What's Going On With Jon Stewart And Harry Potter?
Well, my fellow muggles, It's been a weird week for the wizarding, wand-wielding world of Harry Potter. Yet instead of the usual catalysts responsible for launching Hogwarts controversy – JK Rowling's long track record of shoehorned revisionism and terrible, terrible transphobia (to paraphrase Professor McGonagall, “why is it when something happens its always you two?”) – another concerning element of the fantasy series has been broached yet again: Do the goblins who run the magical universe's Gringotts Bank perpetuate anti-Semitic stereotypes?
In light of the film series' 20th anniversary last November, comedian/ex-Daily Show host/notorious deep-dish pizza foe, Jon Stewart discussed the franchise, as well as this important question, on a recent episode of his partially-eponymous podcast, The Problem with Jon Stewart.
“Have you ever seen a Harry Potter movie? Have you ever seen the scenes in Gringotts Bank?" Stewart mused on the episode. "Do you know what those folks that run the bank are? Jews!.. And they’re like, ‘Oh, from Harry Potter!’ And you’re like, ‘No, that’s a caricature of a Jew from an anti-Semitic piece of literature,’” He continued, referencing anti-Semetic drawings in the 1903 book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “J.K. Rowling was like, ‘Can we get these guys to run our bank?’ You’re like, ‘It’s a wizarding world… We can ride dragons, you can have a pet owl… but who should run the bank? Jews… but what if the teeth were sharper?”
Naturally, the internet imploded as it tends to do when comedians dabble in socio-political issues. As his comments gained traction online, becoming a trending topic on social media and sparking articles appearing in Variety, Newsweek, as well as publications dedication to covering topics that are relevant to members of the Jewish community like Hey Alma, Stewart took to Twitter, sharing a video on Wednesday clarifying that this statement was apparently in jest.
“There’s no reasonable person who could’ve watched and not seen it as a lighthearted conversation amongst colleagues and chums … enjoying themselves, about Harry Potter and my experience watching it for the first time in the theater as a Jewish guy and how some tropes are so embedded in society that they’re basically invisible, even in a considered process like movie-making, right?” he said.
And as for his stance on the series' ever-controversial author? “I do not think J.K. Rowling is anti-Semitic," the comic explained, adding that he “did not accuse her of being anti-Semitic.” “I do not think the Harry Potter movies are anti-Semitic,” he continued. “I really love the Harry Potter movies, probably too much for a gentleman of my considerable age … I cannot stress this enough. I am not accusing J.K. Rowling of being anti-Semitic. She need not answer to any of it. I don’t want the Harry Potter movies censored in any way. It was a lighthearted conversation.”
But even with this clarification, the discourse surrounding the influence of anti-Semitism in the Harry Potter series spans well beyond Stewart. Since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone first hit shelves in 1998, many have discussed whether the Gringotts goblins perpetuate harmful stereotypes against members of the Jewish community, a conversation that first must be informed by what, exactly, constitutes anti-Semetic rhetoric as well as the specifics of these wizarding world residents.
“Since medieval times, Jewry has frequently been depicted as a wealthy, powerful, menacing and controlling collectivity, demanding the sacrifice of others to their own greed," reads a fact sheet discussing the “Elements of Anti-Semitic Discourse” published by the United Nations. “These stereotypes are often connected with stereotypical Jewish traits, such as malevolence, criminality, greediness, stinginess, and mendacity.”
In Harry Potter, the goblins seemingly embody a lot of these negative stereotypical traits. “Goblins are a highly intelligent race of small magical humanoid beings with long fingers and feet that coexist with the wizarding world,” reads the Goblins' description on the Harry Potter Wiki page. “Their diet consists of meat, roots, and fungi. Goblins converse in a language known as Gobbledegook, and are adept metalsmiths notable for their silverwork; they even mint coins for wizarding currency. Due to their skills with money and finances, they control the wizarding economy to a large extent and run Gringotts Wizarding Bank.”
While in light of Stewart's remarks, advocacy group Campaign Against Antisemitism addressed these concerning parallels in a statement on Twitter, they maintain “the portrayal of the goblins in the Harry Potter series is of a piece with their portrayal in Western literature as a whole" rather than just Rowling.
“It is the product of centuries of association with Jews with grotesque and malevolent creatures in folklore, as well as money and finance,” the statement continued. "The mythological associations have become so ingrained in the Western mind that their provenance no longer registers with creators or consumers,” the U.K. organization added, noting that any similarity between Rowling’s goblins and anti-Semitic illustrations 'is a testament more to centuries of Christendom’s antisemitism than it is to malice by contemporary artists.”
Yes, negative portrayals of Jewish people have unfortunately become commonplace in literature and pop culture as a whole. Yet as the writer and creator of the book series, Rowling is still responsible for penning and publishing characters that further harmful stereotypes, a sentiment Hey Alma's Evelyn Frick explored in her article “Jon Stewart Speaks Up About the Antisemitic Goblins of ‘Harry Potter.''' In the piece, Frick commends the comic for saying “what a lot of us have been thinking for years" while taking care to acknowledge Rowling's responsibility as the author of the series.
“As an adult, I’m trying to strike the right balance between feeling love for Harry Potter and also acknowledging the intentional and unintentional harm perpetrated by J.K. Rowling that undercut this relic of my childhood,” Frick explained. “Hearing someone like Jon Stewart actually address the issue, I’m glad to know I’m not alone.”
And it's not just Frick – a few years earlier, Hey Alma explored the topic on a deeper level, discussing the question over these characters with literary agent Connor Goldsmith. “Rowling’s goblins are nakedly anti-Semitic caricatures — a race of gnarled, hook-nosed misers obsessed with gold, who believe they own everything they’ve ever produced and wizards who purchase things only ‘rent’ from them,'" Goldsmith told the outlet in December 2019, adding that “they appear to run the entire wizarding economy, and trust no one but their own kind” and that “It’s suggested that secret cabals of goblins work to undermine the wizard government.”
While Goldsmith noted that Rowling did draw parallels between plot elements in the series and Nazi Germany, he says the connection actually makes this portrayal all the more alarming. “The fact that these creatures appear in a book series which is ostensibly an allegory for the Holocaust is as distressing as it is bizarre; one hopes Rowling didn’t intend to create such a caricature, because it really undermines her project, but intent isn’t really what matters at the end of the day."
Goldsmith has a point. At the end of the day, no one other than Rowling herself can say what, exactly was going through her head as she put pen to paper, building the world of Harry Potter and its unfortunate goblin-run banking system. But whether Rowling conjured these characters and their traits with malice or she made a genuine mistake stemming from either ignorance or perhaps a subconscious bias, her intent isn't exactly relevant. What is important here, is how these portrayals have impacted members of the Jewish community. And based on what Goldsmith, Frick, as well as other members of the Jewish community, have had to say, expressing their concern with these characters, it seems this portrayal did perpetuate anti-Semetic stereotypes on a broader scale.
Top Image: Warner Bros.