Behind The Whoopi Goldberg Debacle, From The Perspective Of A Black Jew
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
This is one of those television events from which there's sure to spark many immediate debates and future references. It has hit the media like a whirlwind. Understandably, many non-Jews are flat out confused by it all. I'll admit here and now that an adequate response to Whoopi Goldberg's remarks cannot be encapsulated in a video soundbite, a social media comment, nor even a brief article written by yours truly. That being said, here goes...
Last week, on the Holocaust Remembrance Day episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg said, "The Holocaust was not about racism. It was about man's inhumanity to man. It was white people killing white people." This unleashed a firestorm of protest from the Jewish community. There's currently a demand to allow a Holocaust survivor to come onto the show to speak with her. Some have labelled her "a lurking anti-semite", and are calling for her firing. Others are calling for the cancellation of The View entirely. From the outset let me say that I agree with the people who say the Jewish people were considered an inferior race by Adolf Hitler, yimakh shemo ("may his name be erased"), but that also say Judaism is not about race. I'm frankly happy to see so much consensus on this point, as I have touted it for years. But I understand those who think it is about race. This is due to certain past statements and historical privileges enjoyed by American Jews. However I have a big problem with those who seek to imply nefarious intent on Whoopi Goldberg's behalf. While I thoroughly understand the inter-generational trauma from which the Jewish people suffer, I see no reason to make such an implication against her. Consider this; whenever Hollywood's list of well-known anti-semite's names come up, the name Whoopi Goldberg is never among them, and for good reason. She's not one. Over the decades, white people have been confused about which politically correct term to use when referring to Black people. Should they say Colored, Negro, Black, African-American, Kemite, or something else? To me, the reason for this confusion is crystal clear; we haven't even agreed on what to call ourselves. I even once heard a young Black man say, "Don't call me any of that. I'm a Moor!" In her already viral Tik Tok video reaction to Whoopi Goldberg's comments, I was pleased to hear Jew In The City's founding Director, Allison Josephs refer to the middle east (basically, Canaan or the Levant) as a "brown country". Almost every time I myself have done so in various conversations in synagogues, I've gotten a sideways glance, as if I were up to something. I'm not. It's simply historically accurate. When I was growing up, our late grandmother made it clear to us grandkids that the Jewish people were not white people. She'd say, "I know they may look the same, but they're not." My grandmother wasn't a geneticist. She wasn't a paleontologist. She was a southerner, born in 1914. She told us how much better her Jewish employers always treated her than her white employers did. She saw that there was something different, special, and she'd even say divine about the Jewish people. We believed her. You can imagine my surprise upon coming to live a Jewish life as an adult and finding that Ashkenazi Jews (as well as some Sephardim) often refer to themselves as white people! That was 35 years ago, and it still happens to this day.
Whoopi's failed attempt to explain herself and dial back the rhetoric on The Late Show With Stephen Cobert reminded me a conversation I had once while enjoying a kiddush meal after services in a Chicago synagogue. I was talking with another member, John. He and I had gotten onto the subject of racism. John said to me, "I so admire you, man. You had the courage come to Judaism, as if being Black in America wasn't trouble enough. If you and I lived next door to one another and we both stepped out of our front door at the same time, a bigot who was standing across the street from us could hate you on sight. I would have to walk up to him and introduce myself using my last name (Saperstein) for him to hate me."
What John was saying was plainly that Jews are perceived as white people, at least upon first glance, and therefore enjoy certain social privileges in America. When my wife's grandfather decided to start his own business, he legally changed his name from Moishe Labenstein to "Jack Lebby". Need I say why? That's the reason my head is kind of spinning right now, reading the angry "How dare she call us white!" social media comments about Whoopi. With all of the countless times I've heard Ashkenazim refer to themselves and each other as a "white guy" or a "white chick" I feel like I've entered an alternate universe. By the way, I've never corrected a Jewish person who self-identified as white. Neither have I ever seen any other Jew correct them. Most even check the "White/Causacian" box on the Census Form! So it gets really confusing, unless there's some other criteria afoot here, and I believe that there is. Namely; politics.
As the moderator of The View, the most watched daytime talk show in television history, Goldberg is a popular commentator on the social and political zeitgeist. Whoopi leans Left on the political spectrum, and at a time when our nation is as polarized as it has ever been. This has generated a steady stream of angry rhetoric aimed at her from those on the political Right. Although most American Jews are Left-leaning, there's a significant number who are not. Right now, those Jews, the Right-leaning Jews, are having a field day. Not because you, or I, or anyone else accidentally mistook them for being white; that literally happens every day. But because 1) Whoopi Goldberg said it, 2) on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and 3) on The View. It's their trifecta du jour.
By the way, had the victims of the Holocaust actually been as white as many of their white-passing descendants now refer to themselves, Whoopi Goldberg would have been 100% correct. Hitler's Final Solution would have been, white people (The S.S.) killing white people (the Jews). And by the way, can we also stipulate that she never said that made it acceptable? I received training from rabbis long ago, zikhrono livrakha ("may their memories be for a blessing"), to never commit reckless motzi shem ra ("putting out a bad name") against anyone. It's in our mitzvot (commandments). Did Whoopi Goldberg know that Ashkenazi Jews weren't/aren't white people? I must conclude that she did not. Whoopi Goldberg misspoke. I base this her on her undoubtedly hundreds of encounters with "white-passing" Jews throughout her life and career. However, when she learned of her mistake, she immediately apologized. Understandably, due to inter-generational trauma, that my not be acceptable by all, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.