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Why Whoopi Goldberg’s comments hurt

Whoopi Goldberg came under fire today for proclaiming that the Holocaust had nothing to do with race as it involved “two groups of white people.” In doing so, she unearthed the complexities that underlies Judaism – and proved that she knows nothing about them.

Let’s start with the obvious one. Is Judaism a race? I have ended relationships over this issue. To people who are not Jewish, or who do not immerse themselves in Jewish culture on a regular basis, Judaism is simply a religion. This is what school teaches us – it is the oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, along with Christianity and Islam. But the fact that it is the oldest is what makes it more complex – it is a religion that arose out of the practices and beliefs of a certain people – the Jewish people. This group of people dispersed over thousands of years, which caused the creation of different types of Jewish ancestry (e.g. Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi ancestry – all from different parts of the world). But what remained and remains is the fundamental fact that Judaism is an ethnicity and a religion – an ethnoreligion.

Indeed, as many Jews have pointed out in response to Goldberg’s comments, it was precisely this perceived racial distinction between Jews and other white or “Aryan” people that caused the Nazis to perpetrate genocide against the Jews. It certainly wasn’t a question of religion, as the Nazi regime did not care whether you were a religious or non-religious Jew.

If the Jewish “race” is distinct from the “Aryan” race – does that mean Jews are not white? I think the answer to that question is best summarized by this statement I read somewhere online and often think about: Try to name one white supremacist group that hasn’t targeted Jews, and you will see that Jews are not white.

Of course, many Jews are physically white skinned, particularly those of Ashkenazi Jewish origin. They may therefore be able to benefit from the privilege accompanying that, as it can be quite easy to hide one’s Jewish background should one wish to do so. But the second it becomes public knowledge that they are Jews, you best believe they immediately become part of a targeted minority group and that perceived privilege goes away.

So, Goldberg has misunderstood or deliberately ignored the ethnic origins and history of Jewish people, as well as mis-categorized them as white, all in the context of making fleeting comments about the Holocaust and what it was about. That is all very bad. But what somehow makes Goldberg’s comments worse, is that they came from her, specifically.

Whoopi Goldberg, born Caryn Elaine Johnson, adopted Goldberg as her stage name because, unconfirmed sources say, her mother thought it would be easier for her to get acting jobs if she had a Jewish-sounding last name. While that may come off as a funny and endearing anecdote, the insinuation has strong antisemitic undertones, along the lines of “Jews control Hollywood,” and is neither cute nor funny. It’s cultural appropriation, used as a means of benefitting from the hardships of a minority group.

Parallels of Rachel Dolezal come to mind – the white woman who became the subject of public outcry when it came out that she had presented herself as black, and the anger (rightly so) felt by the black community that she used black people’s history of oppression for her own benefit. Much like Goldberg, Dolezal legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, a West African name, in 2016, to have a better chance of landing work.

It is easy to forget the plights of others when we suffer our own hardships. Goldberg’s knowledge of race wars likely stems from her own experiences being black in America. But the number one mistake we all tend to make is trying to apply what we know from our own very specific experiences to another, despite it being entirely different – culturally, historically, geographically and politically. Read more and talk less should be the takeaway point – for all of us, and perhaps Goldberg specifically.

About the Author
Olivia Flasch is an international lawyer living in London. She undertook her Bachelor's Degree in Public International Law in The Hague, The Netherlands, and has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Oxford. Born into a Jewish family in Sweden, she writes about all things Jewish, as well as about Israel and the world from an international law perspective.
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