Are Jews a race or religion?

Whoopi Goldberg was wrong to assert that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, but correct that Jews are not a race. Here's why her comments and this entire debate matter.
Whoopi Goldberg and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speak on ABC's "The View" on February 1, 2022 (courtesy: The View)

We’re curious…

When Whoopi Goldberg told her co-hosts on ABC’s “The View” two weeks ago that “The Holocaust isn’t about race” but rather about “man’s inhumanity to man,” her comments caused a firestorm.

Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the Auschwitz Memorial, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum immediately condemned her statement, noting that the Nazis indeed viewed the Jewish people as an inferior race and that this was central to Nazi ideology.

Later the same day, when Goldberg was asked about her remarks on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” she responded that “as a black person I think of race as something that I can see.” 

But she also doubled down on her view that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, insisted that Jews are “white” and described the Holocaust as “two sides fighting”:

“Most of the Nazis were white people and most of the people they were attacking were white people,” Goldberg said. “So to me, I’m thinking, ‘How can you say it’s about race if you are fighting each other?’”

Goldberg apologized for her comments in a statement on Twitter later that night, and apologized on “The View” the next day. She was still suspended from “The View” for two weeks. 

Yesterday, Goldberg returned to the show, and said, “I listened to everything everybody had to say, and I was very grateful. I hope it keeps the important conversations happening because we’re going to keep having tough conversations.”

Goldberg’s comments led to an important discussion in the news and on social media about whether Jews are “white” and how to define the Jewish community. So, we thought this was a good opportunity to unpack the question: What exactly are the Jewish people? Are Jews a race, religion, nation or something else? Plus, why does the question of defining the Jewish people matter?

Diversity of perspectives

Responding to Goldberg’s comments, many Jewish leaders underscored that the Holocaust was absolutely about race, but that Jews are best described as a “religious family” as opposed to a race.

Appearing on “The View” the day after Goldberg made her comments, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said: “There’s no question that the Holocaust was about race. That’s how the Nazis saw it as they perpetrated the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people across continents, across countries with deliberate and ruthless cruelty.”

“Hitler’s ideology … was predicated on the idea that the Aryans, the Germans, were a ‘master race’ and the Jews were a subhuman race,” Greenblatt added. 

According to British comedian David Baddiel, author of the book, “Jews Don’t Count,” Goldberg’s comments that the Holocaust “wasn’t about race” showed that there is resistance to the idea that antisemitism is racism, and that it is instead considered to be religious intolerance.

The problem with that, he explained on the TV show “Good Morning Britain,” is that the Nazis (and neo-Nazis today) did not care whether Jews were religiously observant or not or that he is an atheist. 

“The Nazis were not interested in faith, they were interested in racial purity,” Baddiel explained. “The Nuremberg Laws were racial purity laws. [Goldberg’s] comment suggests that there are people who [wrongly] think racism is only about the color of your skin.”

Baddiel added that the question of whether light-skinned Jews are “white” is extremely complex. 

“Jews are seen as white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer,” he said. For centuries, far-right groups have seen Jews as not part of the white race; meanwhile, on the far-left, Jews tend to be associated with “power and privilege” and are viewed as “super white,” Baddiel explained.

So, are Jews a race or not? Yair Rosenberg, writer at The Atlantic, argued that Jewish identity does not fit into the usual boxes of race, religion or ethnicity:

“[Judaism] is not quite a religion, because one can be Jewish regardless of observance or specific belief,” he wrote, noting that Albert Einstein was proudly Jewish but not religiously observant.

“But it’s also not quite a race, because people can convert in! It’s not merely a culture or an ethnicity, because that leaves out all the religious components. And it’s not simply a nationality, because although Jews do have a homeland and many identify as part of a nation, others do not.”

“Instead, Judaism is an amalgam of all these things — more like a family (into which one can be adopted) than a sectarian Western faith tradition,” Rosenberg concluded.

Similarly, in a Times of Israel blog post, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, wrote that Jews are not really a race or nationality because “there are Jews of every skin color and from all corners of the world.” And they are not a religion because “one isn’t born into a religion.” (According to traditional Jewish law, those who have a Jewish mother are Jewish.)

Wolpe concluded that “Jews are a religious family. You can join family. You don’t leave your family by disliking it or disagreeing with it, but you can leave it by joining another family. That is historically how Judaism has worked.”

Meanwhile, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, wrote in a JNS op-ed that regardless of whether Jews are a race, antisemitism is still racism.

Hassan-Nahoum wrote that there are two “concerning trends” in terms of how we define racism:

“The first is that racism is solely about color. The second is that every ethnicity is now defined as relating to skin color — except…when it comes to the Jewish people. The net result of these two growing trends is that antisemitism is not considered racism, and therefore is a more tolerable form of discrimination.”

Hassan-Nahoum concluded that we need to expand our definition of racism to reflect that it is about more than one’s skin color: “Racism is about viewing negatively a group of people who share a set of traits, such as genes, geography, history, culture and more.”

Rebecca Sugar, a writer and philanthropic consultant in New York, focused on a different aspect of this. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Sugar noted that Goldberg was clearly uninformed about the Holocaust based on her comments, yet had a celebrity platform to share her views.

Sugar argued that this problem extends beyond Whoopi Goldberg: 

“Who speaks with presumed authority and moral superiority but next to no knowledge? In our culture, that would be everyone with a Twitter account, an iPhone, a classroom full of students, an election coming up, or a TV show. Our entire culture is marinated in people mindlessly mouthing off simply because they have an audience.”

Why does this matter?

Goldberg was wrong to assert that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, but correct in saying that Jews are not a race. Why do her comments and the entire debate over whether Jews are a race, religion or something else matter? Here are four big ideas and takeaways this story highlights.

1. Holocaust education needs to be more central.

Goldberg is not alone in her lack of knowledge about the Holocaust — this is a much bigger problem. In September 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — an organization that works to secure material compensation for Holocaust survivors — released a nationwide survey of American adults under 40 showing a lack of awareness of key historical facts: 

  • 63% of respondents did not know 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and over half of those thought the toll was under two million.
  • There were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during World War II, but half of respondents could not name a single one. 
  • One in 10 respondents could not recall ever hearing the word “Holocaust” before.

Goldberg’s comments and these statistics are a reminder that Holocaust education matters. To learn more about the Holocaust or teach your friends or community, check out our four-part video series on this history which explores individual stories of the victim/survivor, perpetrator, bystander and upstander.

2. Are Jews included in the fight against racism?

According to comedian and author David Baddiel, behind the resistance to the idea that antisemitism is racism is “a submerged deeper resistance to the idea that Jews, with all their imagined power and privilege, can ever truly be victims.”

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on the injustices faced by many minority groups. If the Holocaust is understood as a “white on white issue,” as Goldberg described, and if antisemitism is not considered racism, then will the Jewish community not be included in the fight for racial justice today?

In his book “Jews Don’t Count,” Baddiel wrote that antisemitism is frequently “downgraded” from racism to “religious intolerance,” and therefore isn’t taken as seriously.

3. Racism is about how any given ethnic group is perceived and treated by others.

At the end of the day, we can continue debating the ways in which Jews are a race and not a race, but as David Baddiel argued, “Whether or not an ethnic group [is] biologically a race…is irrelevant to the reality of the racism they might face. Jews are racialized, whether they like it or not. The Nazis were not interested in [whether Jews identified as a race].”

Adam Serwer of The Atlantic made a similar point: “It is not necessary for race to be real for racism to be real. It is only necessary that people believe race to be real. When people act on fictions, those actions have repercussions even if the underlying belief is false.” This is why antisemitism is racism, even though Jews are not a race.

4. How do you define your Judaism?

As the world debates whether Jews are a race, religion or something else, this is a good moment to reflect on how we define ourselves and how we personally interact with Judaism. Think about the following question for yourself: do you identify with Judaism most as a religion, people, nation, tribe, culture or family?

For instance, as we discussed in this video that we created with the Z3 Project, many American Jews define themselves as cultural — not ritually observant or community-driven, but rather, “culturally Jewish.” That might mean the deli, Hanukkah, or what they choose to read, watch and listen to.

In Israel, there is a national identity that is Jewish. There are Jewish symbols in the Knesset building and on the currency, and Jewish holidays are nationally observed. For instance, on Passover, there is a law against displaying bread in public, and nearly all Israeli Jews fast on Yom Kippur.

So, let’s use Goldberg’s inaccurate comments about the Holocaust as an opportunity to reflect on how we all define being a part of the Jewish people, and how the Holocaust was one of the worst racist and antisemitic atrocities in western civilization.

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