conclude that Whoopi’s mistake was one of failing to label the Jewish people as a race, and lost is this vital distinction: The Nazis deemed Jews to be an inferior race to justify their annihilation of them, which is part of why many Jews are not crazy about racialized.
The Myth of the Jewish Race (2005) was authored by Alain F. Corcos, professor emeritus of biology at Michigan State University. The publisher’s description notes that “the concept of a Jewish race is still alive and well in the minds of too many,” and “that this book is an attempt to destroy such a concept from both a biological and historical point of view.” The description goes on to say that Corcos “came to write this book for personal and scientific reasons. He spent four years of his youth under the Vichy government, which was the most virulent anti-Semitic regime . . . in its efforts to ‘cleanse the Jewish dirt’ from French society, Vichy devised a broader definition of a Jew than that of the German Nazis,” one which applied to Corcos’s family. His parents’ refusal to register saved his family from death. Later, as a geneticist, Corcos became convinced that there are not and never were human races.
Gute neshama is a Yiddish phrase which means “a good soul, a kind person.” Gute neshama was often used among Jews in the context of distinguishing whether a genuinely kind person unknowingly said something that was hurtful versus a cruel person’s purposeful hurtfulness. A Jewish cultural value, at least one I grew up with, was to take pride in the capacity to make fundamental distinctions—to forgive and perhaps educate people with good hearts who unwittingly caused hurt feelings, and to assault, comically or otherwise, heartless bastards.
The more frightened people become, the more they lose the capacity to make distinctions beyond superficial ones. Fear subverts the capacity to distinguish intent, and since we all make mistakes, people have become increasingly frightened that any one such mistake can ruin their lives. So while we may not have legally lost our right to free speech, with increasing fear of extralegal sanctions, that right is steadily being eroded by other means.
In 1851, Henry David Thoreau said, “Nothing is much to be feared as fear.” More Americans have heard this same sentiment stated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Nowadays, would FDR’s failure to reference Thoreau be a costly mistake that would derail his presidency?