On Allegory: Antisemitism, JK Rowling, and Telling Jewish Stories

Nothing can ruin good work like its creator.

In April 2018, the British author of the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling, used her platform to school Twitter users on her view of the complicated history of antisemitism against Jewish people in England.

I loved the Harry Potter books, and that love inevitably leads to some love for their author. Yet I feel a confusing mixture of appreciation and deep discomfort watching her assume a public role in fighting online antisemitism. It would have been a lot more inspiring to me as a Jewish person if it hadn’t come from the same woman who created an entire fictional race of shifty-eyed hook-nosed bankers who spoke an incomprehensible guttural language.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I think Rowling is herself an antisemite, just that she’s managed to remain fantastically obtuse in the face of a significant irony. And her expansion from the wizarding world into the world of public comment has been a particularly strange episode to watch and understand. I find myself wondering about her intentions. After all, it’s not often that people jump to what they feel is the defense of Jewish people without some kind of ulterior motives—speaking of us as symbolic subjects of political debate, rather than, you know, human beings.

This, I think, is at the heart of the conversation in general. Rowling’s newfound fascination for Jewish people comes at a time when a conversation about antisemitism is sweeping the United Kingdom, largely spurred on by bad-faith accusations from the conservative right and exacerbated by unpracticed deflections from the liberal left. Or, at least, that’s how it looks to me as a Jewish person on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Watching Rowling enter the popular debate over Britain’s revised version of the “Jewish question”—that same toxic topic that’s inspiring skull-measuring conspiracy theorizing from the likes of American politicians and Canadian pop philosophers—feels akin to accepting a gift brought by an unwelcome guest. Sure, I’ll take it. But I won’t like it.

Maybe I’m being too hard on her. Rowling has said in the past that she didn’t intend her books to be overtly referential to the Holocaust, but as allegorical critiques of totalitarianism and racism more broadly. But the numerous similarities—to the point that people sometimes argue for teaching Harry Potter as Holocaust literature—suggest that the symbolic power is strong.

I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it is, in fact, much more plausible than it seems for someone who is not Jewish to write an allegory for the Holocaust and only realize after the final revision date that they’ve managed to do it without including anything actually Jewish.

Though it featured startlingly explicit Jewish stereotypes in the form of the miserly and big-nosed race of goblins, the Harry Potter series was remarkably bereft of Jews as people. Still, significant portions of the story are based on a history of Jewish trauma and Jewish death, but set in a world seemingly without Jews. The only exception to this was Anthony Goldstein, a forgettable tertiary character, who years later Rowling identified as Jewish on Twitter—our lone representative for the entire United Kingdom.

This experience of being simultaneously included in art as symbols, while excluded as actual people, is by no means unique to Jewish people, Harry Potter, or JK Rowling. How many shoddy allegories for race and racism are written by white authors in books without any Black characters? How many movies by white filmmakers are created to teach other white people a lesson about race, featuring white actors who are paid more than their non-white co-stars? How many cisgender men receive accolades portraying transgender women, who accept their awards on what they claim to be our behalf? And how many times have we sat through this kind of art and felt the disconnect between the symbolic and the real, the story and its teller, unsure if our discomfort is worth arguing over or just to be accepted as part of the way these things are?

It’s hard not to see Rowling’s Twitter feed of post-dated Harry Potter revelations and policy recommendations as her attempts at writing her way out of that hole. Time is a cruel editor, and even fiction authors inevitably write autobiographies. Rowling’s fascination with antisemitism is a chance at rehabilitation, at engaging with the Jewish stories she made a fortune writing over top of, an opportunity to make amends.

I don’t know how I feel about it. As a writer, I respect her attempts at balancing on her shoulders the twin sister spirits of saying too much, and saying too little. But as a Jew, I want more.

I don’t fault Rowling for her practice of self-revision, but I wish it wasn’t necessary. I wish that the real-life Jewish stories of starvation, discrimination, and death had not existed at all, and that no one would have anything out of which to write allegory.

I wish that six million Jews hadn’t been murdered, only to be left unnamed, written between the lines, background exposition for a story about flying cars and talking spiders. I wish that we could exist in a world of magic and happy endings as characters, and not as concepts, stereotypes, late inclusions, or human-shaped soapboxes. I wish that we were seen as people, not symbols; as artists, not art; as statements, not questions; as lighters, not ash.