Debunking the Harry Potter Anti-Semitism Myth

By Stephen Richer

There’s no shortage of theories connecting Judaism and Harry Potter.  Entire books have been written on Potter philosophy and Torah wisdom (see Moment’s interview with Dov Krulwich), and some commentators have posited that its magicians—chosen people  misunderstood by others—are essentially Jewish.  Yet, others also a postulate a rather unfortunate perspective that J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series are guilty of perpetuating an anti-Semitic slur: underhandedly equating the book’s loathsome goblins with Jews.

The goblin-as-Jew allegation deserves assessment, partly because anti-Semitism is so serious, but also because if the complaint is true, millions of Jews, including yours truly, could not continue to happily reread and rewatch one of the greatest stories ever told.

The theory—as put forth by one its leading proponents Matt Zeitlin—is pretty simple:

The goblins, especially as depicted in the movies, are universally hooked nosed, short, unattractive, and green. …Professor Binns’ soporific History of Magic lectures tell tales of centuries of goblin oppression, segregation, mistrust, bad relations, exclusion, and revolts.  Sound like any European ethnic minority you know?  That’s right, Rowlings’ depiction of goblins reflects the type of stereotypes that are more fitting for Russia in the late 19th century or a second rate Gazan newspaper.

As further evidence, Zeitlin offers a side-by-side comparison of an anti-Semitic cartoon with the Warner Brothers’ rendition of a Rowling’s goblin:

Once the goblin-Jew connection is made, it’s easy to prove a dislike for Jews.  After all, Rowling’s distaste for goblins is quite evident.  Rubeus Hagrid – a character inclined to see the good in all people and creatures – warns Harry about goblins in the first 100 pages of the seven book series: “They’re goblins Harry. Clever as they come, goblins, but not the most friendly of beasts.” Deathly Hallows portrays goblins as impassionate neutrals in a fundamentally moral war who ironically play something of a Switzerland banking for the Nazis (Gringotts goblins).  In Goblet of Fire, goblins are more concerned with their money than the terrorization of innocents (World Cup Dark Mark raid).  And, as judged by the only goblin we really get to know in detail – Griphook – goblins are untrustworthy.

This line of reasoning seems compelling, but to foist it on Rowling and the Potter series seems unjust.  For one, Rowling does a great deal of borrowing in her stories.  She followed established conventions, endowing her dragons with fiery breath and wings, giving her trolls dim wit and powerful clubs, and her goblins with short stature, hooked noses, and greedy manipulation—archetypes that existed well before Rowling ever put pen to paper.  Perhaps Rowling drew her goblin based on the goblins in the Nineteenth Century poem “Goblin Market,” in which goblins lure and trick with “evil gifts.”  Or consider JRR Tolkein’s goblin—“A foul creature…slightly smaller, sometimes hunched over or appearing to walk and run with limps.”  Or just look up goblin in the dictionary and you find a definition that largely resembles Rowling’s creatures.  Perhaps the goblin character has its origins in anti-Semitism, but Rowling can hardly be convicted of unjust commentary for using a now-familiar Western literary character.

Additionally, the debate over whether the goblin character has its roots in anti-Semitism is wholly unaligned with Rowling’s professed views on Jews. In 2004, Rowling visited a Holocaust Museum and compared the hated “mudblood” and “half-blood” terms used in Harry Potter with the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis: “If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted Aryan or Jewish blood.”  Rowling has also gone on record saying that her evil character—Lord Voldemort—is modeled in part off of Hitler.  Both comments won her comments of praise from Jewish organizations.

Then there are the movies—in which Rowling played an active oversight roll.  The actor that plays Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe has a Jewish mother, and the film company that produces the movies, Warner Brothers, owes its start to Hirsz, Abraham, Szmul, and Itzhak Wonskolaser (later changed to Warner).

In the eyes of this aspiring Gryffindor, we Jews can enjoy—without misgiving—the latest, and final, Harry Potter movie.

8 responses to “Debunking the Harry Potter Anti-Semitism Myth

  1. First of all, I don’t think J.K Rowling is an anti-semite and I never said so. She clearly has a very strong belief in egalitarianism and racial and ethinc equality.

    I think that, as you point out, she borrows a lot of tropes and stock figures from fantasy fiction and Victorian novels. But the point with the goblins is not (just) that they have extremely exaggerated versions of stereotypically Jewish features, but that they’re also portrayed as wealthy, greedy, untrustworthy, powerful creatures who control the banking system of the wizarding world. Once again, they are the wizarding worlds bankers.

    This is the key distinction between Rowling’s fictional universe and the one of Tolkien or Rosetti; and once you notice it, it’s impossible to ignore.

  2. This was an email that was sent to Rabbi Shmuley:

    Hi Rabbi Shmuley,

    Do you think the God of Israel is anti-Semitic? In Exodus 32 He wanted to wipe the Israelites off the face of the earth.

    Jews go on about the longest hatred etc, etc, but the fact remains, the YHWH the God of Israel DID want to wipe them off the face of the earth & has been killing them ever since. The Bible clearly shows this from the very start & there is more coming down the road.

    There is nothing better than a godly Jew, but there is nothing worse than an ungodly one! Read the Bible & you will see.

  3. Bob Hope = Dumbass. You disgrace his name.

  4. It’s not just the Goblin thing, though I couldn’t help imagine the poor poor palestinians as the dangerous, yet sympathetic dragon being kept prisoner down in the vaults at Gringotts in the final movie, finally to be freed from the evil bank run by the Jews, oops, I mean goblins. (Pardon the run-on sentence.) Salazar is a Jewish name; her description of Snape, I believe in the first book, describes his large hook nose and greasy black hair – and let’s be clear, people don’t associate those adjectives with Italians. I’m watching it right now and trying to do an applied I-cord with a blanket, so I’m off, but me thinks me not doth protest too much.

  5. It is true that the anti-semitic archetypical goblin in Tolkein, Wagner’s Ring cycle and the “Goblin Market” existed before she wrote Harry Potter. But Rowling was certainly aware of the history of anti-semitism in Europe. She didn’t have to include these characters in her books, and it was a poor choice to do so.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this…Maybe in HP universe it’s the other way round: goblins have inspired the jewish stereotype in the Muggle world. Muggles, since they were unaware that goblin existed for real, simply associated that race with jews (not to far off from what happened in real life, by the way: the “greedy dwarf” stock character was associated with jews long after it was invented).
    Also, I didn’t know Salazar was a Jewish name, but I know that it is a Spanish and Portoguese common last name, and it was likely taken from Antonio Oliveira de Salazar, the Portoguese dictactor who ruled the country from 1932 to 1968, And I’d like to add that many Italians do have hooked nose and greasy hair!

  7. How about this: the goblins don’t represent Jews; they represent people working in the FINANCIAL INDUSTRY. Jews aren’t selfish and greedy – bankers are selfish and greedy.

  8. Having thought it over a bit more, this “JK Rowling is anti-semitic” trope is being used as a devious red herring; to subtract from and even morally impugn what JK Rowling is obviously saying through her use of goblins in the Harry Potter books (but cannot say out loud as it would instantly cheapen and de-mythologize the message) – that bankers and the banking system as they exist in our world today are greedy and pernicious, respectively.

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