Whoopi Goldberg and the Ignorant Definition of ‘Race’
The denunciation was swift, and the apology and punishment not far behind.
Whoopi Goldberg, who has made a long career out of quirky likeability, somehow managed to twist herself into a pretzel denying that the Holocaust was, indeed, about race.
While it’s tempting to assume that Goldberg’s statements were merely tone deaf, they’re more in line with a progressive narrative about Jews, race, and genocide than many are willing to admit.
For the generation of Jews who lived through World War II, and their children and grandchildren, the Holocaust entailed a singular evil that distinguished it from history’s many horrors. While Jews had for centuries been subjected to persecution, pogroms, and state-sanctioned murder, never before had the machinery of an advanced society been organized around the murder of Jews for its own sake — with extinction of the Jewish people as its stated goal.
With the founding of Israel, the murder of six million Jews was viewed as both a crescendo of the evil of antisemitism, and a coda, with the notion of “never again” closely tied to a nation state that offered Jews safe haven.
This understanding has gradually eroded, as historians’ attention has honed in on other genocides and atrocities.
Nowadays, the murder of six million Jews is viewed by some as merely — to paraphrase Goldberg — one among many examples of humanity’s inhumanity toward people we don’t like.
What this view misses is the fact that unlike the barbaric treatment of the people of the Congo under Belgium’s Leopold II, Japan’s atrocities in China during World War II, or the moral abomination that was American slavery, the Final Solution failed to serve any economic or military end for Nazi Germany. Indeed, the diversion of personnel and the machinery of war to the murder of Jews often undermined Germany’s other goals.
As a result, the Holocaust occupies a unique place in the annals of humanity’s capacity for evil.
For those who wish to delegitimize Israel, viewing the Holocaust as nothing special is a potent weapon. Not only does this help question the need for a Jewish homeland — as though Jews were welcome and treated as equals wherever they lived prior to 1948 — but it also includes an implied accusation that Jews somehow hoodwinked the world into recognizing Israel in the first place.
More troubling, Goldberg’s comments about race in fact reflect the ADL’s own definition of racism up until this week — as: “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.”
This definition fails on two accounts.
First, it imagines that racism is a phenomenon in which the oppressor must always have white skin and the victim non-white skin. Therefore, the aforementioned Nanking massacre, China’s enslavement of its Turkic Muslim minority Uighurs, the open discrimination practiced against minority populations in many Asian countries, the abuse faced by the Indian diaspora in East Africa, Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic outbursts, and, of course, the Holocaust, are not examples of racism.
Second, this definition fails to recognize that not all Jews have “white” skin, and that both Jewish law, with its focus on matrilineal connection to the religion, and antisemites themselves, recognize the Jewish people as a separate racial category.
Antisemitism is a subset of the larger category of racism because both Jews and antisemites are committed to the idea that there is such a thing as a Jewish race. In a society in which racists occupy the bottom of the social hierarchy, an understanding of racism that excludes some racial groups from victimhood while giving others a pass on their own bigotry is far from benign.
To the ADL’s credit, it has offered a mea culpa of its own, and agreed to revisit its definition and consult with the public in doing so.
Whether the ADL can continue to walk the line of simultaneously being one of the nation’s leading organizations combating antisemitism and part of a larger progressive movement whose actions are often hostile to Israel, and alienating to many Jews, remains to be seen.
That may not be the conversation Whoopi Goldberg intended to start, but it’s one that must be had.
Ian Cooper is a Toronto-based lawyer.