“The Holocaust isn’t about race,” comedian Whoopi Goldberg vehemently insisted last week on ABC’s “The View.” “It’s about man’s inhumanity to man.” While her remarks were quickly retracted and she was suspended from the show, they reflect a widely held belief that racism and antisemitism are distinct — when in fact they are two sides of the same coin.
When I heard Goldberg’s comments, and the backlash that followed, it resonated strongly with me. As a Black woman who has been close to the Jewish community for over 30 years, I can’t help but notice that while people often conflate racism and antisemitism, they rarely see the parallels. Why? In part that’s because in America racism is largely seen through the lens of black and white: a structural and systemic construct to deliberately and intentionally oppress a group of people.
But that’s exactly what the Nazis did in 1930s Germany. Adolf Hitler believed that Jews were inferior because they were not Aryan, or “pure white.” His ideology regarded Jews as a race of people, irrespective of their level of participation in religious practice. He focused solely on Judaism as a bloodline, and his Nuremberg laws codified Jews as people with Jewish grandparents. Hitler did not see Jews as being part of the same race as he was.
Unintentionally or not, Goldberg’s comments furthered this false distinction between prejudice against Jews and people of color. And it did so at a time when white supremacist movements fueled by Nazi ideology are on the rise, often portraying Jews as powerful “globalists” controlling the media and the banks.
But her comments also shine a spotlight on how deeply embedded these beliefs have become in our culture. It’s not just extremists but even allies who have this mistaken belief. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, likens it to a “new definition of racism . . . that defines racism exclusively as the targeting of people of color.”
Certainly, some of it has to do with how we define “white.” While in America the term is used to refer to those who are not oppressed, white skin has never prevented Jews from being marginalized or singled out. In fact, just the opposite.
Like Blacks, Jews have faced covenants and exclusion from public and private clubs and certain neighborhoods. Indeed, students of Black American history will see the parallels of how white non-Jews have used Jews’ religion to exclude them from their institutions in Western culture. Even as far back as medieval times, the Magna Carta — the “British Bill of Rights” — considered Jews as a category separate from other subjects of the Crown, and the document essentially set the stage for much of Western Europe to expel Jews from their shores.
Here in America, Black people have often lived in the neighborhoods among Jews, or moved in after Jews left. In fact, Jews were often the only people who would sell their homes or rent their buildings to Black people. Here in Boston, Roxbury’s Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts was originally a synagogue, the only Black arts organization to have acquired property in the 1960s.
By suggesting that antisemitism isn’t about race, we play into “the notion that Jews should be viewed only as being white, privileged oppressors,” said Kenneth Marcus, chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.
Goldberg’s comments have become a teachable moment. Last month, a Tennessee school district banned “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust by cartoonist Art Spiegelman, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This was hardly a coincidence, but rather a deliberate and intentional decision to deny acknowledging the oppression Jews faced.
Whether people of color want to accept it or not, Jews are in the “other” category in America, every bit as marginalized because of their religion as I am at times because of my skin color. The sooner we realize that antisemitism and racism are the “twin towers” of discrimination, oppression, and bigotry, the sooner we can start working together to rid our country of this growing pandemic of hate.
Colette A.M. Phillips is president and CEO of Colette Phillips Communications Inc., a Boston-based communications and diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm.