Why We Lied to Ourselves About Whoopi Goldberg and Antisemitism
The public fracas over Whoopi Goldberg’s claim that the Holocaust was “not about race” was an uncomfortable one for me. When the scandal initially broke, I joined with most others in saying that Goldberg should not be “cancelled” for her comments, which appeared to be motivated more by ignorance than malice. I noted that, while not all non-Jews are antisemitic, most do have stereotypes and prejudices they project on to the Jews. They are, in other words, ignorant. You hope that non-Jews can be educated, and Goldberg seemed willing to be educated. Therefore, she ought to be left alone.
This view was held by many in the Jewish community, and was summed up at length in the New York Times by Nathan Hersh, described as “the former managing director of the social justice nonprofit Partners for Progressive Israel.” He states that “silencing people for ignorance and a misunderstanding of antisemitism is largely unhelpful and is, at its core, un-Jewish.”
“The problem with punishment is it uses shame,” Hersh said, which “simply forces silence, and that can breed resentment. In turn, silence and resentment fuel antisemitism.”
“The better answer in these situations is obvious, but not easy: education, education, education,” he concluded. American Jews should not “squander an opportunity to educate.”
Although occasionally veering into the absurd — Hersh admonishes us to allow Goldberg to “live in her apology,” whatever that means — his argument is a fair articulation of how I and many others felt about the episode at the time.
I was chastened, however, by an angry meditation on the affair by journalist Eve Barlow, who castigated “the weak reaction of the Jewish community to the Whoopi Goldberg suspension,” which, she said, “left me feeling confused, embarrassed and alien.”
Barlow noted that when the British rapper Wiley went on an epic antisemitic rant, “us British Jews led a grassroots campaign ‘No Safe Space For Jew Hate’ and worked doggedly to get it covered on national TV and trending on Twitter, making so much noise about it that it couldn’t be ignored by non-Jews of all political and ideological persuasions.”
“British Jews didn’t pander to the wider conversation to curry favor, or hang onto the non-promise of others’ allyship,” she wrote. “British Jews didn’t have an establishment to take care of them or respond on our behalf. We grabbed an opportunity to counter and we did not relent.”
“The prioritizing of protecting Goldberg over our tribe was quizzical,” Barlow said. “The certain assertions from so many that we shouldn’t ‘make an enemy of an ally’ were illogical. What evidence is there that Goldberg is a friend of the Jews? I don’t yet see it.”
Moreover, Barlow added, by taking Goldberg’s side, American Jews missed an opportunity to force a national conversation on antisemitism:
With many advocates banging their heads into the wall trying to demand inclusion of Jews in the diatribe during a time when Critical Race Theory is being adopted into education systems, the workplace and beyond, here was a moment to show exactly why we have to have a seat at the table, for these are the consequences of that development continuing without our resistance.
My immediate reaction to Barlow’s essay was that there was nothing in it I disagreed with, and those of us who had given Goldberg the benefit of the doubt had made a serious mistake. This impression was reinforced when I heard Goldberg’s comments on Steven Colbert’s “The Late Show” just after the scandal broke. Many in the Jewish community, such as Hersh, have claimed that Goldberg sincerely and unequivocally apologized for her statements on the Holocaust — but her comments to Colbert did not bear this out. In fact, Goldberg’s appearance was an unholy mess, in which she appeared to simultaneously apologize and not apologize, and then doubled down on her initial statement.
“The Nazis lied,” Goldberg told Colbert. “They had issues with ethnicity, not with race, because most of the Nazis were white people and most of the people they were attacking were white people. So, to me, I’m thinking, ‘How can you say it’s about race if you are fighting each other?’ So, it all really began because I said, ‘How will we explain to children what happened in Nazi Germany?’ I said, ‘This wasn’t racial, this was about white on white.’ And everybody said, ‘No, no, no, it was racial,’ and so that’s what this all came from.”
In other words: the Holocaust wasn’t about race, except it was, but it wasn’t. Goldberg appeared to want to have it both ways: to apologize and not apologize, to repudiate her erroneous views while asserting them. She appeared to be consistent on only one claim: that however racist the Nazis may have been toward the Jews, the Jews are still white.
There is insufficient space here to delve into the implications of this view. Suffice it to say that it is untrue, and given the current realities of intersectional ideology and antisemitism among people of color in the US, also extremely dangerous.
But what concerns me most is the rush — including my own — to forgive Whoopi Goldberg. Why did we do it? And why are so many of us still doing it?
For me, the motives were somewhat personal. When I was growing up the whole family loved Goldberg’s performance as the wise and ageless bartender Guinan on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I’ve always looked at Goldberg with great affection, and would prefer to continue doing so; I imagine a great many feel the same, for our own reasons. I loved Goldberg on “TNG,” and I didn’t want her to be an antisemite. So, I decided she wasn’t. I accepted comfortable bromides about ignorance and education, and reflexively absolved her of all responsibility.
The problem is that no one can look into anyone else’s soul. With very few exceptions, it is all but impossible to say a person is “an antisemite” in the essence of their being. We can only know what they say and do. As James Baldwin said: This is the evidence. What Goldberg said and did was, without question, monstrous. And as Barlow put it, “What evidence is there that Goldberg is a friend of the Jews? I don’t yet see it.”
Neither do I. The latest evidence we have indicates that she is, at best, not particularly fond of us, and we should have treated her accordingly. We were wrong to do otherwise. Moreover, our rush to the “education solution” indicates a deeper problem: We want to believe that antisemites, despite all evidence, can be fixed. That if we apply the progressive methods of nurture and consciousness-raising, the problem will simply go away. It is to this comfortable fantasy that we clung when we were faced with the uncomfortable necessity of repudiating a celebrity we admire.
And it is a fantasy. The truth is that education does nothing to fight antisemitism, because antisemites are, by definition, people who have refused to be educated. They are not antisemitic because they are ignorant — they are antisemitic because antisemitism serves selfish needs, rooted in the depths of their psyches, often unknown even to themselves. You could have educated Haman until the cows came home, and it would have made no difference, because his hatred of the Jews was not circumstantial but primordial.
In the end, against people who are immune to rational argument, self-defense is the only option. Resistance and deterrence can effectively fight antisemitism. Nothing else works or has ever worked. This is the evidence. In the face of not simply the Goldberg affair but our own reaction to it, we would all do well to remember that.