Unlike most of my articles for NewsBreak, which refrain from personal opinion and are most frequently based on mental health or consumer issues, I will detour with this one.
As a reminder, I am a former special education teacher with substantive training in psychology. My student populations were labeled as severely at-risk, and comprised primarily of substance abusers, gang members, and formerly incarcerated high schoolers. Issues of distrust and violence were rampant. Due to the difficult lives of these students, conventional learning was among the largest of their problems.
For ten years, I taught in both New York and Southern California, for schools both public and private.
I am also a Jewish male.
Holocaust Remembrance Day 2022 passed just over a week ago. It is not a federal holiday, or even a holiday at all. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum explains the day as such: The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.
As students during my teaching tenure were predominantly high school-aged, I was tasked in most of my school settings to teach the students about World War II… and the Holocaust.
Invariably, those students considered among the state’s most difficult stated they were fascinated by these lessons. Many let down their guards, and cried.
Some related the plight of the six million deceased Jews to their own lives.
I would venture to say in many instances, these lessons changed lives.
Which brings us to January of 2022 and newsworthy events regarding a lauded graphic novel, an actress and talk show co-host, and social media.
Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”
“Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” is a 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that was followed by an acclaimed sequel in 1991. In 1996, both books were published as a single volume by Pantheon, which at the time of this writing is #1 on Amazon and temporarily out of stock.
Recent weeks have, in fact, wrought unexpected benefit: The current controversy over a recent school board decision may well have been the best possible scenario to not only return the book to the national consciousness, but also to reinvigorate dialog about the Holocaust.
As has been heavily publicized, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee, via a 10-0 vote on January 10, entered the eye of the storm. As Slate.com explains: A Tennessee school board recently voted to pull the Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Mausand its cat-and-mouse retelling of the Holocaust from the school curriculum. The school board members cited violence, nudity (in humanoid mouse caricatures), and profanity as the reasons. One member, Tony Allman, said: “It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff?”
Israeli news outlet Haaretz, in a follow-up piece on the matter by Ben Samuels entitled “Tennessee School Board Doubles Down on Removing Holocaust Graphic Novel 'Maus' From Curriculum,” quotes an official follow-up statement from the besieged board: "We simply do not believe that this work is an appropriate text for our students to study," the McMinn County Board of Education said in a statement, doubling down on its umbrage with the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel’s use of curse words, nude drawings and “not wise or healthy content” within it. It said, however, that it has asked administrators to find “age-appropriate” works aimed at educating children about the Holocaust.“
My thoughts on the quote are simple. No “age-appropriate“ works exist on the Holocaust as they appear to define the issue. One will not escape the graphic horror of the event or its imagery, and there is no way to sugarcoat the matter to make it more child-palatable. Nor should there be.
The Atlantic asks, “Where’s the Cancel-Culture Outrage Over Banning Books?” Writer Molly Jong-Fast‘s argument turns political, which is valid in today’s climate but vaguely obscures the real point that McMinn’s action is either a sincere attempt to save children from graphic imagery, or to deliberately suppress history.
Nor should a streak of well-meaning intent be entirely dismissed, despite the outrage of myself and others, as doing so would be denying the sliver of possibility that the individuals involved exhibited authentic puritanical thinking as opposed to something more egregious.
Regardless, the end result is the same. For myself, their actions are no different than the book burners in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”
For those interested, the minutes of the McMinnn County meeting are public record and linked here.
Whoopi Goldberg and Social Media
While discussing the “Maus” debacle on “The View,” co-host Whoopi Goldberg said, and I paraphrase, that the Holocaust was not an issue about the Jewish race, but of man’s inhumanity to man.
See People.com article for further specifics, including a video of the event.
Following a veritable firestorm that ensued, Whoopi apologized on Twitter:
Following her online apology, Whoopi appeared the following day on ”The View“ and apologized to the cameras, which you can watch in its entirety on this Don Lemon CNN report. Lemon played the apology for Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who accepted the apology and agreed with a comment of Whoopi’s when he said, “I know she’s been a friend of the Jewish community all throughout her career, and I appreciate and respect that.”
ABC News suspended Whoopi for two weeks from”The View,” which Lemon and Greenblatt also discussed.
Whoopi again addressed the issue on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” which fueled further controversy as it appeared to some she was doubling down.
According to Showbiz Cheat Sheet, Whoopi said on Colbert’s show: “Most of the Nazis were white people and most of the people they were attacking were white people. So to me, I’m thinking, ‘How can you say it’s about race if you are fighting each other?’ This wasn’t – I said – this wasn’t racial. This was about white on white.” She went on to say, “I was saying, ‘You can’t call this racism. This was evil.’ This wasn’t based on the skin – you couldn’t tell who was Jewish. They had to delve deeply to figure it out.”
My anger in this instance, however, is not with Ms. Goldberg. I am upset about her ignorance more so than her words. That said, though, I agree with a recent article by Gabe Friedman in The Times of Israel. In his piece entitled “‘The View’ Holocaust controversy: Are Jews white? Is Whoopi Goldberg Jewish?” Friedman accurately states: Jews have long debated whether they are a “race” or something else. Judaism is a religion, practiced by people of all varieties and races across the globe. But Jews do not have to be practitioners to regard themselves or be accepted by other Jews as Jews. The Jewish tradition of “matrilineality” — defining as Jewish a child born of a Jewish mother — points to a biological definition of Jewish identity. But Judaism also accepts converts. Taken all together, these various understandings have led Jews to regard themselves (and others to regard Jews) variously as a people, a nation, a tribe, a family and a faith — sometimes in various combinations, sometimes all at the same time.
He goes on to say something equally provocative, that gets to the crux of the matter: But Hitler, like many antisemites before him, specifically — and repeatedly, in writings and laws and speeches — labeled Jews as a physically impure Slavic-descended race, in contrast to what he termed the blonde, blue-eyed genetically pure German Aryan race. Nazi propaganda promoted pseudoscientific ways to supposedly identify Jews — by the size of their nose and lips, or the shape of their heads, among other things.
Indeed, Spiegelman, in the epigraph of the first “Maus,” quoted Adolf Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human."
The debate may rage on whether Jews are correctly interpreted as Caucasian, but Whoopi is certainly not the first person to find herself mired in that controversy. Her words were certainly not as egregious as those of a Mel Gibson, for example, which came off as irredeemably anti-Semitic in my opinion.
Whoopi, it appeared, displayed ignorance. She has a big platform and with it a big responsibility to succinctly express her views. But the stock and trade of “The View” is provocative discussion, and Whoopi to my mind did nothing that makes me believe she has a hatred, innate or otherwise, of the Jewish people.
Which brings me to Facebook… which is owned by a fellow Jew.
I will be brief. The following imagery was posted on Twitter, during Holocaust Remembrance Day, by the Auschwitz Memorial.
Graphic images, for sure. This, though, was Facebook’s response to my sharing of this same important post:
We are referring to the Holocaust, and though I understand the sensitivities we indeed “must remember” as the Auschwitz Memorial says.
To say I was appalled by Facebook’s action is putting it mildly.
I stand by my opinion. These images are reprinted not to exploit; they are reprinted to remind us all of that old adage by Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana (December 16, 1863 – September 26, 1952) who said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I personally, as a Jew and as a man, wholeheartedly endorse those words.
Allowing emotion to bleed into this article, as a former teacher I am ashamed, alarmed, and embarrassed by the actions of the McMinn County School Board, which represents the larger issue of the flaws of education as it regards the teaching of difficult history.
That “Maus” has returned to the national discussion when it has, however, is not only timely but justified. What Whoopi spouted in response to the controversy led to a controversy of its own, and what I believe to be her exposed ignorance on national television is sad, but not driven by malice.
Would 2022’s Holocaust Remembrance Day have been so newsworthy in recent days if not for the “Maus” controversy? It is a wholly legitimate question; alas, one which we cannot answer with any authority.
As for Whoopi, to reiterate I found her comments foolish but I don’t blame her. I blame her teachers; I blame the system. I am not a believer in so-called “cancel culture.” Again, hers seems to me to be a comment based in ignorance, as opposed to latent antisemitism. Can I be wrong? Of course, but Whoopi has been credited by the head of the ADL as being a friend of the Jewish people, and she has no public track record to argue otherwise.
The preceding represents my opinion on some tough matters, and I thank you for reading.
This article contains links and excerpts. Those to attribute include The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org), Haaretz.com, Slate.com, CNN, Jonathan Greenblatt, People.com, Twitter, Facebook, ABC Television, The Times of Israel, the Auschwitz Memorial, TheAtlantic.com, ShowBiz Cheat Sheet, the McMinn County School Board, and George Santayana.