The Harry Potter books, a series of seven fantasy novels written by British author J.K. Rowling, chronicle the lives of Harry Potter, a young wizard, and his friends at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Recognized as one of the greatest works of children’s literature of all time – and also much beloved by millions of adults – its main narrative involves Harry’s struggle against Voldemort, the Dark Lord who intends to wipe out the wizards and control the world. Brilliantly incorporating several genres and featuring elements of mystery, thriller, adventure, horror and romance, the world of Harry Potter lends itself to multiple interpretations and analyses, some of which we will discuss below.
In 2014, Rowling announced that there were Jews at Hogwarts, including Anthony Goldstein, one of the original 40 Hogwarts students introduced in the first Potter book; a minor but heroic character, he rarely spoke but always did the right thing. Without being specific, Rowling has suggested that there were other Jewish students at the school. In the first Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them film, a spin-off Harry Potter series set in the New York of the 1920s, the leading characters are Tina and Queenie Goldstein, who are almost certainly Anthony’s ancestors.
Analysts bring their own perspectives to suggest interesting, and sometimes unusual, interpretations of the Harry Potter universe. Many have discussed the nexus between the Bible and the Harry Potter books, which have been read in terms of Judaism, Zionism, the Bible, Kabbalah, and Jewish history. Some see the entire Potter dialectic in the context of wizards as Israelis and Muggles as Palestinians; accordingly, there are bad wizards, like Voldemort, Baruch Goldstein, and Meir Kahane, and good wizards, led by liberal Zionist Dumbledore. The bad wizards use their belief as “the chosen people” to victimize, even liquidate, the Muggles/Palestinians and the good wizards seek to establish a “two-state solution” where a governmental Ministry of Magic extends rights to both wizards and Muggles but rejects actual coexistence in favor of keeping them strictly separate.
In a particularly interesting Jewish angle, Harry discovers that he is the only known survivor of a killing curse known as Avda Kedavra, one of only three curses strictly forbidden in the world of magic. This curse, which in Aramaic/Hebrew literally means “I will destroy as I speak” (avda = “I will do away with,” “kedavra = “as I have spoken”), as opposed to the better-known abracadabra, which means “I will create as I speak” (abra, from the Genesis word for creation, cadabra, from the Hebrew word for speech). Even the name Potter could be read as “Po-tter,” the Hebrew word for excuse or acquit.
Dov Krulwich, an Israeli computer scientist who has written about the connections between Judaism and Harry Potter, notes further that, while there is no per se “magic wand” in the Bible, there are many instances where wand-like implements, including staffs, sticks and rods, are used to create miracles (aka, magic?), beginning with the rod that Moses used to perform miracles in front of Pharoah and to split the Sea of Reeds.
Similarly, much as the house elves in Harry Potter, who loyally serve their wizards and witches, are magical creatures, one could argue that so are the Genesis snake who convinced Eve to eat the apple and Bilaam’s talking donkey. Moreover, it is interesting to note that, when asked politely, the house elves, who loyally served their wizards and witches, would accommodate the dietary needs of vegetarian students; although Rowling never addresses Anthony Goldstein’s dietary needs, Jewish children have grounds to imagine that the house elves prepared kosher food for him.
Krulwich also discusses comparisons between the concept of yichus (lineage from a respected family of high reputation) in some Jewish communities and Rowling’s “mudbloods,” who have at least one human parent. He also compares Voldemort’s use of dark magic to create a new body for himself to the creation of the Golem by the Maharal of Prague – which, like Harry Potter, is a complete work of fiction – and notes that Kabbalistic literature and the Talmud do present instances where magic is practiced and bodies are brought to life.
Other interesting comparisons include Voldemort, the supreme enemy of the wizards, and Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jews, both of whom represent the ultimate in evil and who must be completely eradicated. Both Jews and Wizards, who live in their own separate, often isolated communities, have special missions to save the world through their practices and rituals and, although events may seem arbitrary at the time, everything that happens, in both the stories and in Jewish history, is guided by a higher power.
Just as Judaism teaches that prayer must be followed by concrete action, professor Lupin instructs his magic class at Hogwarts that “you can’t just say the words [of the incantations]. You have to do something.” Dumbledore frequently says that the wizards must be united as one to have any chance to defeat Voldemort; the comparison to the importance of Jewish unity to the Jewish people is unmistakable. Like Jewish men at eight days old, Harry has a permanent and defining mark on his body, the famous lightning bolt scar. Notably, a 2005 conference at the University of Reading debated whether Harry Potter had a yiddishe neshama (a Jewish soul).
Some commentators claim, persuasively in my opinion, that the underlying structure of the entire Potter universe is the years leading up to the Shoah. A fascist ruler assumes power, promising greatness to all his followers and a better life for everyone, but only if the people cleanse the world of the racially impure minorities who constitute a clear and present danger to the public welfare. He takes control of the entire educational system and, when he rounds up the undesirables and robs and kills them, they go into hiding, where they are sometimes protected by righteous members of the majority.
Thus, we have Voldemort as Hitler. In fact, after visiting a Holocaust museum in 2004, Rowling compared the focus on “pure blood” and the characterization and treatment of the “mudbloods” with Nazi propaganda and admitted that Voldemort was modeled in part on Hitler.
According to the American Library Association, the Harry Potter books are among the most banned books in American schools. Leading the censorship efforts are some Orthodox rabbis, who oppose children reading the books for the same reason that they oppose all secular literature in general: because it promotes escapism and fantasy instead of focusing them on learning Torah and living in the real world. More significantly, however, they object to the books on the grounds that they violate the Torah’s proscription against witchcraft (see, e.g., Exodus 22:17 and Deut. 18:9-12) and that its pagan content, endorsement of witchcraft, and glorification of magic encourages children to turn to the occult. Following not far behind are the Iranian mullahs, who claim that the Harry Potter books are a “Zionist plot” designed to rule the world and to encourage Muslims and Christians to worship the devil, as Jews do.
However, many, if not most, Orthodox rabbis support the Potter books as a way to encourage children to read and to think, including notably the late Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who declared that “in a society in which adolescents are precociously adult, and adults are permanently adolescent . . . [Harry Potter] reclaimed the kingdom of childhood, proving that you don’t have to betray to enchant.”
International excitement was generated when the publisher of the Harry Potter books announced that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, the seventh and final book in the series, would be released worldwide on July 14, 2007, at 2:00 a.m. – which happened to be Shabbat morning. Israeli stores pledged to participate in the release at this time which, not unexpectedly, caused great angst and furor amongst charedi rabbis and others. Eli Yishai, then Trade and Industry Minister and a leader of the SHAS party, an important member of Prime Minister Olmert’s coalition government, announced that he would dispatch inspectors to report and fine booksellers who violated Israeli law and sold books on Shabbat.
The Potter books, which have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide and have become the best-selling book series in history, have been translated into at least 80 languages, including Hebrew. However, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, translator Gili Bar Hillel decided to make an interesting change: Instead of translating Sirius Black’s parody of “G-d Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which she determined would not resonate with a Jewish Hebrew-reading audience, she had Black sing the well-known Hanukkah song, Mi Yimallel Gvurot Yisrael, Otam mi Yimneh (“who can retell the things that befell us, and who can count them?”)
She responded to critics by explaining that she was not “trying to convert Harry to Judaism”; that, in any event, the characters were not meant to be portrayed as inherently Christian (in fact, Rowling announced publicly that Hogwarts students were drawn from all religions, races, creeds, etc.); and that the point of the original text was simply to express the joy of inventing nonsense lyrics to a familiar holiday song and that nothing was lost by using a Jewish song for Hebrew readers. In any event, the Hebrew edition is not the only version to make changes to the text; for example, the American editions were adapted into American English to make them more understandable to young American readers.
Rowling has been explicit about her opposition to antisemitism, particularly in Great Britain, her homeland. In an angry response to a critic who claimed that, as a religion and not a race, Judaism is wholly irrelevant to defining antisemitism, she wrote “Most UK Jews in my timeline are currently having to field this kind of crap, so perhaps some of us non-Jews should start shouldering the burden . . . Antisemites think this is a clever argument, so tell us, do: were atheist Jews exempted from wearing the yellow star?” In response to a mother whose son experienced antisemitism in school, she wrote, “Know that you aren’t alone and that a lot of us stand with you.”
In a vigorous attack against antisemites, she wrote “Split hairs. Debate etymology. Gloss over the abuse of your fellow citizens by attacking the actions of another country’s government. Would your response to any other form of racism or bigotry be to squirm, deflect or justify?” Responding to a posting from a British Jew, Rowling wrote: “This thread is the perfect litmus test. If you can read it without empathy for the writer’s pain and fear; if you immediately assume an agenda; if, above all, your response to the distress of a British Jew is to shrug and talk about the Israeli government, then you test positive [for antisemitism].”
During his more than four years as Labour Party leader (2015-2020), Jeremy Corbyn, a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign who invited Hamas and Hezbollah to Parliament, was broadly recognized as anti-Israel. He was also an antisemite, which was later formally confirmed in an October 2020 report by the United Kingdom’s human rights watchdog, which concluded that he and his Labour party “did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to have accepted it.” Rowling was out front in condemning his antisemitism. For example, in response to a Corbyn apologist, she wrote “Here’s a Corbyn fan happily contemplating British Jews fleeing their own country out of fear of a Corbyn government.” In another tweet, she sarcastically wrote “and there we have it . . . Not a word of human sympathy. The actions of Israel’s government justify making British Jews unhappy and afraid. Yes, Jews are bringing it on themselves by being Jewish.”
In August 2018, mystery writer Simon Maginn challenged a Jewish complainant: “Explain it to me, then. Explain your deep and wounding sense of injury. Explain the wrong that’s been done to you. Explain your patently synthetic outrage. Explain yourself. Publicly.” In response, an angry Rowling wrote:
How dare you tell a Jew that their outrage is “patently synthetic?” How dare you demand that they lay bare their pain and fear on demand, for your personal evaluation? What other minority would you speak to this way?
When Maginn responded with a defense of Corbyn, claiming that his antisemitic statements were little more than “a rather complicated joke” (which Jews, apparently, could not understand), Rowling answered citing Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrated Anti-Semite and Jew (1945) and excoriated him for thinking that Jews somehow had a duty to account for their feelings to him, particularly when there were already hundreds of reports and complaints about how British antisemitism had affected them. Maginn accused her of libel and demanded that she apologize for “a sickening personal accusation against a complete stranger who disagrees with you politically” but, notwithstanding British law particularly favorable to plaintiffs in defamation actions, he did not have the guts to sue her. He ended up resigning from the Labour Party after it launched an investigation into his antisemitism.
Rowling was a strong believer in Palestinian rights and frequently criticized Israel for the “horrific human suffering” it had caused the Palestinians. However, she was bitterly criticized by Palestinian supporters and other antisemites for adamantly refusing to participate in an anti-Israel cultural boycott. She explained that her opposition was because “the sharing of art and literature across borders constitutes an immense power for good in this world . . . At a time when the stigmatization of religions and ethnicities seems to be on the rise, I believe strongly that cultural dialogue and collaboration is more important than ever before and that cultural boycotts are divisive, discriminatory and counter-productive.” She added that her critics had apparently missed an important theme in all the Potter books: to recognize the humanity in others.
In an October 23, 2015, letter, Rowling noted that “Israelis will be right to ask why cultural boycotts are not also being proposed against . . . North Korea.” Notwithstanding her opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, she has been highly critical of the double standard applied to Israel and its people. In Lethal White (2018) (written using a pseudonym), in which she includes a character whose obsessive anti-Zionism morphs into antisemitism, Rowling seems to challenge the alleged distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, an argument frequently employed by Israel-haters.
When we are first introduced to Harry in Rowling’s first book, we learn that the orphaned and abused child is heir to not only a grand magical tradition legacy but also to a considerable fortune. The guardians of that fortune are a race of bankers – a persecuted minority of highly intelligent bald-headed goblins with small, beady eyes who speak a strange foreign language and are preoccupied with gold and wealth. (The hook noses were not described in the book but did appear in the Potter films). Many critics characterized Rowling’s depiction of the goblin-bankers as antisemitic, and others went even further, accusing her of being an antisemite. Not surprisingly, some of her bitterest critics were Corbyn supporters, who were thrilled by the opportunity to muddy her with the antisemitism of their beloved fearless leader.
However, while the depiction of goblins almost certainly has its earliest roots in antisemitism, contemporary portrayals in literature and film generally reflect a historic archetype and are not necessarily manifestations of antisemitic animus. I would argue that Rowling, who has openly, repeatedly, and unambiguously condemned antisemitism, was simply using the description of goblins so entrenched in the public consciousness.
Finally, it is interesting to note that “Harry Potter” is buried in Ramallah – obviously not Rowling’s fictional character, but a British soldier killed in action while returning to his base near Hebron during the infamous 1939 Arab uprising. Potter’s headstone has become a popular tourist attraction and, in particular, many Rowling fans undertake an annual pilgrimage to the British Military Cemetery in Ramallah on July 31 to celebrate the fictional Harry Potter’s birthday.