“Race is,” according to Whoopi Goldberg the critically acclaimed actress and TV star, “only about skin color, and that the Nazis didn’t target Jewish people because of their race.” These words sparked the latest outrage of Holocaust trivialization by a prominent personality.
Apparently in Whoopi’s world, racial prejudice only rises to condemnation level when it involves pigmentation issues. Her ignorant comments unleashed an outpouring of criticism spanning the political spectrum forcing Whoopi to walk back her ill-advised words. And walk them back she did, albeit with itsy, bitsy, tiny, baby steps.
Sanitizing or revising the story of the Holocaust was not invented by Ms Goldberg. Her unfortunate comments about the motivation of the Germans for the greatest mass murder in history however, displays an astounding ignorance unbecoming of someone in the public eye occupying a responsible position.
In fact, the hatred of Jews by Hitler and his Nazis was specifically a “race” issue. Hitler decried the attempt of the inferior race, the Jews, to threaten the existence of the Aryan Race. In speech after speech, the inferiority of the Jewish race was given as the reason for the need to exterminate them.
The “Whoopigate” controversy has picked up steam with ABC suspending her for a two week period for her foolish comments. Rather than reflect on the hurt she caused during her forced two week vacation, Whoopi is doubling down and is threatening to quit The View.
I have no reason to believe that Whoopi Goldberg is an antisemite. Perhaps just ignorant. Nevertheless, her foolish comments were hurtful to the Jewish community reeling from an uptick of antisemitic attacks against individuals and even synagogues. The increase in Holocaust trivialization has taken on international epidemic proportions. The government of Poland continues to alter history by claiming a parity between the suffering of a small number of Poles with the wholesale murder of close to three million Polish Jews at the Auschwitz death camp. They have passed laws prohibiting the accusation that Polish citizens were complicit in the murder of their fellow Jewish citizens, despite overwhelming evidence.
Hungary, a wholesale enabler in the destruction of over 600,000 Hungarian Jews has been claiming for decades that, in fact, they were the first victims of Nazism. Never mind the hundreds of laws passed by the Hungarian Government of Miklos Horthy, a close friend of Hitler, denying Hungarian Jews their civil, political and human rights and deporting them to the murder factory of Auschwitz.
In such atmosphere of Holocaust revisionism, Whoopi’s comments came at an especially inopportune moment. The ignorance of her words is alarming. Can it be that intelligent Americans may be so ignorant of the Jewish experience? Imagine if someone said that slavery was not a racial issue but simply a method to fill a labor shortage.
Historical antisemitism was a religious issue. Jews were murdered for centuries because our religion was different. Centuries of effort was undertaken by the Church to force our ancestors to convert. Once Jews converted (Spanish Inquisition and elsewhere ) they were OK, for the most part. But antisemitism took a more sinister turn in the late 19th and 20th centuries when it evolved into a deeper racial hatred.
In this new permutation, converting out of the Jewish faith no longer saved any Jew. With race-based hatred, how can anyone opt out?
When my mother was herded onto the cattle car enroute to Auschwitz, she was shoved into the wagon along with many Christians who converted out of the Jewish fate generations earlier. Just as my mother, they were all displaying the identifying yellow star on their coats and jackets. They discovered that the prejudice and discrimination they had been facing was based on their race. They could never escape!
Attila Petschauer was a great Hungarian fencer in the 1930’s, with hopes of competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But the Jewish athlete understood that the much needed additional training that would make him competitive, could only be obtained at the Hungarian Military Officer’s Fencing Club. Unfortunately, this club was closed to Jews. Attila converted and as a newly minted Christian, was immediately accepted into the prestigious officer’s fencing club.
He went on to win the gold in Berlin and became a much-acclaimed Hungarian national hero.
As he was still basking in his “hero-ness”, Hungarian Jew hatred reached its zenith. Hungary soon forgot his contribution and Attila, along with most Hungarian Jewish men (including my father), was sent to a forced labor camp, becoming a slave laborer for the Hungarians. In the labor camp, Attila was beaten to death by his Hungarian guards. The same Hungarians who today claim to have been victims of Nazism. My dear Whoopi, it was due to his race and not his religion that Attila was murdered.
My one year old brother was put into a gas chamber along with his mom and grandma. It was specifically due their belonging to that “despicable race” that allowed infants and toddlers to be murdered.
So when I heard your comments that sought to trivialize the suffering of my family as if it was somehow lower on the suffering scale because their skin was white, I was not only angry but disappointed. Your comments and the reaction to them, enlarge the gap between two of the most maligned races, Jews and Blacks at a time when we need to narrow that gap.
By the way, Jews also do not come in one color as Whoopi erroneously stated. Why not educate yourself Whoopi and visit Israel. You will see the rainbow of colors that are the Jewish people.
So how do we go forward? Whoopi had on her show Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt who explained the hurtful impact of her words. I think that is a step in the right direction. But more is needed for Whoopi to redeem herself. Yad Vashem, the foremost Holocaust Museum in Israel, has invited her for a much needed tutorial on the Holocaust and tolerance. Let’s seize this opportunity for a teaching moment. I believe devoting an episode of The View to Holocaust education, and inviting authors and experts on the Holocaust is in order. With such a show, Whoopi could learn, along with her audience, that racism comes in many forms and targets a diverse range of people. No one race has a monopoly on suffering and no race can claim exclusive rights to being the focus of racial hatred. Whoopi’s words of contrition are simply not enough. As the Talmud teaches “not words but deeds matter.”
Dr. Alex Sternberg