Whoopi Goldberg and the Piranhas

Whoopi Goldberg and the Piranhas

When Tanya and I visited Grand Bahama Island, we stopped by a small “Fish Fry,” a hole in the wall fried fish restaurant which served food through a service window, similar to an ice cream stand. There was a crowd of at least 20 people, and every 15 minutes, when the fish came out of the fryer, they would descend on the cashier and purchase all the fish within a half of a minute. It was a feeding frenzy which reminded me of the view when I used to feed the piranhas at my local aquarium as a volunteer.

This scene was what came to mind this week as people jumped on Whoopi Goldberg for her ignorant statement on television, accusing her of being anti-semitic and endorsing ABC’s decision to suspend her, even saying she should have been fired. It was a vicious feeding frenzy.

Whoopi Goldberg’s statement was that the holocaust was not racist because everyone involved was white. She added, “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves.”

Her statement was ignorant, not anti-semitic; she did not realize that “racism” is not the same as “colorism.” It is an undertandable mistake: in contemporary America, we often reduce “race” to questions of skin color, which is why “white” could be considered a race.

This blindness to racism against anybody without the proper skin color is historically inaccurate (Irish, itallians, and Jews have all been seen as non-white). It also suggests that we need not concern ourselves with suffering of someone who is not black, because they couldn’t possibly be oppressed.

I do not think it is Whoopi alone that thinks this way. While sympathetic to Palestinians, the world often ignores the history of violence against Jews in the Middle East, including countries as well as Israeli towns from which we have been expelled. Because Jews are seen as “white,” we are often easily labelled as the “oppressor” or the “colonialist.” Many adherents of intersectionality easily add the Palestinians to their coalition of oppressed people, and have a more difficult time adding Jews because we are seen as white.

We need less frenzies, and more education. We need to bring people like Whoopi Goldberg into conversation, not cancel her by suspending her or labelling her or anybody else.

I also wanted to reflect with you, this week, on the decision by the McMinn County school board to remove the book Maus from the curriculum. Maus is a graphic novel depiction of the holocaust, based on very real people: one scene involves a caretaker poisoning themselves and three children in order to avoid being murdered by the Nazis. People were uncomfortable with the harsh language, and violence to children.

Sometimes it is important to be uncomfortable.

All too often, we want our lives to be comfortable. Perhaps we believe that we can isolate our children from violence and evil, and by doing so we will raise them without any violence or evil in their soul. Or perhaps we believe that if they are exposed to depictions of violence and evil, it will inflict some amount of violence similar to the real thing.

Reality is something we need to confront. Evil is real and will not go away if we ignore it. The holocaust involved evil people doing terrible things on the basis of racist beliefs. All of us need to know about racism to confront it. We cannot hide our heads.

I was struck thinking about this in light of this week’s Torah portion, which is about the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). The Tabernacle was a portable predecessor to the Temple, and most of it consisted of large fabric curtains surrounding it. These walls created a space with no impurity or death. Cohanim had to wash before entering, and it had to be purified every year. It was a totally “safe space,” a realm with no impurity, which allowed for the presence of the divine.

Yes, we all need safe spaces. But the purpose of the Tabernacle, ultimately, was to bring blessing to the world, and to the Jews who were engaged in the world. We cannot live life without not encountering violence, death, and illness. We can recharge ourselves with positive experiences, but we must engage with the messiness of the world, with all the terrible things that happen. Only doing so can we fight these evils and create w world free of racism, hatred, and violence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi david