Feb. 9, 2022
Mr. Hersh is a writer and the former managing director of the social justice nonprofit Partners for Progressive Israel.
When Whoopi Goldberg said on her television program, “The View,” that the Nazi genocide of European Jews was not about race, but was actually about man’s cruelty to man, she showed a flawed understanding of race and of the Holocaust, and offended just about every Jewish organization and Jewish individual I know.
But ABC’s decision to suspend her from “The View” for two weeks, after she apologized, is equally troubling. Silencing people for ignorance and a misunderstanding of antisemitism is largely unhelpful and is, at its core, un-Jewish; Jewish tradition emphasizes the acceptance and importance of apology.
One of Judaism’s most famous sages, the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides, made clear the role the forgiver should play in a case like Ms. Goldberg’s: Help the wrongdoer overcome her ignorance and then forgive her. Maimonides said: “One must not show himself cruel by not accepting an apology; he should be easily pacified, and provoked with difficulty. When an offender asks his forgiveness, he should forgive wholeheartedly and with a willing spirit.”
The problem with punishment is it uses shame, rather than teaching and reflection, as the tool to address what is at best a clumsy misstatement and at worst a failure of understanding. Shame doesn’t foster a better relationship with the truth, or history; it simply forces silence, and that can breed resentment. In turn, silence and resentment fuel antisemitism. The better answer in these situations is obvious, but not easy: education, education, education.
“If what you want is to change someone’s mind, I have to think education is more effective than public shaming and punishment. Particularly when that person shows a sincere willingness to learn and apologize,” tweeted Sharon Brous, the senior rabbi of Ikar, a Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, in reaction to the news about Ms. Goldberg’s suspension.
Ms. Goldberg’s initial apology was the ideal response. “I’m sorry for the hurt I have caused,” she tweeted. She acknowledged her wrongdoing and expressed a willingness to listen and rethink her ideas about race: “As Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League shared, ‘The Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people — who they deemed to be an inferior race.’ I stand corrected.”
Shutting her out of her show following the incident denied her the opportunity to live in her apology and to continue to be engaged in conversations that could further her — and her audience’s — understanding of Jewish history.
The inclination to discuss mistakes or wrongdoing, rather than silence those who have done wrongs, is a Talmudic virtue — one that is enshrined in traditions such as those practiced on Yom Kippur — and it is immediately relevant to the American Jewish fight against antisemitism. The lies and conspiracy theories that feed antisemitic hatred thrive in darkness. The less we talk about them, the less we even know how to recognize and define antisemitism.
Antisemitism is often called the oldest hatred: It can be found in the scapegoating of Jews for social ills, and in ancient conspiracy theories about Jewish power (in the media, in government, in finance). Antisemites have accused Jews of everything from murder to controlling elected officials. Antisemitism, as Ms. Goldberg so painfully misunderstood, has also historically insisted that the presence of a so-called Jewish race pollutes those of “purer blood.”
Silencing greater understanding of this hate, in an era of fraught polarization and increasing brazen racism, is a dangerous approach.
The public damning Ms. Goldberg received appears to have scared her into silence. At the end of her appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on the same day she made the remark on “The View,” she addressed her critics who had been sending her angry letters. “Don’t write me anymore,” she said. “I know how you feel. I already know, I get it, and I’m going to take your word for it and never bring it up again.”
ABC’s decision to suspend Ms. Goldberg dismayed several American Jewish institutions and writers. Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, questioned how anything productive was advanced by her suspension. The Israeli-born British journalist Rachel Shabi wrote on Twitter that “another teachable moment is being used instead to stoke hostilities between racialised minorities.” The author and editor Emily Tamkin, in a thoughtful interview with CNN, said “her comments were coming from a place of ignorance, not hatred,” a sentiment echoed by others.
Canceling those who maliciously minimize the Holocaust may also squander an opportunity to educate. Last June, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene compared public health restrictions around the coronavirus to the Nazi treatment of Jews. Jewish organizations from across the political spectrum were outraged, as they have been every time she has invoked Jews to justify her positions. The American Jewish Committee pointed out the obvious: “Equating public health precautions with the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust is disgraceful and unacceptable.” In the end, Ms. Greene took a tour of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and publicly apologized. She has nevertheless continued to reference the Holocaust, but her moment of sober acknowledgment of the singular horrors of the Holocaust came after her educational experience at the Holocaust museum. Holocaust survivors have responded to Ms. Greene’s and Ms. Goldberg’s comments by offering to share with them the history as they lived it.
While such outreach should continue to be our first line of defense, a more stern approach is necessary for public figures who refuse to learn despite many opportunities. Allowing those who spread blatant antisemitism to remain in their positions of power at a time when violence against Jews is on the rise is untenable.
But the increased regularity with which antisemitism bubbles up can’t divert us from what we know about fighting it. Removing people from their posts for their antisemitic flubs is often an act of vengeance, intended to feed our own resentment toward the offender rather than to right the wrong; vengeance is not synonymous with justice, and Jewish teachings explicitly forbid vengeance.
The conversation on “The View” that led to Ms. Goldberg’s comments discussed the removal of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a graphic novel about his family’s experience in the Holocaust, from a Tennessee middle school curriculum. Some people are essentially trying to erase the real, harrowing history of the Holocaust by banning books when what is truly needed is further educational material, easily accessible and widely disseminated. The approachability of “Maus,” which depicts Nazi cats persecuting Jewish mice, makes it an especially powerful educational tool.
As much as possible, education must continue to guide our response. Bigots may never be convinced by facts and reason, but treating every misguided person like a bigot changes no one’s mind.