hen I wrote my book, Jews Don’t Count, there were certain points I wasn’t sure about including, as they seemed obvious to me. Perhaps the No 1 on this list was the idea that anti-Semitism is racism. Key to understanding this — but again, in my mind, obvious — is that anti-Semitism is not, in the modern age, religious intolerance. This is clear because, as I’ve said many times, I’m an atheist, but the Gestapo would shoot me tomorrow.
My great-uncle Arno who died either in the Warsaw Ghetto or Treblinka — not all murdered Jews had their murders logged — was not an observant Jew. And the white supremacists at Charlottesville in 2017 holding flaming torches chanting “the Jews will not replace us” would not, I think, stop to ask a Jew whether he or she kept kosher before choosing to set light to their house. For the Nazis, for all anti-Semites, Jewishness is marked in the blood, not in faith.
But I was wrong about the obviousness of this, and that’s been brought home this week by the comments of the — brilliant — comic performer Whoopi Goldberg about the Holocaust and race on US TV show The View. Goldberg claimed the Holocaust was “not about race” but about “man’s inhumanity to man”. Later she apologised for this statement, but then went on Stephen Colbert’s talk show and doubled down on it, describing what happened to the Jews of Europe in the Thirties and Forties as a “white on white” issue, as “two sides fighting”.
Describing the Holocaust as “man’s inhumanity to man” is similar to those who insist that Black Lives Matter must be broadened out to All Lives Matter: an idea that loses all the specifics of a particular racism into a universal platitude. Meanwhile, two sides fighting is a very strange way indeed to describe the extermination of a civilian ethnic group by a military-industrial machine, but then there is, in the resistance to the idea that anti-Semitism is racism, a submerged deeper resistance to the idea that Jews, with all their imagined power and privilege, can ever truly be victims.
But the centre of the issue is her description of the Holocaust as a “white on white” case. The resistance I’m talking about is I think deeper in America, where the word racism is strictly ringfenced for the discrimination suffered by people of colour. Jews are not people of colour — except of course, it’s complex, as there are many Jews of colour — but my position is, Jews are not quite white either: they are Schrodinger’s whites, white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer.
It has been a central project of the far-Right for centuries, key, obviously, to Hitler’s thinking, that Jews are not part of the Aryan white races. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, it seems that sometimes, the myth of the supposed power of Jews imagines them as very white indeed, such as when Mear One, the artist who painted the street mural of some very Jewish-looking men playing monopoly on the backs of the world’s poor that Jeremy Corbyn once defended, described the opposition to his work as coming only from “older white Jewish folk”.
One wrinkle here: I’ve noticed when I talk about all this, I sometimes get told that Jews aren’t a race and that to imagine they are is to accept the Nazis’ view of them. Well firstly, whether or not an ethnic group are biologically a race (as it happens, ancestry.com has my DNA down as 99 per cent Ashkenazi Jew) is irrelevant to the reality of the racism they might face. Jews are racialised, whether they like it or not. The Nazis were not interested in how Jews may have identified.
This idea is also — it comes from both sides, but mainly from the Left — deeply unprogressive. Telling a Jew that they should not consider themselves part of a race, or an ethnicity, because that’s how anti-Semites in the past have seen them, is like telling a black person that they should not worry about white privilege, because that is to accept the hierarchies of the oppressor.
Truth is, minorities don’t have a choice. Those who say, “Why accept what the Nazis would classify you as?” have never really had to imagine being forced at gunpoint onto a cattle truck. My sense of Jewishness as a racial identity is to some extent about the Nazis, or rather, anti-Semitism in general. It’s not just about that — it’s about many positive things, as well — but any minority identity will be forged by history, and that history, because that’s what being a minority involves, will be one of oppression and struggle.
If you want to see both the negative and positive merged as one, think of the old joke that Jews often tell each other about how you can boil down all Jewish festivals to a simple mantra: they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.
Identity, particularly racial identity, is created in opposition, in the story of survival against the odds. That’s the Jewish blues, and all Jews sing it, even (most of) those called Goldberg.
The paperback of Jews Don’t Count is out now.