J.K. Rowling’s celebrated "Harry Potter" series of children’s books uses antisemitic tropes. Most people don’t notice this because antisemitic tropes are ubiquitous in our popular culture. But this is a problem much bigger than Rowling.
Indeed, Rowling’s novels have often been seen as metaphors for the fight against fascism. Her main villain, Lord Voldemort, is motivated by a kind of eugenic prejudice against non-magic-users that’s an obvious nod to Nazi ideology.
But critics have been pointing out for years that the hook-nosed, greedy goblin bankers who run Gringotts Wizarding Bank look a lot like the hook-nosed, greedy Jewish caricatures that have been a hallmark of antisemitic propaganda from the Middle Ages to Der Stürmer.
In a December podcast episode, comedian Jon Stewart summed up the argument succinctly: “Have you ever seen a 'Harry Potter' movie? Have you ever seen the scenes in Gringotts bank? Do you know what those folks who run the bank are? Jews!” Stewart then pointed out the similarities between the goblins and the caricatures of antisemitic texts like the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Stewart has since clarified that he wasn’t calling Rowling personally antisemitic, nor does he think the “Harry Potter” books and movies — which he loves “probably too much for a gentleman of my considerable age” — require any changes. Nonetheless, the stereotypes exist. And their ubiquity doesn’t negate their potential harmfulness.
Probably the most influential greedy Jewish caricature after Shakespeare’s Shylock is Charles Dickens’ Scrooge. Scrooge (as many Jewish writers have pointed out) is a miser with an obviously Jewish name (Ebenezer) and a pointed nose. He doesn’t celebrate Christmas and needs to be converted to charity and piety. It’s not especially subtle.
Scrooge has influenced many an antisemitic caricature after him. Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a twisted, disabled Scrooge of the American Midwest. Dr. Seuss’ Grinch is Scrooge in a fur suit and a vaguely fantasy setting; he’s a scheming outsider who, like his blueprint, has to be converted. The thin, ugly Gollum of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is an amalgam of Scrooge and Alberich, the gold-obsessed antagonist of composer (and notorious antisemite) Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.” From his introduction in “The Hobbit” on, Gollum is motivated by a lust for a magic ring he calls “my precious.”
Watto, the hook-nosed, greedy small-businessman in “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” even “happens to have a thick Yiddish accent,” as Bruce Gottlieb wrote in Slate. Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” is a foreign, sneering, anti-Christmas villain who murders for gold. Then there are the skeletal-like shape-shifting aliens in John Carpenter’s “They Live,” who combine stereotypes of Jewish greed with tropes of Jewish alienness and shape-shifting assimilation. The parallel here was so blatant that neo-Nazis embraced the movie as their own, much to Carpenter’s horror.
Many argue that the pervasive nature of antisemitic tropes means the Gringotts goblins and their ilk do no harm. Most children watching the “Harry Potter” films wouldn’t have picked up on the reference. The British charity Campaign Against Antisemitism, for example, tweeted a statement arguing that there are “centuries of association of Jews with grotesque and malevolent creatures in folklore” and that “those who continue to use such representations are often not thinking of Jews at all” but are innocently thinking “of how readers or viewers will imagine goblins to look.”
No doubt that (as Stewart said) Rowling didn’t intend to use antisemitic tropes, just as Carpenter didn’t. There’s a clear distinction between Rowling’s clumsy, clueless use of antisemitic caricature and her enthusiastic, ideological embrace of transphobic hate.
But it’s possible to do harm even if you don’t mean to. The conflation of greed and Judaism, and the constant subliminal drumbeat that Jewish people are ugly manipulative alien outsiders, can shape and reinforce ugly ideas about real Jewish people. Faces like mine are exaggerated and distorted and put on Rowling’s goblins and the Ferengi of "Star Trek." That’s why on social media, trolls often tweet pictures of my face at me because I have Jewish features. They’ve been taught by all their pop culture that “Jewish” is a stand-in for “ugly.”
Most disturbingly, there’s a direct line between Gringotts and the Grinch and the antisemitic attacks on George Soros. Soros is a billionaire Democratic donor and Holocaust survivor who has become a favorite target of the global far right. He’s been falsely accused of collaborating with Nazis and funding antifa. The right also (again falsely) claimed he was bankrolling the migrant caravan in 2018. That last conspiracy theory allegedly inspired one far-right radical to kill 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Embodying greed in Jewish caricatures puts Jews at risk. But it also makes it harder to address the actual evils of greed and inequity. When people imagine they are being oppressed by these ugly aliens over here, it becomes hard to see actual injustice and exploitation committed by supposedly good, upstanding co-nationalists and co-religionists. It’s not an accident that former President Donald Trump has signed on to Soros conspiracy theories.
Jewish people are not the main targets of hate and violence in the United States. Again, Rowling’s campaign of hatred against trans people has been much more harmful, and much more consequential, than her goblins.
Still, Jewish stereotypes and prejudice persist. That is reflected, and to some degree advanced, by fictional narratives and imagery that (unconsciously or otherwise) associate goodness with Christian charity and evil with supposed Jewish greed. In his "lighthearted" criticism of Rowling, Stewart reminded us that our fantasies remain structured around antisemitism. As long as that’s the case, Jewish people will be at risk, and defeating Voldemort will be that much harder.