A pathway fenced in by barbed wire at an Auschwitz concentration camp.
Image Source: Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

The Problem with Erasing Race from the Holocaust

Last Monday on The View, Whoopi Goldberg inaccurately stated that the Holocaust was “not about race, but rather “man’s inhumanity to man” and that Jews and Nazis were just “two white groups of people” (CNN). Although she’s since apologized for her remarks, the network has suspended her for two weeks.

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• Watch “American Eugenics and the Nazi Regime,” which outlines how American eugenicists inspired Hitler and shaped Nazi policy.

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Why is that wrong?

Goldberg’s Holocaust comments were factually inaccurate and reflect common misconceptions of Jewish identity. Her words were also dangerous. Attributing the Holocaust to mere differences in perspective erases the horror that has been inflicted based on false perceptions of race, not just on Jewish people but communities around the world.

To be clear, the horrors of the Holocaust were inflicted based on false notions of racial identity. In 1919, Adolf Hitler published a statement on “the Jewish Problem,” labeling Jews as a race and not a religious community: a “race-tuberculosis of the peoples” (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). He contrasted them to those of the Aryan race, a made-up group of people that were superior to Jewish people, Black people, and other marginalized groups (USHMM). This approach was greatly influenced by the eugenics movement in the U.S. in the early 1900s (The Atlantic). During that time, eugenicists sought to eliminate “negative traits” from reproducing, leading to the legislation of forced sterilization of marginalized people in states across the country. It was only after the horrors of the Holocaust that the U.S. started to abandon those practices (Nature).

Why is this a common misconception?

Jewish identity doesn’t fit neatly into the Western categories of race, religion, and ethnicity. 

Being Jewish isn’t simply a nationality, although some Jewish people may identify with a homeland. And being Jewish isn’t just about religious beliefs. Non-practicing Jewish people are still Jewish, while people with no familial roots in Jewish identity convert to the religion. Judaism is often defined as an ethno-religion, a group of people who are unified by a common religious and ethnic background. But some Jewish people don’t practice at all. And, some people without any other ties to Jewish culture convert to practice the faith.

Some people identify as Jewish based on their ancestry, mapping their lineage through Jewish communities from around the world. Ashkenazi Jews descend from those living in Central and Eastern Europe, ​​Sephardic Jews from communities in Portugal, Spain, or Northern Africa, and Mizrahi Jews from Middle Eastern countries like Iraq or Iran. There are also Jewish communities in countries like Ethiopia, India, and China (Jerusalem Post). This means that Jewish people can also identify with many other cultural identities. In addition, it still doesn’t account for those with ancestors that converted.

How does whiteness influence our understanding of Jewish identities?

When Whoopi Goldberg stated that Jews and Nazis were just “two white groups of people,”, she reflected the common understanding of whiteness in the U.S. Many Jewish people that immigrated to the U.S. have Eastern European roots. This offers a limited perspective of the diversity of the global Jewish community. Jewish people from Europe are generally coded as white, but Jewish communities from other parts of the world aren’t white by U.S. racial standards. Because racism and colorism inform everything in the U.S., much education about Jewish culture centers on Jewish people that align with our understanding of whiteness, failing to acknowledge the diversity noted above. This is to say: Jewish people were considered one distinct race by the Nazis but fall within multiple racial categories in the U.S. — even though Nazi race law was based on U.S. racism. 

We also know that although some Jewish people benefit from white privilege, that doesn’t protect them from hateful, antisemitic attacks. As Kwame Anthony Appiah states in the NYTimes, “being white is not just a matter of identifying as white; it involves being treated as white, and that isn’t up to you.” Antisemitism is rising in the U.S. A report from the American Jewish Committee found that 24% of American Jewish people have been a victim of antisemitism over the past year, and 24% stated that a Jewish institution with which they are affiliated has been targeted by antisemitism over the past five years (AJC).

Race is a social construct, not based on any true biological, genetic differences (Scientific American). And yet these social constructs are wielded to create societal hierarchies. It shouldn’t matter how others try to define us, but external definitions compromise the wellbeing of marginalized people. Whoopi Goldberg’s Holocaust comments illuminate how much more work we have to embrace the diversity of identities.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Whoopi Goldberg’s Holocaust comments inaccurately claimed that the genocide of millions of Jews was not about race.

• Jewish people were labeled as an “inferior race” by the Nazis, echoing similar eugenicist beliefs held in the U.S. during that time.

• In reality, Jewish identities extend beyond traditional definitions of race, nationality, religion, and ethnicity.

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