6 January 2022

JK Rowling and the goblins of ire


There is an irony in the fact that one of the things influencing JK Rowling when she came to write Harry Potter was what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Holocaust. The enduring and incredible popularity of her books isn’t just because of its stories of invisibility cloaks, flying on broomsticks and japes in a haunted boarding school. There is a more grown-up subtext about hatred based on whether someone is a ‘pure blood’ just like the Nazi’s anti-Aryan laws aimed at Jews.

The irony is that this week we have seen two antisemitism scandals featuring both Rowling and one of the film franchise’s main stars, Emma Watson. 

These separate but linked stories show us several things; the pervasive nature of Jew-hatred within Western culture, that demands of ‘purity’ in the books are also reminiscent of today’s culture wars, and that Jew-hate is also often used as a political football fought by two teams who aren’t actually that bothered about antisemitism; they just want to use it to give the other a red card. 

First Emma. On Monday, shortly after Hamas had fired rockets at Tel Aviv and Israel had fired back, she reposted a tweet from a group called @badactvist collective. The picture was of a Palestinian rally accompanied by the words, ‘Solidarity is a verb’.

It upset many Zionist Jews and Israelis, with Israel’s Permanent Representative to the UN writing on Twitter: ’10 points from Gryffindor for being an antisemite.’

I think it’s because she has 64 million Instagram followers that it hurt; that’s four times the number of Jews in the entire world. While her post wasn’t antisemitism, in my view, it points to the idea – perpetuated by social media – that this is a simple conflict; a conflict of good and evil, in which the evil is the one Jewish state. Was that her intent? I doubt she thought that deeply about it. 

Being not just pro-Palestinian but vehemently anti-Israel has become the default position for many in leftwing spaces and that makes them incredibly uncomfortable for Jewish people who identify with the one Jewish state. Only the pure Jews – the ones who denounce it – are allowed. 

We saw what that led to in the Corbyn years and how, in the last round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in May, all the social justice warriors were happy to post pro-Palestinian memes even as Jews around the world were being physically attacked

A couple of days after Watson was embroiled in an antisemitism scandal, it was Rowling’s turn. Newsweek magazine picked up some two-week old comments comedian Jon Stewart had made about the Goblins who work at Gringotts bank in the Harry Potter films, calling them antisemitic. He said he was surprised at how no one else had noticed how antisemitic the goblin bankers were. 

Are goblins antisemitic? It’s complicated, because antisemitism often is. Myths about goblins as avaricious gold-loving creatures predate antisemitism but it’s likely that Jews were ascribed goblin-like qualities because of antisemitism, just as images of witches and the devil are sometimes also seen to have overtones of Jew-hate (incredibly, older Jewish people I know have been asked, in all seriousness, whether they have horns).

Antisemitic tropes are so embedded in Western culture – the Jew has been the bogey man for every wrong that mankind has suffered for hundreds of years – that it can be hard to navigate your way around without kicking one. If you’ve ever harboured feelings good or bad about Jews – be they that we are good with money, brilliant lawyers, tight, ugly, run the media, are powerful – that’s because of the tropes. Even some people Jewish believe them. So when it comes to antisemitism, one thing I always look at is intent. 

Did JK Rowling, or the producers of the films, intend for them to be antisemitic? No. JK Rowling has been a steadfast friend to the Jewish community, a rare non-Jewish famous person happy to stand up against Jeremy Corbyn and his band of antisemites. Because a disappointing number of celebrities were on the other side, her support was all the more precious.  Goblin noses were not even described in her books. How about the producer of the film, David Heyman. Is he an antisemite? Unlikely, as two of his Jewish grandparents fled the Nazis. 

Stewart himself – shocked at the antisemitism row engendered by his off-the-cuff jokey comments – later insisted that he did not believe either Rowling or Harry Potter were antisemitic saying: ‘Some tropes are so embedded in society that they are basically invisible even in a considered process like movie making,’ before adding, ‘Get a f*cking grip.’

It was no surprise that some of the most vehement Twitter creatures baying for Rowling’s blood over her alleged antisemitism were Corbynites. They immediately equated the antisemitic looks of the goblins with the famous Mear One mural which had got Corbyn in trouble and asked why he was an antisemite if she wasn’t. 

Not only was that image of rapacious bankers several steps on in terms of offensiveness, but the difference is that Corbyn – who had a history of befriending antisemites – was actively in favour of keeping that mural in place, despite its blatant racism. This is why the intent of someone stumbling into antisemitism is key. And that in itself can be a complicated issue – just look at the long-running row over whether it is antisemitism for Spurs fans to call themselves the Yid Army. 

The culture warriors piling into this debate, either on Watson or Rowling’s side sound like nothing so much as the purity-seeking inquisitors of old. Those who stray or make mistakes must be cast out or punished. But neither side of this toxic, tedious debate actually cares about antisemitism, it is simply a scaffold from which to launch their attacks.

The thing that makes me sad isn’t just that there is antisemitism – I’ve long to come to the realisation that it can never be stamped out completely – but that if people genuinely cared as much about antisemitism as they have professed to in the last few days in this latest culture war salvoes there would be less of it about. Sadly, that is not the case – not by a long chalk.

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Nicole Lampert is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.