Pollak: Whoopi Goldberg, Cancel Culture, and the Holocaust

Comedian Whoopi Goldberg has been suspended from ABC’s The View for her comments about the Holocaust, for which she apologized, though few people could describe in plain English what, exactly, she said that was antisemitic, or offensive.

The most widely-reported remark was that the Holocaust was not about “race,” and she was corrected on-air by co-host Joy Behar.

The Holocaust was indeed about “race,” the way that the Nazis understood it. Germans were thought to be members of a superior, Aryan race, and Jews were said to be an inferior race that compensated for its weakness by inventing ideas and systems that prevented the Aryans and others from achieving their evolutionary potential. This was said to be “science.”

But in context, what Goldberg meant was that Jews did not suffer because of their skin color, which is what “race” means in an American context. She also said that the Holocaust was “white people doing it to white people.”

That obscured the fact that Nazi ideology also claimed black people were inferior, and minimized the universal moral implications of the Holocaust — which Goldberg herself affirmed, moments later, by describing the Holocaust as being about “man’s inhumanity to man.”

What we are left with is a hodgepodge of comments, made in the final moments before a commercial break. It is not clear what Goldberg was thinking. But elements of what she said are common in popular misconceptions about the Holocaust. Liberals have long interpreted it as a lesson about humanity generally, rather than Jews specifically. And some find it hard to understand how Jews — most of whom are “white” in the U.S. — could have suffered worse racial prejudice than blacks.

These misunderstandings, however, are not necessarily malevolent or antisemitic. Goldberg did not mean to disparage Jews or diminish Jewish suffering, and not one Jew was harmed because of her momentary confusion on a daytime talk show.

Arguably, Jews were harmed by what the Whoopi Goldberg controversy obscured: news of antisemitism at the highest levels of the U.S. State Department.

The claim was made by former Ambassador David Friedman, whose memoir, Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East, recounts how he was told not to be “so Jewish” in his work.

Actual prejudice against Jews that has an effect on policy is a bigger story than a mistake by a comedian named Goldberg.

But Goldberg was an easier target — both for the conservatives whom she has attacked over the years, and for the liberal scolds who exploited the opportunity to restore some credibility to a “cancel culture” that has come under growing criticism.

The irony is that the conformity of thought reinforced by such explosions of outrage is exactly the mental posture that a totalitarian system requires, and in which atrocities can be carried out by ordinary people with few qualms or opposition.

Most Holocaust tours focus on the death camps in Poland, for example, notably Auschwitz. Its unfathomable horrors reflect our doubts about modernity: the train tracks, the industrial processes of mass murder, the macabre “scientific” experiments. (Somehow, liberalism has again returned to the worship of so-called “science,” shorn of any broader moral reflections.)

But millions of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims were murdered by being shot — not just by Nazis, but by local collaborators.

In Lithuania, where the Holocaust may be said to have begun, Jews were often killed by local police and auxiliaries. The Nazi occupation forces were, no doubt, able to exploit primordial antisemitic prejudices, many of a religious nature.

But there was an additional context: Lithuania had previously been occupied by the Soviet Union, which murdered and exiled large numbers of people, causing untold suffering in a short period of time as it dismantled the fledgling Lithuanian state.

Jews were among the victims of the Soviet occupation (including one of my cousins, Yechezkel Pulerevich, who was exiled to Siberia and later wrote a memoir, Short Stories of the Long Death). But some Soviet officials were Jews, and some local communists were Jews.

That made it easier for the invading Nazis to convince Lithuanians that Jews and “Bolsheviks” were one and the same — and to urge Lithuanian participation in mass murder, in exchange for false promises of independence.

If you want to understand why Lithuanians murdered their Jewish neighbors — “man’s inhumanity to man,” as Goldberg put it — then you have to understand the power of political conformity, the temptation to scapegoat one group for the benefit of the whole.

We do not have to draw unnecessary and invalid analogies between the Holocaust and our present-day debates to see that the pressure to conform is a feature of human societies, as is the desire to blame one group for collective problems.

Today, a younger generation of Lithuanians is trying to understand their country’s history, and the truths that were buried for generations by the communists, who described the victims in countless mass graves in local forests as “Soviet citizens.” To discover the truth requires asking difficult questions that they were not allowed to ask. It requires a tolerance for debate, and a willingness to endure being offended. That is the only way to discover what happened in the past, and to learn from it.

Whoopi Goldberg was wrong about much of what she said. But unless there is malicious intent, we should allow ourselves, and each other, to be wrong.

The Holocaust was evil; it was also complicated, and the worst thing to do is to prevent people from grappling with its moral challenges by threatening their careers if they make a mistake.

“Cancel culture” does not help anyone, least of all Jews. On the contrary, it makes our society more susceptible to hatred, prejudice, and their consequences.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new novel, Joubert Park, tells the story of a Jewish family in South Africa at the dawn of the apartheid era. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, recounts the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

Joel B. Pollak