INTERVIEW

"Blacks and Jews" authors: "Whoopi is not the enemy" but "it may be too late" for America anyway

Salon spoke to Terrence L. Johnson and Jacques Berlinerblau about race, "Maus" and where we should go from here

By Alison Stine

Published February 7, 2022 6:05PM (EST)

Whoopi Goldberg (ABC/Robert Ascroft)
Whoopi Goldberg (ABC/Robert Ascroft)

Is this the end of American democracy as we know it? According to various writers at Salon and experts, "It may be too late" for us. All the signs of authoritarianism have been in motion.

For months, more and more books have been pulled from school library shelves, banned by school boards which object to content allegedly involving sex, gender and race. One of those books is "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, which a Tennessee county school board voted unanimously to eliminate from an eighth grade curriculum due to language and nudity. "Maus," which won the Pulitzer Prize, tells the true story of Spiegelman's father, a Holocaust survivor. It has since shot up the bestseller list.

But in a conversation about "Maus" on the ABC talk show "The View," host Whoopi Goldberg made comments about the Holocaust which resulted in her temporary suspension from the show. Viewer response to the action by ABC ranged from too much to not enough. Her suspension comes at a time of increased tension and confusion in America about race, racism and the Holocaust, with the secondary and post secondary educational banning of critical race theory and with extreme views given large audiences, including Holocaust denial

Terrence L. Johnson is a professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University. Jacques Berlinerblau is a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University. Together, they are co-authors of "Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue" (Georgetown University Press, out this week) and frequent contributors to Salon. 

They spoke with Salon via email about their recent article "How the Black-Jewish alliance changed America — and today's struggle for voting rights" and about the current time America seems to be in.

As you know, Whoopi Goldberg was suspended from her role as a host on "The View" after commenting, "The Holocaust isn't about race . . . It's about man's inhumanity to man. That's what it's about." She also said, "These are two white groups of people," referring to Jewish people and Nazis. What was so harmful about what she said? 

Terrence L. Johnson: When Ms. Goldberg characterized the Holocaust as "man's inhumanity to man," she did so in the context of the ongoing national assault against teaching "race" or historical narratives that dismantle white American exceptionalism. Specifically, she decried the ban against the graphic novel "Maus," which explores the Holocaust and the ongoing trauma among its survivors. Ms. Goldberg attempted to lift the Holocaust above the white/Black U.S. racial binary to differentiate it from Black "problems" — an interpretive move that seemed to frame the Holocaust in biblical proportions.

The move to deny the underpinnings of white supremacy in the U.S. and elsewhere is a common strategy in debates on race and racism among liberal elites, especially Black ones, to avoid alienating potential white benefactors. If, in fact, racial (and gender) violence stems from humankind's inhumanity, and not based on white supremacy, moderate whites (according to this logic) won't feel guilty for the living sins of their ancestors and social justice movements will appeal to "broader" audiences. Framing the Holocaust as yet another example of humankind's inhumanity, Ms. Goldberg detached it from the jumbled nationwide assaults against teaching so-called critical race theory in public education to distinguish the Holocaust from the "race problem." 

Jacques Berlinerblau: I'm going to take a very different approach to this question, one that I suspect is shared by many other Jews. I feel this entire episode was completely overblown. It also exemplifies recurring dysfunctions within the Black-Jewish relationship that Professor Johnson and I chronicle in our book

My mother, who watches "The View" religiously — and who is a Holocaust survivor — did not mention Ms. Goldberg's remark to me when we spoke that day. I suspect that's because, on the basis of experience, she understood Whoopi Goldberg to be a kind person, and a Jew (my mother thought Ms. Goldberg was Jewish, as opposed to Jewish-adjacent, which is what I think she is). I also suspect that my mother, like many Jewish viewers, detected exactly zero malice in the remark.

Which brings us to the remark itself. Yes it is inaccurate. Jews had been shunted into racial categories at least since the development of so-called racial science in the 18th century, and likely as early as Medieval Spain. But no, an error of that sort, in that context, should not have prompted the [Anti-Defamation League] and other Jewish organizations to put down their beers, kit up, lock, load and turn this into the media spectacle/circus that they invariably knew it would become. Whoopi Goldberg is not the enemy. Far from it. Not every small error or misstatement has to be corrected in the name of the six million. The ADL does some great work. This was not an example of that.

As for Whoopi's error and its "correction," can I be the first ideological first-responder to this mess who points out that scholars of antisemitism posit many different types of antisemitism. Yes, there is racial antisemitism, and it was rampant in German and European thought. But there is also religious antisemitism based on the notion that Jews are deicides who murdered Jesus. There is economic antisemitism which has left-wing (i.e., "the Jews control the banks and are agents of global capitalism") and right-wing (i.e., "the Jews are Communists bent on overthrowing democracy") variants. All those forms of Judeophobia, and others, summated and synergized between 1939-1945. It's incorrect to say this was all racially based. Whoopi Goldberg got a fact wrong, true. But astonishingly, the intervention of the Jewish leaders was anything but clarifying! They simplified something complex, as opposed to clarifying something complex.

RELATED: "How the Black-Jewish alliance changed America — and today's struggle for voting rights"

Whoopi's comments came in a discussion about "Maus," Art Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust, which was recently removed by a school board in Tennessee. Why is book banning back?

Berlinerblau: Because the United States is lurching into authoritarianism. The liberal order is starting to unravel under the sustained pressure of white, Christian, nationalist activism/militancy. At its best — and liberalism has rarely been at its best — the liberal status quo protects many forms of intellectual, political and aesthetic expression.  

Johnson: This is what happens when groups in power fear their demise or are threatened by "new" voices in public spaces: institutions and a powerful minority unite to maintain their political and economic dominance. The banning of books by democratically oriented dissident writers seems to be always on the hit list of those who would prefer a sanitized history of their group or nation, rather than face complicated and messy narratives of their origins. At this moment, as we discussed in our book, the unfortunate source of violence against Blacks and Jews in America is far too often emerging from a powerful base of white evangelical Christians.

Culturally, people also seem confused in this moment as to what being Jewish means, whether it refers to ethnicity, religion or race. How do the comments of Goldberg, who said in the past she identifies as being Black and Jewish, reflect what we understand about what it means to be Jewish in America?

Berlinerblau: Again, I don't think Ms. Goldberg's remarks initially had much of an impact or took a severe emotional toll on many Jews in the United States. They probably reacted, as did Joy Behar, with a "Wait, what?" sort of response. They heard Whoopi peace-out by talking about "man's inhumanity to man" and thought about it some more and concluded, "OK, whatever. What's for lunch?" 

Then the outrage machine sputtered into gear. Soon, the Goldberg aside became another flashpoint in a long lamentable history of Black-Jewish public scrums. In our book, Professor Johnson and I point to the ritualistic nature of these inter-group clashes (we refer to it as "The Loop"). This time around, The Loop was a bit different because the "instigator" had no intention of calumnifying Jews. Also odd was the ADL suddenly changing its definition of "racism" — a move that I think gets to the core of the problem. Correct Terrence?

Johnson: Yes. The core of the problem stems from ongoing intragroup debates among white Jews regarding their race in general and whiteness in particular. Ms. Goldberg exposed the "problem of doubleness" that many Jews of Ashkenazi descent face: this tension between the economic privileges of whiteness and the social marginalization of being Jewish. Many historians suggest this (white) Jewish problem fueled the eventual demise of Black-Jewish political solidarity at the birth of Black Power in the late 1960s. Fifty-plus years later, the debate surfaces again. This time it was triggered by a Black woman who has identified in the past as a Jew. Maybe her deracializing of the Holocaust had something to do with her knowledge of and participation in ongoing debates on Jewish racial and religious identities in the New World.

Could you explain the understanding of race as a social construct?

Johnson: Race as a social construct, to put it crudely, means the category of race is defined and sustained by the governing norms of society. Its norms typically come from politics, public education, law, the arts, science and religion. Defining race as a social construct is a rejection of 19th and 20th century beliefs in race as a biological concept, that which corresponds to inherent traits within a group. Such "inherent" traits have been used to explain, and often exploit, culture and national identity to distinguish barbarians from the civilized, Jew from gentile. As we explore in our book, the racialization of white Jews fueled interests among white Jews to join Blacks in the struggle to end racial segregation. Race is not real, and yet it has been manufactured into a "global sign" that signals a constant but shifting racial hierarchy.

Berlinerblau: What Professor Johnson said. I would just reiterate: Race isn't real in a scientific sense. But people, institutions and governments act as if it is. So I guess it's real in a sociological sense. It's "intersubjectively" real, to use a scholarly term.

Why do views like Whoopi's and anti-Black views from Jewish people still persist? Who's perpetuating these stereotypes? 

Berlinerblau: Ms. Goldberg's view was not antisemitic. It was just imprecise. The clearest link I can find to prevailing stereotypes in her comments is to a widespread idea that Jews are white people. Professor Johnson and I spend a lot of time in the book discussing that. It's an exceedingly complex and delicate issue. Ms. Goldberg's mistake might have been in assuming all Jews are white (and have always been considered as such). Then again, some Jews — notice I said some — in the United States have embraced whiteness whole-hog. That is one of the root causes of tensions between gentile Blacks and white Jews.  

Johnson: I agree with my brother. And I also want to push him a bit. Both groups – especially the elites – will often vilify or stereotype the other within intragroup private conversations, in part, because of a mutual suspicion of and respect for the overlapping and competing strategies both have deployed to fight the onslaught of bigotry and violence. The tension stems from both groups' reluctance to interrogate what divides them: among them are capitalism, social status and institutional power. Put differently: who or what is their God? If both groups are committed to transformative social justice and freedom, based on their appeals to the Hebrew Bible, they are compelled, I believe, to confront the contradictions of the economic and political systems they participate in and promote. It is a challenge to hold institutional power, while also attempting to guide and influence institutional change. The contradictions can too often lead to new forms of stereotyping and discrimination as both groups attempt to justify and maintain their institutional power.

In your article for Salon, you talk about a "patterned inequality" among relationships, historically, between Black and Jewish people. Could you say more about that inequality?

Berlinerblau: These are two communities who, for a few decades, shared multiple urban spaces and within those spaces whopping economic disparities obtained. That is not a sociological recipe for unity and mutual admiration 

Johnson: Eastern European Jewish immigration to the U.S. coincided with W.E.B. Du Bois's sociological examination of "Negro problems." Dating back to the late 1890s, Du Bois explored the social and economic conditions facing Blacks; and Jews often found themselves living and owning businesses in segregated Black communities that had been cut off from the financial world and large-scale economic development of Black entrepreneurship. Negro problems cast a looming wall between Blacks and the economic and political resources needed to achieve power. Without resources to chart a path forward, the outside world looked over the wall with contempt and pity – assuming "Negro problems" were inherent to being Black. Facing the same wall, white Jews pierced but never climbed over it until the New Deal and other government programs opened a wider pathway to suburban middle-class life. What we characterize as patterned inequality is ongoing and mutually destructive – even when it is applied differently.

You also write that "America is a different country" because of the activism of the Black-Jewish Alliance. How so?

Johnson: Blacks and Jews created political partnerships based on expanding the available rights and economic opportunities to historically marginalized groups. They played a significant role in expanding how we configure  political solidarity across religious and racial lines. Their political struggles extended far beyond achieving respective intragroup concerns. They fought to reimagine and extend the political terrain for which others might secure rights and opportunities. This is how they transformed the American political landscape.  

Berlinerblau: Yup. The moral framing and imagination were examples of inspired activism. The legal victories won by these groups in the domain of Civil Rights were monumental. 

Do you think that diverse coalitions, like the Black-Jewish Alliance, work? How and why? Do they work now?

Berlinerblau: Well the Black-Jewish Alliance once worked. Then it stopped working. We try to explain why.

Johnson: Alliances work until they are no longer needed by one or both parties. Coalitions can work if they are pragmatic and limited in scope. Black and Jewish relationships seemed to fail when their political nets extended beyond voting rights into debates on, for instance, affirmative action and Israel. Without an agreed upon starting point for understanding how to address historic oppression, the alliance fizzled into shameful finger pointing. Future partnerships, like what we've witnessed among Black women and Jewish women's groups in Atlanta and between Georgia senators Warnock and Ossoff, might work best if they define the scope of their political platform before creating a coalition. 


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What should Whoopi — and "The View" — do now? By simply suspending Whoopi, did "The View" perhaps miss an opportunity to teach viewers or further the conversation? Is this a time for ally to ally conversations between Whoopi and the Jewish community, or are other steps needed? 

Berlinerblau: Ms. Goldberg should not have to endure the ignominy of a two-week punishment. Jewish Americans, especially white Jewish Americans, should make it clear that they do not support this action. Consider me to be the first signatory on a petition directed to ABC to reinstate Ms. Goldberg immediately.  

As for conversations, the Black-Jewish Alliance needs to reinvent itself, rethink itself and that means foregrounding different voices: Afro-Jews, women, LGBTQ folks and scholars of all stripes – it's like scholars don't even exist anymore in these dialogues.

Johnson: I'd like to tweak the question: Now that the public has consumed yet another debate on race, racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy, what is the role of Blacks, white Jews, and Afro-Jews during what many theorists and theologians characterize as the last days of American democracy? I don't have an immediate answer, but the vision forward must be cultivated in large part by women and non-elite Black and white Jewish power brokers. 

How can America learn from this?

Berlinerblau: America should focus on the looming growing White Christian Nationalist threat emerging in its midst, not on a stray remark made during a fairly interesting and candid conversation.  

Johnson: Unfortunately, it may be too late. Without a strong federal government, which ushered into existence the 13th, 14th, and 15th Reconstruction amendments, I do not see a way for the country – at this moment – to legislate the structural changes needed to sustain  and expand equality and equity. American exceptionalism motivated Democrats and Republicans to compromise on matters of significant social import when liberal philosophies of equality and justice proved to be insufficient to establishing political rights for Blacks, women, and LGBTQ+ communities. Ms. Goldberg is not the source or face of our problem. At issue is the failure of our federal government to protect its best interests, which according to the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, is to defend the rights of the least off, marginalized, and oppressed. Blacks and Jews are at their best in fighting for the rights of all at the federal level. Will this happen again? Probably not. But I hope others will learn from their historic alliances.

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Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Books Interview Jacques Berlinerblau "maus Race Religion Terrence L. Johnson The View Whoopi Goldberg