The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Is J.K. Rowling Anti-Semitic?

Jon Stewart really set the cat among the pigeons when he noted J.K. Rowling’s depiction of goblin bankers fit the stereotype of Jewish bankers that has been around since the Middle Ages, but he made it clear he was not saying Rowling was an anti-Semite. While Rowling is pretty openly bigoted about trans individuals I’ve not seen evidence she is knowingly anti-Semitic. I think she promoted the caricature she did not because she is anti-Semitic, but because she was copying long-used tropes due to lacking actual originality as a writer. She fell into her anti-Semitic caricature through her own lack of knowledge and by copying established tropes that should have been abandoned long ago.

Dave Rich of the Jewish Community Service Trust said Rowling wasn’t anti-Semitic but it was still possible to have “a fascinating discussion about whether the traditional depictions of goblins in European culture have been subliminally influenced by anti-Semitic depictions of Jews.”

Dan Kahan noticed Rowling’s stereotyped depictions and wrote of it a few years back but noted “Rowling almost definitely didn’t do this intentionally.” He explained she:

…borrowed and pastiched from all sorts of fantasy and folklore while writing Harry Potter, so it’s likely that a lot of the goblins’ more anti-Semitic features are actually related to older fantasy fare surrounding bankers. It just so happens that those were probably inspired by anti-Jewish propaganda.

Paul B. Sturtevant of The Public Medievalist noted in 2018 in the Washington Post that “Stereotyped crypto-Jews have long filled the fantasy and science-fiction genres.” He said fantasy stories and sci-fi novels have often resorted to the old stereotype that was given to Jews in the Middle Ages. He wrote:

Stereotyped crypto-Jews have long filled the fantasy and science-fiction genres — from J.K. Rowling’s goblins to Watto in “Star Wars” to the dwarves in “The Hobbit.”

Tolkien himself said as much in a letter, “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations” and “[t]he Dwarves of course are quite obviously — couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic […]”

Rebecca Brackmann, in Dwarves Are Not Heroes: Anti-Semitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writing said Tolkien’s depictions of dwarves “involved several traits, recognizable drawn from anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

This depiction was created when the Vatican banned Christians from lending money at interest, yet loans were an essential aspect of banking and banking a necessity of economic growth. This meant the only people allowed to carry out these functions were non-Christians, the bulk of whom were Jewish as few other non-Christians lived in Europe at the time. On top of that the bigoted laws of the day restricted Jews from working in many other professions.

Later secularist such as Karl Marx picked up the stereotype and continued to spread it. Marx explicitly attacked Jews as the promoters of capitalism and oppressors of the people. In his essay On the Jewish Question Marx said:

Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.

What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest.

What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.

Marx made his anti-Semitism explicit:

“Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man — and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore robbed the whole world — both the world of men and nature — of its specific value…. The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world.”

The stereotype of the Jew that prevailed in the past seems to have lived on and Rowling borrowed it. Whether it was consciously done or unconsciously done is not clear, but I suspect the latter. Jon Stewart noted the obvious similarity between the cartoonish illustrations of the Nazis — and their modern fans — and those used by Rowling. But they were also used in Star Trek and in old tales and stories.

I’m not fan of Rowling, she is a bigot in regards to trans individuals, and I find her “magical” fantasies the laziest kind of writing, as it doesn’t have to conform to any sense of reality. When a problem arises and all you need is a “spell” to make it go away. There are no real challenges in that sort of universe. Unlike her transphobia I do not think the anti-Semitic imagery was intentional, I get the impression she’s totally clueless — about many things.

I suspect the original images of various evil races of beings in such tales of the past were based on the images of Jews that were previously popular. Some of that was intentional and some of it was just one writer copying the tropes used by another. The trope spread and became so widespread people assume it had always been this way. Mr. Kehan wisely noted, “Once evil imagery becomes widespread enough, it practically propagates itself.”

I do think her images were based on the stereotypes of Jewish moneylenders as depicted by the anti-Semitic Vatican of the past, but I doubt Rowling is smart enough to have concocted this on her own intentionally. I suspect she copies common tropes and is oblivious to what I now see as obvious — but I confess I never thought about it much before now, thanks to Jon Stewart.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.