What We Could Have Done Differently About Whoopi

Muzna Bshara, Israeli chef, with American Food Blogger, in Tel Aviv. (courtesy, Vibe Tours)

I remember the first time I came across Whoopi Goldberg in the movies, I think it was Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1985). I only realized years later that she was also in The Color Purple, as my association with her was as a comedienne, not an actress in dramatic movies. Then came Ghost (1990), Sister Act 1 and 2 (1992 and 1993 respectively, 1 was of course way better) and the rest is history.

Bottom line — as a teenager in the ’80s, I loved Whoopi. And I wasn’t alone.

Later, when she became quite vocal politically, as an Israeli I didn’t quite follow the details, but she always appeared to me to be someone who pretty much speaks in the language that even the next generation can connect to, and I admired her for that. She appeared to me to be approachable, smart and funny. If she was embroiled before 2022 in epic PR fails, I don’t remember them.

But the next thing I know, she’s in the eye of a storm the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time. I’m talking about her comments on The View, of course. If you’re the one person who hasn’t heard about it, Google it, no need to waste more space here.

Now, whenever I see something that seems out of place to me, I always go to the source to hear exactly what was said, and to understand the context. So, here are the exact words Whoopi said (click on the link and you’ll hear it yourself at minute 4:36 onwards, but I recommend you watch the whole 6 plus minutes for context):

If we’re going to do this, then let’s be truthful about it, because… the Holocaust isn’t about race. No, it’s not about race. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man“.

Now, let’s break it down to two parts:

PART I: “The Holocaust Isn’t About Race”

“The Holocaust isn’t about race” is undoubtedly a very controversial statement, and that’s what got the whole Jewish community up in arms.

I am not going to go into the deeper discussion about whether she’s right or not about this, but I will say that if we weren’t so sensitive about it, we would have paid more attention to the fact that Whoopi’s understanding of race, is through the color of one’s skin. That’s her personal experience. That’s what she grew up on and that’s her world view.

Do we have to agree with how she views the world? No.

But let’s cut to the chase here – Whoopi is a tremendously influential person, she is much loved and has millions of followers. Is her world view the only one that matters? No, of course not, but for her millennial and even Gen Z followers, yes it is. Like it or not, that’s how it works with influencers.

So, now the question becomes: what’s the objective of the response to what Whoopi said?

Do we want to prove Whoopi wrong, and in the process attempt to educate her millions of followers by shaming her, exposing what we consider to be her ignorance on the matters and the exact reason why the Nazis killed 6 million Jews?

Or could there have been a different way to handle this very controversial statement (which she fully stands by, no matter how many sorry’s she’s required to air, or how long she’s suspended so she can think about what she said).

I believe the Jewish community could have handled this completely differently, if they would have first asked themselves “what’s the objective?”

Because I don’t believe the objective is to educate the world at the expense of shaming a much loved influencer. I think the objective should have been to find common ground between two communities that used to be very close, but have in recent years drifted apart in what can be a very dangerous precedent: the African American community and the Jewish community in America.

If the objective would have been to find common ground and start healing the growing rift, especially amongst the young people in these two communities, the whole incident could have been responded to entirely differently.

Which brings me to the second part of what Whoopi said.

PART II: “The Holocaust Is About Man’s Inhumanity to Man”

Wow, what a statement, right? Nothing controversial there at all. In fact, it could have been such a great opportunity! After all, February is “Black History Month” in America, the same month International Holocaust Day is commemorated. We know the Jewish community in America is deeply concerned about the dramatic deterioration in relations between the Jews and the African American community, compared to what it used to be in the past, and especially with the growing strength of the Black Lives Matter movement. We know we have an issue here, because the mutual empathy between Blacks and Jews in America which was at the cornerstone of the Jewish support for the Civil Rights Movement, has weakened tremendously. We know that Jews are deeply hurt and upset by this turn of events, and are seeking ways to unite the two communities, rather than draw them further apart.

So, wouldn’t have this been the prime opportunity to take that second part of the sentence and enlist it to embrace Whoopi (and her vast influence), and invite her to have a deep and broader conversation about how Jews are a minority too in America, how they can empathize with and feel what African Americans feel, because we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we got the (striped) t-shirt, so to speak.

How amazing could it have been to highlight the connection, the similarities, rather than again hone in on how Jews are different?

Whoopi could have become one of the Jewish-American people’s greatest ambassadors, if her statement was embraced rather than shunned.

Imagine the following scenario: What if, instead of branding her an uneducated (or worst yet, latently Jew-hating or Jew-dismissing or Jew-canceling or whatever works today) fool, she were invited to lead an online campaign (funded jointly by major Black and Jewish organizations), to raise awareness for that bond between the Jewish and Black people in America, especially during Black History Month? The hashtag could be #neveragain or #mansinhumanitytoman, and the emphasis would be about creating a national (or even global) conversation about how no-one should be treated differently because of the color of their skin or the religion and culture they were born into.

And in so doing, the campaign would remind young Americans how supportive the Jews were of Blacks in America and the special relationship between MLK and the Jewish leadership in the Sixties, how we have so many things in common, and that there is so much more we can do together to rid the world of anyone who would wish to commit another act of “man’s inhumanity to man“.

Reprint from TOI post 11/1/2018: Martin Luther King Jr., left, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, right, during Selma march in 1965. Courtesy of Susannah Heschel

Find common ground, that should have been the objective. That would have served the Jewish people’s purposes so much more, don’t you think?

Instead, we have the hashtag #istandwithwhoopi, and the conversation — which is being led by Jewish people — is about singling out the Jews, and seeing them separately to other minorities in the US.

If we want awareness, we must begin where people can relate, and people relate to people who are like them or they have something in common with.

In Hebrew, there’s a saying: It’s better to be smart than right.

Were most of the Jewish community’s reactions to what Whoopi said “right” in terms of their historical context and analysis of language? Yes. Were they “smart” for the future of the Jewish people in America? I don’t think so.

About the Author
Joanna Landau was born in London and moved to Israel with her family when she was 5 years old. She read law at Cambridge University where she gained BA and MA degrees. Joanna also holds an MBA, cum laude, from the Herzlia Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. Joanna worked as a lawyer in the high-tech industry and established two Internet start-ups based in Tel Aviv. In 2009, Joanna founded Vibe Israel, to change the way people think and feel about Israel, and has been leading it ever since. Joanna is a governor of Tel Aviv University, and a member of the International Education Committee of Taglit-Birthright. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Rappaport Prize for a Change Making Woman, and in 2017, Joanna was listed by Forbes Israel as one of the fifty most influential women in Israel. She lives in Tel-Aviv with her husband and three children.
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