US Jews talk identity, Holocaust after Goldberg’s remarks

The uproar over Whoopi Goldberg’s remarks about the Holocaust has catalyzed somber reflections by many American Jews about not only the legacy of the Holocaust but anti-Jewish discrimination in the United States and their sense of a collective identity.

The actor and TV host swiftly apologized for saying this week on ABC’s “The View” that the genocide was not about race but rather “man’s inhumanity to man,” noting in subsequent remarks that she had failed to acknowledge that the Nazis considered Jews an inferior race.

As Goldberg serves a two-week suspension from the show, a range of Jewish leaders have noted the complexity of describing how race fits into the overall concept of Jewish identity. It entails a mix of religion, nationality, ethnicity, culture and history, said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based group that seeks restitution for Holocaust victims.

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“But the hatred of the Jew is unfortunately not as complicated. It’s deep-seated. It’s millennia old. We don’t seem to have a cure for it,” he said. “So it’s not so easy to put a label, to put a name on what it is to be Jewish. But it’s certainly easy to see what it is to be antisemitic.”

Schneider and others expressed hope that the episode reminds people that Jews have historically experienced extensive discrimination in America, such as being barred from purchasing homes in certain areas, excluded from country clubs and denied admission to some universities.

In the past there even were travel guides for Jews with tips on how to avoid discrimination on the road, guidebooks that preceded the 1936 debut of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which provided similar advice for African Americans.

Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, recalled growing up in Plano, Texas, where the handful of Jewish families, including his own, sometimes experienced antisemitism.

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“We never saw ourselves in the same category as any of the white Anglo Southern Baptists,” he said. “Although we had white skin, we didn’t consider ourselves part of the white culture.”

The racial equation has only grown more complex as Jews of color — including African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans — account for a growing percentage of the overall Jewish population.

“Jews are multiethnic, multiracial,” Farkas said. “We don’t consider ourselves just a community of faith.”

Farkas said systemic discrimination against Jews in the U.S. has largely faded over the decades, but antisemitism persists and antisemitic violence over the past five years has been at its highest level in decades.

The deadliest incident was the mass shooting in 2018 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 worshippers from three different congregations were killed by a gunman who railed against Jews and immigrants they helped, according to prosecutors in his pending hate-crimes trial.

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Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said America has been such “a place of assimilation and opportunity” for Jews that many were blindsided by the massacre.

“People didn’t understand how this was possible to happen in the United States because there’s this illusion of total safety,” said Bairnsfather, whose center hopes to share space with Tree of Life in a renovated synagogue as a statement against antisemitism.

“Race is a made-up construct, but racism is very real,” she added, noting that Adolf Hitler based his racial laws in Nazi Germany partly on Jim Crow laws targeting African Americans in the U.S.

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, said that historically, American Jews commonly spoke of themselves as a race — until they saw how the Nazis applied that term as a pseudoscience. Jews then began to speak of themselves as a people or ethnicity, and many accepted the idea that Jews had been absorbed into a larger white majority as had earlier communities such as the Irish.

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Thus, Sarna’s students, most of them Jewish, had no firsthand experience to prepare them for the Tree of Life shootings or the antisemitic chants by marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

“My students, after Pittsburgh, they were in shock,” Sarna said. They knew about the Holocaust, “but suddenly stuff that had happened in Europe, they saw here.”

While historical awareness of the Holocaust may be common among younger generations of Jews, that’s less true of the broader U.S. population. According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 63% of respondents in a 2020 survey of adults under 40 did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. And 36% thought 2 million or fewer Jews were killed.

Stefanie Seltzer, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who as a child was smuggled by her mother out of a ghetto in Poland, has been talking to U.S. students since the mid-1970s about her experiences and said she is alarmed by a pervasive lack of knowledge. In the Goldberg episode, she sees opportunity.

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“Maybe it will kick open the door to discussion in school,” Seltzer said.

The controversy has added heat to a simmering debate in eastern Tennessee over a recent decision by the McMinn County School Board to withdraw from its curriculum the graphic novel “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning work about the Holocaust. Goldberg made her original remarks during a conversation about the board banning the book.

Like Seltzer, Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, sees an opportunity to educate the community: With support from other organizations, the federation will host a virtual conversation Monday with “Maus” author Art Spiegelman.

“If we’ve learned anything from the Holocaust,” Dzik said, “we must speak out and take action when we think that there’s a wrong out there and what it could lead to.”

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Farkas, of the Los Angeles Jewish federation, said U.S. Jews should resist letting antisemitism define their identity and strive to live meaningful, joyous lives, including standing in solidarity with other groups who have faced discrimination.

“From slavery and Jim Crow to Japanese interment, America has yet to realize the dreams of so many,” he said. “We can all do a better job learning and listening from each other — that is where healing begins.”

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Associated Press writer Holly Meyer contributed to this report.

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