Are J.K. Rowling’s goblins really anti-Semitic?

7 January 2022

2:22 AM

7 January 2022

2:22 AM

Is J.K. Rowling anti-Semitic? Yes, I know. It’s the first week of 2022 and this question is being asked, after it was reported that the American comedian Jon Stewart had complained about the portrayal of goblins in the Harry Potter franchise.

In a video released online yesterday, Stewart attempted to put the record straight.

‘Let me say this super clearly, as clearly as I can,’ he said. ‘I do not think J.K. Rowing is anti-Semitic. I did not accuse her of being anti-Semitic. I do not think that the Harry Potter movies are anti-Semitic… None of that is true, and a reasonable person could not have looked at that conversation and not found it light-hearted.’

Speaking directly to Newsweek, the publication that first reported that he had accused the Potter writer of anti-Semitism, he added: ‘Your business model is fucking arson.’

Newsweek et al, may eat my ass.

— Jon Stewart (@jonstewart) January 5, 2022

This was entertaining and refreshing, but there is more to this row than meets the eye. For some years there have been concerns about J.K. Rowling’s goblins. I’m not a Potter fan myself, but as I understand it they are characters that greedily run Gringotts Wizarding Bank.

If you look at the clip from the film in which they are depicted, you’ll see what the fuss is about. There’s no mistaking the anti-Semitic resonances. Long noses? Check. Bankers’ suits? Check. Diminutive, hunched frames? Check. Covetously caressing piles of gold? Check. Seen in a certain light, it’s all a little bit Der Stürmer. Each of these anti-Jewish clichés might have been brushed aside were it not for their cumulative weight. And then there was, er, that Star of David on the floor of the goblins’ banking house.

Now, I’m not one to cry anti-Semitism easily. When a woman at the local rugby club jokingly asked to check my nose, for instance, I dismissed it as sheer stupidity, magnified by the effects of cheap wine. By contrast, when I reported on Labour’s many Jew-related controversies in that unhappy Corbyn period between 2015 and 2019, I did so with a deep personal sense of alarm and conviction.

It’s all about the context, you see. Context and intention and malevolence. And a sense of proportion. Over the years, J.K. Rowling has shown herself to be a singularly broad-minded, circumspect and wise figure, as well as a constant, brave friend to the Jewish community. During the Corbyn years, she was one of the few truly major celebrities to speak out, putting her head above the parapet as she is now doing in the trans debate, despite the significant personal cost. That meant a lot then. And our community has not forgotten it now.

So how did the goblins pass Der Stürmer on their way to the big screen? Someone should probably find out. Some of it was seemingly coincidental, however. The filming location for the wizarding bank, for instance, was Australia House in London. The Star of David on the floor of the building was actually a commonwealth star, as displayed on the first Australian flag in 1901 (in 1908, the star was redesigned with seven points, to represent the six states plus all the territories). The resemblance to the Jewish star was, perhaps, an unhappy accident.

Is this an example of the ‘unconscious bias’ that people talk about? It’s not clear. What is certain is that if J.K. Rowling was guilty of anything — and I don’t believe for a moment that she was — it would have been failing to notice an anti-Semitic trope making its way into the film. Which, stacked against her long record of standing up for the Jewish community, would be easily forgiven.

What is also certain is that J.K. Rowling has many determined enemies. Jon Stewart has told us in no uncertain terms that the whole debacle was a mistake, but that didn’t stop the mob jumping on the allegations. What this latest row tells us, above all else, is that J.K. Rowling’s tormentors will weaponise anything to turn her into a goblin of their own.

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