Disenchanted with ‘Harry Potter’: Exploring entrenched antisemitism in fantasy literature

Photo of a still from a Harry Potter film
Warner Bros/Courtesy

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In December, social media briefly became invested in a controversy ignited by Jon Stewart: Are the banker goblins featured in the “Harry Potter” series antisemitic caricatures? This debate was quickly overshadowed by Stewart’s clarification that the podcast segment in which he draws comparisons between “Harry Potter” and “The Elders of Zion” was purely comedic and not intended to accuse either the “Harry Potter” franchise, or its author, J.K. Rowling, of antisemitism. Stewart’s opinion, however, should not diminish broader conversations regarding the influence of literature and film on antisemitism and vice versa. Specifically, through the recent release of HBO Max’s “Return to Hogwarts” cast reunion special, the legacy of Rowling’s goblins is being revisited. 

The goblins in “Harry Potterare clear examples of antisemitic caricatures. Stewart’s clarifying comments regarding comedic intent perhaps come from the assumption that this expression of antisemitism does not warrant the degree of outrage he originally expressed toward it. Regardless, the entrenchment of ancient hatred has reached the point of ubiquity. Inseparable from Western literary tradition, anti-Jewish caricatures are mostly overlooked in modernity. Hopefully, this revisitation serves as a catalyst for reflection on ingrained bias as well as stereotypes in literature and film. 

 Jews were established as the foil to Christianity in early Christian thought, and through the centuries, this idea spread to other forms of literature and art in the Western canon.  Antisemitic attitudes in England are believed by many scholars to be codified in works such as William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” Some scholars believe Shakespeare’s character of Shylock — a Jewish moneylender who lends money to the protagonist under the condition he can slice off a “pound of flesh” if the money is not paid back — has inflicted centuries of damage to Jews through a cultural entrenchment of antisemitic caricature. Often, Jews are historically portrayed as apolitical, greedy moneylenders only interested in the survival of their own community. Jews are commonly portrayed as functioning as the most powerful and malicious of governmental and economic actors. 

In short, there is a literary history, and specifically a British literary history, of depicting Jews as villains, and “Harry Potter”  continues with this tradition. The equation of Jewish features with villainy is uncoincidental and originates from thousands of years of antisemitic plays, novels and more. Antisemitism is so ingrained in Western art that Rowling was able to unintentionally create an anti-Jewish caricature in a world of wizards and magic that was limited only by the strength of her own imagination. The consequent goblins, and their respective prosthetics, bring to mind the recent debate over “Jewface,” an occurrence in which non-Jewish actors play Jewish characters with stereotypical Jewish pedigree and large prosthetic noses. 

Goblins in the “Harry Potter” universe are hook-nosed, short creatures described in the Harry Potter Wiki as a “highly intelligent race of small magical humanoid beings with long fingers and feet that coexisted with the wizarding world.” The page goes on to note that the goblins “were adept metalsmiths notable for their silverwork; they even minted coins for wizarding currency.”

This description is coupled with “Jewface” prosthetics in both the “Harry Potter” and “Fantastic Beasts” cinematic universe. As noted by keen-eyed viewers on Twitter recently, the opening shot of the Gringotts Wizarding bank in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” even has floor patterns that resemble the Star of David. The entire wizard economy appears to go through the goblins, who are portrayed as cold and nefarious throughout. There is simply no separation of Rowling’s goblins from a Western tradition of anti-Jewish caricature, as the goblins represent a fantasy-oriented evolution of Shakespeare’s Shylock.

Alternatively, past commentary has interpreted the goblins as a shallow, but sympathetic allegory for the historical mistreatment of Jews. Further, Rowling herself often draws comparisons between aspects of the series’s central antagonists, such as their obsession with “pure blood,” to Nazi ideology. Additionally, around the time Rowling was born, British children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s from non-Jewish writers began to include well-meaning, sympathetic portrayals of Jews. In effect, Jews continued to be stereotyped, but the intent of such portrayal was clearly defined. In this case, it is unlikely that there was any cognizant representation of the goblins as Jews: Rather, it is an unconscious continuation of an antisemitic literary tradition. 

Where does this leave “Harry Potter?” J.K. Rowling’s reputation continues to be damaged by her unfortunate obsession with placing her foot firmly in her mouth while discussing trans issues. Perhaps the antisemitism present in her work is less urgent than what appears to be a transphobic crusade without an end in sight. In comparison, this expression of anti-Jewish prejudice is lazy writing more than it is hate. However, it’s fair to identify and critique antisemitic caricature, no matter how benign it might seem — the association between “Jewish features” with ugliness, criminality and malice are enforced by works such as Rowling’s and places Jewish communities at risk.

Contact Ryan McCullough at [email protected].