Jewish charity defends J K Rowling over Harry Potter anti-Semitism

‘Sometimes a goblin is just a goblin’: Jewish charity defends J K Rowling after US TV host accused the Harry Potter author of anti-Semitism – as fans ask, ‘Are we going to cancel Tolkien and fantasy books too?’

  • Jon Stewart called the goblins in the Harry Potter universe an anti-semitic trope  
  • However, fans were quick to point out her recent criticisms of anti-semitism
  • Jewish charity also said Rowling was ‘very supportive’ of the Jewish community
  • Jewish organisations have defended JK Rowling after a US comedian claimed that the depiction of goblins in her Harry Potter books was anti-Semitic.

    Jon Stewart slammed the author over the goblins that run Gringotts bank in her Harry Potter series on his podcast, The Problem with Jon Stewart.  

    Stewart, who is Jewish, questioned why Rowling chose to ‘throw Jews in there to run the f***ing underground bank’ in a fictional world where people ‘can ride dragons and have pet owls’.

    However, Jewish fans were quick to note that the author has constantly called out anti-Semitism in recent years.

    And Dave Rich, director of policy at Jewish charity the Community Security Trust, told MailOnline that Rowling had been ‘very supportive’ of the Jewish community. 

    He said: ‘JK Rowling has been very supportive of the Jewish community in recent years and tweeted repeatedly against antisemitism, so it is hard to imagine that she used anti-semitic caricatures in her books. Sometimes a goblin is just a goblin.’

    Mr Rich did note, however, that there might be something ‘subliminal’ in her depiction, suggesting that ‘subconscious anti-Semitism’ in society over the years may have led to characters like goblins taking on ‘anti-Semitic caricatures’ in their appearance. 

    Comedian David Baddiel added: ‘The goblins in Harry Potter need to be seen not in a simplistic #teamRowling vs #antiteamRowling way but in a many-centuries long, deeply subconsciously embedded cultural context.’

    Author and literature expert Nicholas Jubber told MailOnline: ‘Rowling appears to have followed traditions in British fantasy literature. The old German word, ‘kobold’, gave us the word ‘cobalt’, signalling the association of these creatures with mining for precious ores. So it makes sense that goblins would be linked with vaults and underground storage.’

    Fans also defended the author, suggesting that her depiction of the goblins was typical of the fantasy genre, with the likes of JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett making similar descriptions.  

    One said today: ‘Goblins were described and depicted like that decades before Rowling. So if those activists have problems with how goblins are depicted – they should cancel fantasy books and mythos that existed before.’

    Another added: ‘You would have to tar all fantasy writers such as Tolkien and artists, who have portrayed goblins in exactly the same light since the 19th Century. In most fantasy and children’s writings they are almost always portrayed as mean, hoarders of gold and jewels with the same features.’ 

    Others noted that Rowling’s original sketch of goblins was significantly different to the movie depiction of the creatures, which Warner Brothers are behind. 

    Stewart characterized the goblins as an obvious anti-Semitic trope, and questioned why more people haven't done the same. Pictured is a movie still from the first Harry Potter film

    Stewart characterized the goblins as an obvious anti-Semitic trope, and questioned why more people haven’t done the same. Pictured is a movie still from the first Harry Potter film

    Goblins in the Lord of the Rings. Fans also defended the author, suggesting that her depiction of the goblins was typical of the fantasy genre, with the likes of JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett making similar descriptions.

    Goblins in the Lord of the Rings. Fans also defended the author, suggesting that her depiction of the goblins was typical of the fantasy genre, with the likes of JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett making similar descriptions.

    Jewish fans were also quick to note that the author constantly called out anti-Semitism in recent years 

    Jon Stewart (pictured), who is Jewish, questioned why Rowling chose to 'throw Jews in there to run the f***ing underground bank' in a fictional world where people 'can ride dragons and have pet owls'

    Jon Stewart (pictured), who is Jewish, questioned why Rowling chose to ‘throw Jews in there to run the f***ing underground bank’ in a fictional world where people ‘can ride dragons and have pet owls’

    However, some fans pointed out that Rowling's depiction of goblins was consistent with how they had been depicted in fantasy for years, such as in the works of JRR Tolkien

    However, some fans pointed out that Rowling’s depiction of goblins was consistent with how they had been depicted in fantasy for years, such as in the works of JRR Tolkien

    Rowling was a frequent critic of Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership of the Labour Party and also refused to join a cultural boycott of Israel.

    In 2018, she criticised anti-Semitism in Britain on several occasions, prompting one Jewish journalist to tweet: ‘There’s a strong case that no single person has done more to raise international awareness of the anti-Semitism faced today by British Jews from the far-left than @jk_rowling. She’s not only spotlighted it, but used her skills to explain it to 14 million followers. Remarkable.’ 

    Stewart, 59, said the banker goblin characters in the author’s famous book series are based on caricatures of Jews from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-semitic text that purports to show a Jewish plan for world domination.

    ‘Here’s how you know Jews are still where they are,’ Stewart said in the episode before bemoaning how those who he’s spoken to have been reluctant to acknowledge the resemblance.

    From Hans Christian Andersen to Greek and Hindu mythology: How goblins have been depicted throughout history – and why they were twisted by anti-Semitic polemicists 

    Nicholas Jubber, author of The Fairy Tellers: A Journey into the Secret History of Fairy Tales:

    Goblins have been skulking around fairy tales, myths and tales all over the world for many centuries, from the long-nosed Japanese Tengu to the bhutas swarming around the Hindu god Shiva. 

    JK Rowling appears to follow Anglophone conventions, especially Tolkien. 

    The English word ‘goblin’ has been in use since at least the fourteenth century, and is probably derived from the German ‘kobold’, which itself has been linked to ancient Greek.

    It’s an echo of the household deities that continued to be worshipped long after the arrival of Christianity in Europe.

    Like many of our magical and mythical creatures, goblins are a whisper of the beliefs that were pushed underground – which, in the case of goblin storytelling, is often literal. 

    Hans Christian Andersen had them keen on porridge and sensitive to the cold; Christina Rossetti made them ‘Cat-like and rat-like… Chattering like magpies’ and ‘gliding like fishes’. In traditional tales, they appear as petulant, capricious, mischievous; sometimes child-stealers; usually cunning, short, long-eared and long-nosed, sometimes green-skinned, sometimes wearing red caps. 

    This imagery was twisted by anti-Semites for the sort of propaganda mentioned by Jon Stewart, imagery that had an extremely dangerous effect. 

    But it’s also worth remembering that Sir Walter Scott thought goblins were derived from caricatures about the Sami people of Lapland, and the long nose of the Japanese Tengu is believed to derive from the beak of a mythical Hindu bird.

    However, Rowling appears to have followed traditions in British fantasy literature – such as ‘The Hoard of the Gibbelins’ by Lord Dunsany. 

    The old German word, ‘kobold’, gave us the word ‘cobalt’, signalling the association of these creatures with mining for precious ores. So it makes sense that goblins would be linked with vaults and underground storage. 

    But given the way these associations were twisted by antisemitic polemicists in the early part of the twentieth century, it’s a shame that such an inventive writer couldn’t come up with a different spin on goblins, whose history is richer and more varied than the scenes at Gringotts imply.  

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    ‘I just want to show you a caricature. And they’re like, ‘Oh, look at that, that’s from Harry Potter!’ And you’re like, ‘No, that’s a caricature of a Jew from an antisemitic piece of literature.’ J.K. Rowling was like, ‘Can we get these guys to run our bank?”

    When he first saw the Harry Potter films, Stewart said he expected other theater patrons to ‘be like ‘h*** shit, she did not, in a wizarding world, to just throw Jews in there to run the f***ing underground bank.’ And everybody was just like ‘Wizards.”

    However, some pointed out how Rowling’s goblins simply reflect the way the creatures are typically depicted in media. 

    JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett’s works both contained goblins, with their description similar to Rowling’s. 

    A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism told MailOnline: ‘The portrayal of the goblins in the Harry Potter series is of a piece with their portrayal in Western literature as a whole. 

    ‘It is the product of centuries of association of Jews with grotesque and malevolent creatures in folklore, as well as money and finance. 

    ‘The mythological associations have become so ingrained in the Western mind that their provenance no longer registers with creators or consumers. 

    ‘Those who continue to use such representations are often not thinking of Jews at all, but simply of how readers or viewers will imagine goblins to look, which is a testament more to centuries of Christendom’s antisemitism than it is to malice by contemporary artists.

    ‘So it is with JK Rowling, who has proven herself over recent years to be a tireless defender of the Jewish community in its fight against antisemitism, for which we are immensely grateful.’ 

    Dan Kahan, writing in PopDust in 2019, commented: ‘The Gringotts goblins are totally coded as anti-Semitic Jewish stereotypes. 

    ‘J.K. Rowling almost definitely didn’t do this intentionally. … Rowling also 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.’ 

    And one fan said: ‘I was struck by it at the time but put it down to the deep cultural chauvinism that runs through Northern European folklore rather than any specific intent by the author. Same arguments can be and are thrown at Tolkien.’

    Fans were also quick to defend the author following Stewart’s remarks. 

    One wrote: ‘My Jewish perspective is that this is a cheap shot by Stewart. I don’t believe @jk_rowling ever thought ‘Jews’ when she made the bankers goblins (or that any child reading HP ever thought it, either). JKR has been a strong supporter of Jewish causes for decades & she has denounced real antisemitism when few non-Jews do.

    ‘Perhaps she regretted the choice after critics made that connection, but if you look at folkloric creatures that have been described for centuries as gold hoarders & think ‘Jews’, that’s not on her.’

    Another said: ‘JK Rowling is being accused of antisemitism over her depiction of goblins in her Harry Potter books. I think this is nonsense; she has always stood alongside Britain’s Jews, and now that she’s under continuous attack, we should stand by her.’

    A third commented: ‘Dear world, JK Rowling is not anti-semitic. Gringotts goblins are goblins, not Jews. Unless goblins are anti-semitic by existence. If you make the link between goblins & Jews – that’s on you. Make your own considerations. But JKR is as anti-semitic as I, a Jew, am. Probs less.’

    On the Harry Potter wiki, the franchise’s goblins are described as ‘a highly intelligent race of small magical humanoid beings with long fingers and feet that coexist with the wizarding world. Their diet consists of meat, roots, and fungi.’

    Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (pictured) is no stranger to controversy, and has faced cancellation for her comments regarding transgender issues

    Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (pictured) is no stranger to controversy, and has faced cancellation for her comments regarding transgender issues

    Fans were quick to point out that JK Rowling has been a frequent critic of anti-semitism online in recent years

    Fans were quick to point out that JK Rowling has been a frequent critic of anti-semitism online in recent years

    ‘Goblins converse in a language known as Gobbledegook, and are adept metalsmiths notable for their silverwork; they even mint coins for wizarding currency,’ the description reads. 

    ‘Due to their skills with money and finances, they control the wizarding economy to a large extent and run Gringotts Wizarding Bank.’

    In their first appearance in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, one is described as being short with a ‘swarthy, clever face, a pointed beard and very long fingers and feet’. 

    Stewart isn’t the first to call out the goblins – in 2020, Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson expressed similar frustrations. 

    In the Harry Potter books and movies, he said, ‘the woods are controlled by centaurs, the schools are run by wizards and ghosts, but who controls the banks… Jews obviously—little giant-nosed Jew Goblins.’ 

    Rowling, 56, has faced accusations of transphobia after she mocked an online article in June 2020 which used the words ‘people who menstruate’ instead of ‘women.’   

    She was not interviewed for HBO’s ‘Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts’ special, sparking outrage from some fans who accused makers of attempting to erase her over her views.

    It was revealed that, in clips of the New Year’s Day special, stars had praised ‘the power of her writing’ and that she would appear in archive footage. 

    An illustration from The Protocols of the Elders Zion

    An original illustration from J.K. Rowling, sketched before Warner Brothers began making the films

    Pictured left is an illustration from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic text that purports to show a Jewish plan for world domination. Pictured right is a sketch by J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter touring Gringotts bank with a goblin in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, long before Warner Brothers took up the film franchise

    The possibility that the goblins that run Gringotts bank in Harry Potter's universe are crude Jewish stereotypes was raised long before Jon Stewart mentioned the issue on his podcast

    The possibility that the goblins that run Gringotts bank in Harry Potter’s universe are crude Jewish stereotypes was raised long before Jon Stewart mentioned the issue on his podcast

    She is also seen in a segment from 2019 discussing the uphill struggle to find an actor to play Harry when casting the first movie, The Philosopher’s Stone.

    The eagerly-anticipated reunion sees Daniel join fellow leads Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger, and Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley, as well as a slew of fellow co-stars in marking 20 years since the franchise first aired. 

    She later defended herself against the claims in a passionate essay but has been criticized by some ever since.

    Last week she hit back at a claim on US website that she believed there are only two genders.

    Rowling wrote: ‘Small but important point: I’ve never said there are only two genders. There are innumerable gender identities.

    ‘The question at the heart of this debate is whether sex or gender identity should form the basis of decisions on safeguarding, provision of services, sporting categories and other areas where women and girls currently have legal rights and protections.

    ‘Using the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangeably obscures the central issue of this debate.

    ‘If you’re interested in what I actually said, see this – (in which I literally say ‘trans lives matter’ and ‘trans rights are human rights.’).’