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Whoopi Goldberg's Holocaust comments on 'The View' could inadvertently help fascists

The lesson of the Holocaust is not the banal insight that people are cruel to each other in general. It’s that racism is the catalyst for atrocity.

In Monday’s episode of ABC’s “The View,” host Whoopi Goldberg claimed the Holocaust was “not about race.” That’s historically confused and minimizes the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people. In addition, it misrepresents the nature of the Nazis and therefore makes it more difficult to oppose fascist authoritarian violence, whether that violence is directed at Jewish people or at others.

The Holocaust was specifically intended to wipe out Jewish people as a (perceived) race. That’s why the Nazis targeted Christians with Jewish grandparents.

Goldberg apologized a few hours later, acknowledging that the Nazis targeted the Jews because they were a group “who they deemed to be an inferior race.” Initially, though, she said the Holocaust was not racially motivated because Jewish people are white. “This is white people doing it to white people. Y’all go fight amongst yourselves,” she said.

Goldberg did say on “The View” that it was important to teach about the Holocaust. In particular, she expressed support for Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (which was recently removed from a Tennessee school curriculum) because it helps students “learn about man’s inhumanity to man, however it exposes itself.”

The problem with that formulation is that race isn’t a genetic or biological fact. It’s a cultural construction. Different people have been racialized — or targeted on the basis of perceived, false biological differences — at different times in different ways. Trying to apply racial categories that fit the present to the past can end up obscuring racism in both.

British art and rhetoric, for instance, long depicted Irish people as subhuman nonwhite others; when they immigrated to the U.S., though, they slowly became perceived as white. (Thus Noel Ignatiev’s book, “How the Irish Became White.”) Similarly, Italians, Eastern Europeans and Jews weren’t exactly viewed as white, either. These days, light-skinned people in all these groups are generally perceived as white — though it’s not hard to still find racialized attacks on Jewish people regardless of skin color.

The Nazis were extremely racist, to put it mildly, and there is simply no question that they saw Jewish people as racial others, rather than, for example, religious heretics. Nazis denied German Jews citizenship on the grounds that Jewish people supposedly lacked German “blood.” They also referred to Jews as an “alien race” and as “vermin.”

The Holocaust was specifically intended to wipe out Jewish people as a (perceived) race. That’s why the Nazis targeted Christians with Jewish grandparents. And it’s why they didn’t try to convert Jewish people before killing them, in contrast to that earlier, less race-focused antisemitic European atrocity, the Inquisition.

The Nazis were certainly responsible for a great variety of cruelty against a great variety of people. But violence against Jewish people — and the Roma, disabled people, Slavs and many of the Nazis’ other targets — was specifically linked to an ideology of racial, and racist, purity.

Goldberg wants to set that aside and talk instead about a generalized inhumanity to man. Her motivation there seems laudable; she wants everyone, everywhere, to feel like the Holocaust is relevant to them. “The minute you turn it into race, it goes down this alley,” she said. “Let’s talk about it for what it is. It’s how people treat each other. That’s the problem.”

But when you take the racism out of the evil ways in which people treat each other, you make it more difficult to identify racism as the source of — and a warning sign for — that evil. Many people on the right, in particular, are eager to divorce fascist authoritarianism from its specific roots in racism and racist violence.

This is how you get anti-vaxxers pinning yellow stars on themselves to suggest that they are oppressed by vaccine mandates. For them, fascism was bad because it was a generalized instance of state coercion in which freedoms were curtailed. They erase the specific experience of Jewish people and the specific experience of racism as a trigger for genocidal violence. Denying the racist roots of the Holocaust enables bad actors to try to appropriate Nazi imagery and Jewish suffering.

It also makes it difficult to identify actual fascism when it’s coming upon you. Because the Holocaust has become synonymous with generalized, total evil, people tend to downplay fascist violence that’s not generalized and total. Many people — even very knowledgeable people — are reluctant to say former President Donald Trump is a fascist because he didn’t seek to impose total social control domestically or globally.

But the hallmark of fascism is the racialization of enemies as an excuse for violence and further totalitarian power, which can then be used for more racialization, more violence, more power and on to mass death.

Trump’s leveraging of racist rhetoric and fears against Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, Black people and, yes, Jewish people as part of his program to consolidate power and undermine democratic institutions makes fascist comparisons apt, even if he hasn’t yet made efforts as all-encompassing as some of his most infamous forebears.

White Jewish people are not the main focus of prejudice in the United States, as they were in Germany. The U.S. concentrates most of its racialized violence on people with dark skin. But Jewish people of every skin tone could become targets again. And whether fascism’s primary targets are Jewish, as in Nazi Europe, or Black people, as in every era in the U.S., we need to understand that its evil is inextricably linked to the way it picks out specific people for hatred and destruction.

The Nazis did not, first and foremost, attack a universal humanity. They attacked the Jews, a particular group they defined as a separate race and then killed. The lesson of the Holocaust is not the banal insight that people are cruel to each other in general. It’s that racism is the catalyst for atrocity. White Jewish people in the U.S. are less racialized at the moment and therefore somewhat safer than they were in the past. But in a society as racist as the U.S., safety and freedom for any marginalized people will always be tenuous.