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Can Whoopi Goldberg’s public history lesson actually do some good?

Goldberg’s comments reflect a growing national ignorance about the Holocaust. What happened next could be a model for how we move forward.

Whoopie Goldberg is seen on December 8, 2021, in New York City.
Patricia Schlein/Star Max/GC Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

ABC has given Whoopi Goldberg a two-week suspension from her role as co-host of The View after she made controversial statements about the Holocaust. The move follows several days of backlash and apologies by Goldberg, and has sparked a debate about Goldberg’s career, cancel culture, and whether white supremacist rhetoric has crept into too much mainstream conversation.

Goldberg made the remarks during a January 31 episode discussing recent school book bannings, including the banning of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, by a Tennessee school board. During the conversation, Goldberg stated that the Holocaust “is not about race ... it’s about man’s inhumanity to man ... these are two white groups of people,” apparently referring to Nazis and Jewish people.

The remarks drew immediate criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, the Holocaust Museum, and other Jewish advocacy groups, and reportedly raised concern among the upper echelons of Disney executives.

Goldberg apologized for the incident on Twitter on Monday after the episode aired, quoting ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt’s statement that “the Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people — who they deemed to be an inferior race.”

“I stand corrected,” Goldberg wrote.

This is not the first time Goldberg has, in her capacity as a daily talk show host, made controversial comments she later apologized for. This time, she waded into a conversation about race and Jewishness that both intersects with a complicated ongoing discussion among American Jews and has one distressingly simple answer — that is to say, yes, the Holocaust was very much about race. The ensuing fallout from Goldberg’s comments has a lot to say about what we understand about what it means to be Jewish in America, as well as just how and when we’re willing to let people learn and repent.

The incident might have blown over quickly had it been a simple case of troubling misstep and apology. However, on Monday night, Goldberg appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in an interview she’d taped earlier that day — before her apology —discussing the anger over that morning’s episode. “I feel, being Black, when we talk about race, it’s a very different thing to me,” she told Colbert, elaborating that to her, racism is about skin color, and that Jewish persecution in World War II was different because “you couldn’t tell who was Jewish.”

She added, “I understand that not everybody sees it that way, and that I did a lot of harm ... This was my thought process, and I will work hard not to think that way again.” Still, once the Colbert episode aired, Goldberg’s comments were generally seen as doubling down on her original viewpoint. And so on Tuesday’s View episode, Goldberg apologized again, clarifying that she “misspoke” and that “it is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race.” The View hosts also interviewed Greenblatt, who further explained the white supremacist ideology of Nazi Germany, and placed the long persecution of the Jewish people within the context of their being considered “a subhuman race.”

“There’s no question that the Holocaust was about race,” Greenblatt told her. “That’s how the Nazis saw it as they perpetrated the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people.”

He also noted that Maus, the banned graphic novel that prompted the discussion, opens with an anti-Semitic quote from Hitler claiming, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race — but they are not human.” In Maus, Nazis are depicted as cats, while the Jewish people are depicted as mice to further show the divide between the groups, and reflect the perception of the Nazis that Jewish people were no better than vermin.

Goldberg’s Tuesday apology wasn’t enough to forestall consequences: ABC News president Kim Godwin announced her suspension later that day. “While Whoopi has apologized, I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments,” she said in a statement released Tuesday night. “The entire ABC News organization stands in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities.” The View briefly addressed the suspension on Wednesday’s broadcast, noting Goldberg would return in two weeks, before moving swiftly along.

Many viewers felt that Goldberg’s remarks were indicative of a growing cultural ignorance of the Holocaust. This comes in part because of the passage of time and cultural memory loss, but also in part due to the blatant manipulation of World War II history by the modern white supremacist movement and other bad actors who practice Holocaust revisionism and denial.

Goldberg has previously said she identifies as both Black and Jewish and claims “Goldberg” as an unspecified family heritage name, though she does not practice any religion. It’s a safe assumption she’s probably not allied with white supremacist rhetoric. But the fact that so many people are confused about whether Jewish identity is a question of religion, ethnicity, race, or something else altogether speaks to the way that anti-Semitic propaganda has historically manipulated outsider views of Jewishness.

Jewish identity is complex, including elements of both religious practice and ethno-cultural belonging. But anti-Semites offer a simpler understanding, defining Jews and Jewishness by relying on false narratives, negative stereotypes, and conspiracy theories. In the first century, for example, Christians popularized the anti-Semitic characterization of Jewish people as persecutors of Christ and his followers.

In the 14th century, Jewish citizens across Europe were falsely accused of well poisoning in the spread of the Black Death and were massacred by the thousands. In the early 20th century, the Nazis flooded Germany with anti-Semitic propaganda, blaming Jewish people for everything from shady business deals to spreading “cultural Bolshevism” through their art, culture, and media. In other words, bigoted and false definitions of what it means to be Jewish have been imposed upon Jewish people in different ways at different times — based primarily on the ideology and utility for the oppressor.

Race is a social construct, at least to some extent, and trying to square a modern American understanding of race with a 1930s Nazi conception isn’t always the easiest task. Nonetheless, the debate over the relationship between Judaism and race has not gone away.

Modern white supremacist rhetoric attempts to racialize Jewish identity, reviving Nazi-era thinking that cordons off Jewishness from whiteness. Some modern progressive rhetoric often confusingly does the opposite, taking the view that white Jews are not meaningfully different from other whites. As former View producer Daniella Greenbaum wrote for the Washington Post, Goldberg’s comments reflect “an ideology that tries to turn Jews into White people, that tries to erase Jewish vulnerability and oppression, [and] to squeeze Jews who have light skin into modern American categories of race and ethnicity.”

This might explain why much of the criticism of Goldberg has come mainly from conservative pundits who see Goldberg’s fumbling description of Jewishness as liberalism gone wild. The Federalist even described Goldberg’s misstep as “what happens when intersectionality rots people’s brains.”

But while conservative pundits like Piers Morgan and Ben Shapiro were quick to criticize Goldberg’s comments, many other conservatives and View fans are defending her after her suspension. Goldberg’s ability to extricate herself from these types of tricky situations may be a reflection of her cultural status. She’s able to do the rarest of things in this age of polarity: Mess up, apologize, and move on. After all, she’s done it before.

In 2007, she defended convicted felon and former quarterback Michael Vick after Vick pleaded guilty to running a dogfighting ring, arguing that the practice was “part of his cultural upbringing.” In 2009, she said on The View that director Roman Polanski, who was convicted in 1979 of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl, had not committed “‘rape’ rape,” with scare quotes implied.

Goldberg came under fire again in 2014, this time for defending now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby against serial rape allegations and challenging why victims didn’t report the assaults to police. “If you are the mother of a son, you want to keep innocent until proven guilty,” she stated again on The View in 2015 regarding Cosby. In her eventual concession that she was wrong, she invited an expert, ABC news correspondent Dan Abrams, to speak with her about her misassumptions. Ultimately, she concluded, “It looks bad, Bill.”

Goldberg’s ability to survive these scandals might be due in part to timing. After all, it was probably easier to survive a Polanski-related backlash in 2009, when more people in Hollywood supported Polanski, just as in 2014 and 2015, when less information was public about Cosby’s rape allegations.

Still, a two-week suspension is hardly a serious consequence, which says something, perhaps, about Goldberg’s capacity to make an about-face. One reason for Goldberg’s popularity is her ability to relate to her critics and admit when she’s wrong. If she can be a relatable on-air presence who, yes, makes mistakes and says divisive things, but then learns to listen to her critics and avoid repeating past mistakes, that may be what many viewers want — as opposed to the scenario in which she gets booted off The View and out of mainstream media forever.

Of course, that all depends on Goldberg actually learning and correcting her past mistakes. Neither she nor The View’s producers have shied away from controversial subjects — but neither are they experts on many of the complex subjects they cover. Given that unwieldy combination, plus the omnipresent unpredictability of live broadcasting, how long Goldberg can go without creating another dust-up is anyone’s guess.

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