Ideas

Ideas | S.I. Rosenbaum

Why the Jewish students at Hogwarts have to be invisible

THIS HANDOUT FILE HAS RESTRICTIONS!!! From left, RUPERT GRINT as Ron Weasley, EMMA WATSON as Hermione Granger, MATTHEW LEWIS as Neville Longbottom, DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter and BONNIE WRIGHT as Ginny Weasley in Warner Bros. Pictures' 2009 film "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," directed by David Yates. CREDIT: Warner Brothers Pictures Published 07-30-2009: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," taking in $400 million in its first five days, is a recent bright spot for Time Warner. (Warner Brothers Pictures) Library Tag 07132011
Warner Brothers Pictures
From left, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter and Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

The author j.K. Rowling has unveiled her latest addition to the world of Harry Potter: Jews. Yes, she told fans on Twitter this month, there were Jews at Hogwarts. At least one. His name was Anthony Goldstein. You never heard of him before, but he was there, all along, briefly named and barely mentioned, just offstage.

We’ve gotten used to this kind of late admission or revision from Rowling, like when she offhandedly informed us that Dumbledore was gay, or when she explained that certain Native American spiritual practices were actually wizardry. It’s always a little jarring, these after-the-fact attempts at inclusion. Native American writers and critics were less than thrilled at having very real sacred rituals retooled to fit a British author’s fantasy world, while gay and Jewish readers might feel that her revelations are too little and too late.

But there’s also this: The more inclusive the Potterverse gets, the less believable it is.

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Consider this: If there were Jews with wizard powers — any at all — would they have actually just sat out the Holocaust? Was keeping the wizarding world secret and unencumbered by the affairs of Muggles actually worth letting Hitler kill their nonmagical relatives?

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For that matter, where were African wizards during the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Why did all those Native American wizards not mop the floor with Columbus, Cortés, Jackson, and all the other genocidaires Europe and its colonists sent their way? How about that British Raj, or the Opium Wars, or the slaughter of indigenous Australians? Did Indian, Chinese, and Aboriginal wizards not have anything to say about that?

The answer that magic is simply a technology and that these populations were as outmatched by magic as they were by other European technologies — guns, essentially — seems terminally unimaginative (any sufficiently mundane magic being indistinguishable from technology). The world of Harry Potter, in which world history is utterly unchanged by the existence of magic, can only really be imagined from the point of view of a white Anglo-Saxon Christian.

Rowling’s is hardly the only fantasy world whose structural integrity can’t survive the inclusion of Jews, people of color, and other minorities. It’s a problem that has dogged fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien invented the modern version of the genre with his explicit Anglo-Saxon prehistory of Middle Earth. Fantasy as a genre is often built on nostalgia, and nostalgia is rarely inclusive. The writer Michael Weingrad famously argued that high fantasy from Tolkien or George R.R. Martin might be less than appealing to Jewish writers, medieval Europe having been less than welcoming to Jews. And Nathaniel Stein skewered Rowling’s school-novel nostalgia recently in The New Yorker, pointing out the anti-Semitic history of the British boarding school.

This is why the Jewish students at Hogwarts have to be invisible — the same reason that Rowling’s pen never lingered too long on black wizards, gay wizards, Asian wizards.

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To focus too closely on such characters would destroy the fiction in which they live — explode it outward, like a supernova, into a thousand other worlds into which we have not yet traveled.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at si@arrr.net. Follow her on Twitter @sirosenbaum.