Whoopi Goldberg recently got into trouble for saying that the holocaust was ‘not a race issue’. Was she right or wrong?
Well, in a slightly complicated sense she was both right and wrong.
The Nazi’s motivation behind enacting the holocaust was certainly racist. They explicitly identified Jews as one of several inferior races that existed within human societies (alongside the ‘superior’ Aryan race). The Nazis believed that the Jewish race would ultimately pollute the purity of the Aryan race. So co-existence could not be allowed.
The Nazis were not the first or last political regime to think in a racist way. But, uniquely, they came to believe that long-term elimination was essential and preferable to simple exploitation.
Is there a Jewish race?
The Nazi’s ambition to eliminate the Jewish Race races was based in pseudo-science and a very thin understanding of ‘race’, genetics and eugenics. Even today, the concept of race is still uncertain – a concept complicated further by legal, emotional and moral factors. What is certain is that the realities of ‘race’, eugenics and genetics are much more complex than the Nazis thought.
But this truth is of only limited value. As the writer David Baddiel correctly observes, he might announce himself to be an atheist but the Gestapo would still shoot him as a Jew anyway. For the Nazis (and many modern anti-Semites) – Jewishness is ‘in the blood’. And here, Zionistic delusions have often made things worse. The fantasy of a ‘chosen people’, and the nonsense of Jewishness passing down the female line of a family have only reinforced the faulty genetic trope.
To be clear then, there has never been a ‘Jewish Race’. Jewishness is entirely a cultural phenomenon.
And in that sense Whoopi was accidentally right. Although the Nazis believed that their holocaust was about destroying a Jewish race, it wasn’t a ‘race issue’. There was no Jewish race to destroy.
Are there human races?
Among those anthropologists willing to accept the concept of race at all, there is a modest consensus that humans might be divisible into four racial sub-categories. But, with very few exceptions, even scientists willing to accept the concept of human races agree that all the important psychological differences between people are unrelated to racial groupings. There are no racial differences between people in problem-solving intelligence, personality or any other innate mental dispositions. People are the same, all round the world. Race, whether or not it exists as a scientific reality, tells us nothing useful about psychological dispositions. They arise from our cultures.
So, returning to the Jews, why do I assert that they are not one of these supposed races?
What makes a ‘race’?
According to the narrow scientific criteria used to determine what is a race, the notion of a Jewish race makes no genetic sense. It is no more valid than, say, a Nordic race, an Aryan race, a Japanese race or a blue-eyed race. Jewishness is a cultural identity – but not a genetic characteristic. No one is innately Jewish, any more than anyone is innately Moslem or Christian or Arab. There is no Jewish gene.
However, Whoopi’s apparent assumption that Jews are all white (and therefore anti-Semitism is ‘white-on-white’) was wrong.
While it is true that the racial group to which most practising Jews belong is to is the Caucasians (an indigenous racial group that ranges from Iceland to Bangladesh, including North Africa and all the Middle-East), there are Jews who are not Caucasian. The Jews of Ethiopia, for example, have an ancient tradition going back more than 1500 years, and they would definitely not self-identify as ‘white’!
Jews have often been persecuted because their cultural/religious beliefs were different from the prevailing beliefs within their host nations. The idea that their persecution was a ‘race issue’ only came about when the Nazis (wrongly) identified the Jews as a separate race.
So why is there a stereotypical ‘Jewish look’?
There are many regional appearances that owe their origins to geographical (or cultural) isolation. It is easy to forget that most people who lived 100 years ago lived, married and died within 20 miles of their birthplace. My mother was Welsh, and she had the Welsh ‘nutcracker’ jawline. Slavic people often have a stereotyped appearance too, with high cheekbones. Jewish people often have an easily-recognised look too.
But there is wide variation in appearance within every cultural, ethnic and racial group – especially among Caucasians. Even if we set aside Ethiopian Jews, who obviously have none of the ‘classic’ physical stereotypes, there is wide variation among self-identifying Caucasian Jews .
People are people. Humans are one of the most genetically homogeneous (or similar to one another) species on the planet.