Suspending Whoopi is counter-productive

Whoopi Goldberg is in hot water again, this time for insisting on ABC’s The View that the Holocaust was not about race but “about man’s inhumanity to man.” She doubled down the next night on Stephen Colbert, reducing the Holocaust to a conflict between white folks, telling him that, if a Klan member were chasing her and a Jewish friend and the friend stopped, the pursuer would only come after her.  Her comments were thoughtless, ill-informed and worthy of correcting. But for the network to suspend her without pay for two weeks (fining her $192, 000 of her estimated $5 million salary) seems more than just another “woke” gesture, made for corporate public relations purposes.

What could have been a teachable moment quickly became sidetracked into yet another cancel-culture dust-up. A much honored and accomplished entertainer, Goldberg has been a longtime human rights activist, and her energy sometimes outweighs her reason and restraint. Her tendency to blurt out her opinions has gotten her into trouble in comments about everything from dog-fighting to rape. She seems to be a warm-hearted, voluble open-mouth/ insert-foot type of person and that may be precisely why ABC Entertainment pays her the big bucks to opine on The View, which frequently deals with controversial subjects about which panelists and guests lack both expertise and nuance. 

Her statements triggered immediate responses because they touched a sensitive spot for Jews and inadvertently gave comfort to anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, groups that have been growing.

Whoopi, born Caryn Johnson, has told interviewers, “I just know I am Jewish. I practice nothing. I don’t go to temple, but I do remember the holidays….  It’s part of my family, part of my heritage. Just like being black.” One account claims that her mother considered that the family’s name was “not Jewish enough” for her daughter to become a star.  Whoopi herself has implied  that the juxtaposition of her skin color and stage surname helped in the early years to advance her career.

Henry Gates and others have traced her DNA roots to a tribe in Guinea-Bissau, but she self-identifies as Jewish, which Bob Mnookin, In his wonderful book, The Jewish American Paradox, indicates is an important component of Jewishness.

People like Whoopi Goldberg get into trouble, observed Yair Rosenberg in The Atlantic, because they don’t know how to define Jews, so they resort to their own frames of reference, like “race” or “religion,” and project them onto the Jewish experience. But Jewish identity doesn’t conform to Western categories, despite centuries of attempts by society to shoehorn it in.  Judaism predates Western categories, and being Jewish defies simple  conceptualization as a  “religion”, civilization “ people,” “ nation,” “tribe,”  “ethnic group’ or “race.”

The Holocaust was rooted in, among other things, Hitler’s portrayal of the Jews as a race, and an inferior one at that. Any one who had even a trace of Jewish lineage was to be exterminated in the Fuhrer’s quest to cleanse the German homeland of all but purest Aryan blood. Whoopi’s insistence that the Holocaust was not about race was stunningly ignorant. But ABC should have used the opportunity to educate, not cancel her.

That said, Jewish people don’t speak with one voice about race. Most identify variably as an ethnic group, a cultural community, a tribe, a religion, a nation. Whoopi reflects the confusion extant among some Jews themselves. Historically, Jews have been ambivalent about the word “race” in expressing their self-identity. Some Jews’ insistence that matrilineal descent is the critical element in defining who is Jewish reinforces biology as an identity point.  But, because people can convert to Judaism and because Jewishness includes generations of intermarriage and coupling outside formal religious conversion, Jewishness loses the genetic component of a race.

Racial stereotyping of Jews began at least as early as 1000 C.E. By the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan, the fake science spouted by proponents of eugenics, and percolating anti-Semitism fueled the venom manifest in Nazism and underpinned the effort to drive the Jews from Europe and implement the “Final Solution.” Nazi hierarchical concepts based on race, reflected by the Nuremberg Laws, were just Step One to the deaths of six million Jews and another five million non-Jews who lacked Aryan racial purity. So, Whoopi, the Holocaust is about race – a twisted, tortured, evil interpretation of race.

Data indicate that 41 percent of adults and two thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz represents. But today’s problem is more than just another example of cultural memory loss and ignorance of the Holocaust. In recent years, anti-Semitic white supremacists have actively stepped up their efforts and successfully increased the pool of Holocaust deniers.  Although Jews make up just 2 percent of America’s population, FBI data indicate that 57 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes are against Jewish people. And the problem is worldwide, where Jews make up only .2 percent. More than a third of Jews in the European Union report they are considering emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews.

Whoopi muffed it, but, instead of sending her to the woodshed, why not use this as a teachable moment and provide clarification and education rather than over-the-top humiliation and suspension? As the head of the Anti-Defamation League cautioned, this is a situation that calls for “counsel, not cancel.” And, as Rabbi Sharon Brous of the Ikar community in Los Angeles tweeted, “If what you want is to change someone’s mind, I have to think education is more effective than public shaming and punishment. Particularly when that person shows a sincere willingness to learn and apologize.”

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