Another day, another social minefield.
A current focus on social media is Jon Stewart’s claim/accusation/observation that J.K. Rowling is anti-Semitic for her depiction of goblins in the Harry Potter series.
I say minefield of course because the topic is fraught with heated topics: anti-Semitism, political correctness, J.K. Rowling herself.
Some background: I did not read Harry Potter when the books first hit shelves. I am a very analytical reader and consuming a single book takes considerable time for me, so I developed a tendency to rely on evergreen classics and recommendations from select peers. When Harry Potter appeared, I did not dismiss is as “just a fad” but I was wary that it might prove to be and I put off reading.
So, my first exposure with Harry Potter was the film “Prisoner of Azkaban” with friends, and I would encounter the visual of the goblins in the films before reading about them.
My initial reaction to seeing them was, “Is this an offensive Jewish caricature? Visually this is how anti-Semites depict Jewish people, and the banking thing seems a little pointed” – much as Jon Stewart said.
But my second thought about the depiction in a world of wizards, mud-bloods, half-bloods, and muggles was, “Is this a deliberately pointed depiction of goblins?” They did have the appearance, but as I understand it the offensive Jewish caricature is intentionally goblin-like. The wizarding world has opinions of the goblins, but they manage to co-exist to a degree despite that.
When discussing stereotypes one of the examples I tend to mention is that of Jewish people being stingy about money. I mention this example because, as with most stereotypes, there is “some truth behind it.” That truth is, of course, just as anti-Semitic as the stereotype.
Christians, very much in power already, saw the handling of money as dirty and a sin. Nevertheless, handling money is necessary in society, so Jews and Muslims took those positions and found “usefulness” in an anti-Semitic world.
So, yes, there is some truth to the idea that a disproportionate number of Jewish people work in fields like banking and finance, but that truth is that anti-Semites pushed them there and then criticised them for it. (Also, always important, is that it’s a stereotype that generalises something about an individual or individuals to all members of a group – so the “some truth” aspect of the stereotype does not make it better).
It’s also important to note that intent does not matter in these circumstances. I have written before that I feel that is Rowling’s biggest problem with trans rights. At the risk of the usual Internet backlash, I believe that Rowling does not hate trans people based on the specifics of what she writes. I believe she is a white feminist in practice whose focus on female rights is so intense that she fails to see how her feminist statements affect those who are not cisgendered women.
That is where I do not assume evil intent with this, but I think there’s another potential difference. With her feminist statements, Rowling may not intend transphobia or offence but she provides it – that is clear from the response of trans persons.
With the goblin caricature, I think the offence might be the point. I do not mean that in a malicious way, but in the “Jews are stingy with money – there’s some truth to that stereotype” way I described before. Is it possible that Rowling specifically leaned into anti-Semitic tropes to show another example of it? It would be a brilliant literary decision to say, “Yes, there are wizards who hate everyone who is not 100% wizard, but even among the so-called tolerant wizards we see complications in their relations with other groups like the goblins and centaurs.”
If this is the case, I am putting it in a category with Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” or Robert Downey, Jr.’s use of blackface in “Tropic Thunder.” While the racism of “Blazing Saddles” and blackface in “Tropic Thunder” are never acceptable, they are not racist in the context because the context is, “This is racist and wrong.”
In short, the goblin tropes in Harry Potter are anti-Semitic regardless of intent, but how severely the audience prosecutes that anti-Semitism depends wholly upon whether the purpose of the trope was laziness/”humour”/blatant anti-Semitism or was further commentary in line with a theme of the stories about intolerance.