Harry Potter: Four progressive lessons for the Jewish Community
Last weekend the eighth and final Harry Potter movie hit theaters. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling created a magical alternate universe. Neither a utopia or dystopia, her magical world is fraught with real-world complexity. Reflecting on this groundbreaking series and its allegorical world, there are four important progressive lessons for the Jewish community to take away.
1) Women belong everywhere men belong
One of the most obvious and delightful characteristics of the Harry Potter series is gender equity, pure and simple. In J.K. Rowling’s magical society, witches and wizards are equal. The Ministry of Magic (their governing entity) is equally mixed, as is the magical sport of Quidditch, which women not only play, but play together with men on co-ed teams (More on gender equity in Quidditch at Ms. Magazine.) While the main villain, Voldemort, is male, his number two is a woman—the cruel and twisted Bellatrix LeStrange. Even the stay-at-home-witches and homemakers, like Molly Weasly, are written as feminist role models.
And of course, there’s Hermione Granger, the main female character, who is intelligent, studious, courageous, sensitive and principled—a far cry from the way girls are usually included as “the token girl one” or a undeveloped love interest. She is, undoubtedly, one of the best feminist role models out there (especially compared to the sad range of alternatives like the Disney princesses or Twilight’s Bella Swan).
Gender equity also plays a role in magical education. Hogwarts, the acclaimed wizarding school, was founded by two witches and two wizards who each valued different aspects of learning. (Godric Gryffindor valued courage and loyalty; Salazar Slytherin valued ambition and cunning; Rowena Ravenclaw valued intelligence and reasoning; Helga Hufflepuff valued dedication and kindness.) Its teachers and staff are also evenly split with female and male teachers. With the equal presence of women at the table, Rowling has achieved a balanced learning environment and well-rounded value system where a variety of students’ strengths and talents are recognized.
Not everyone in the Jewish community envisions a world like J.K. Rowling’s. Many subscribe to the idea that men and women belong in “separate but equal” spheres. Harry Potter shows us not only that women are capable and competent to be everywhere men are, but that society as a whole is richer when women are represented at every level.
2) It’s wrong to discriminate or create hierarchies based on blood status
It’s no secret that the heart of the Harry Potter series is a poignant metaphor for racism and genocide that could be interpreted as allegory for Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust. J.K. Rowling’s world doesn’t really have religion, per se, but discrimination against Muggles (non-magic people) and “Muggle-born” wizards (wizards born to non-magic parents) by “pure-blooded” wizards is very real.
In Harry Potter, the term “mudblood” refers to someone with Muggle (non-magic) blood, and is considered a highly offensive, ethnic slur used as justification by Voldemort and his army of “Death Eaters.” To kids reading the series, it’s obvious that hierarchy based on blood status is wrong. Yet in the Jewish community, it is acceptable and common to refer to people as “half-Jews” or for folks to identify themselves as “one-quarter” or “one-eighth” Jewish or Jewish “on the wrong side.”
Why do we put any stock in these distinctions? The problem with identifying one’s blood status is that it implies a hierarchy of Jewishness – that some Jews have a more legitimate claim to Judaism than others. (Some Jews are not “more equal” than others.) This type of hereditary hierarchy is where discrimination incubates and thrives.
Freedom of religion is important to Jews, but we are hypocrites if we do not acknowledge that true freedom of religion means that anyone can be Jewish. Converts to Judaism face prejudice and exclusion simply because they were not born to Jewish parents. The Jewish community is often distrustful or suspicious of converts, especially women who convert to Judaism for their spouse.
The Jewish community must take into account the reality that the Jewish family is diversifying. We must consider adoption and its effect on Jewish identity as people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds are being raised in Jewish families. The inclusion of GLBT Jewish families breaks down the matrilineal bloodline argument even further – is a child Jewish if he has two dads? What if the child’s mother is a transwoman? In fact, our contemporary understanding of identity is informed by gender scholarship, and if we have learned anything from gender theory, it is that identity is something asserted by the individual. Identity is something you feel you are, not something assigned to you or decided for you.
3) It’s wrong to discriminate or create hierarchies based on practice
Even in the magical world, not everybody practices magic. When Wizarding parents in Harry Potter have a child who does not perform magic, that child becomes an outcast in Wizarding society. This is not a perfect comparison to atheist, non-practicing, unaffiliated, or secular Jews, but it’s close enough.
Non-religious or non-practicing Jews have an equal and legitimate claim to Jewish identity because Judaism is more than just a religion. When you are Jewish, Judaism is your history, your culture, your cuisine, your values, your traditions, your family, your people. For plenty of non-practicing Jews, their Jewish identity is central to their understanding of self. Harry Potter teaches us that everyone, practicing or not, is a deserving member of our community with an equal claim to their Jewish heritage.
4) Social Justice is both essential and complex
Social justice runs like a current through the Harry Potter series, with girl-heroine Hermione Granger as the champion of oppressed magical creatures like giants, goblins, centaurs and house-elves. In the Wizarding world, non-humans are forbidden to carry wands and therefore kept powerless. Hermione finds this outrageously unfair and takes particular interest in the plight of the house-elf, a creature magically bound to serve a wizarding family until it dies or is set free. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hermione creates S.P.E.W., the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare:
Our short-term aims … are to secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions. Our long-term aims include changing the law about non-wand use, and trying to get an elf into the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, because they’re shockingly underrepresented.
As Amy Borsuk explains at the Ms Magazine blog, Hermione’s struggles with social justice activism are as complicated as they often are in real life. For example, Hermione doesn’t fully understand the creatures she’s trying to help; since house-elves consider their servitude a noble duty, they are insulted when Hermione tries to free them. Her experience deftly demonstrates how we must be culturally sensitive and avoid the paternalist “I know what’s best for you” approach to activism.
Even though Hermione faces her own victimhood as a Muggle-born witch, she prioritizes fighting for the rights of other oppressed groups. Today, there is some anxiety in the Jewish community about young Jews who are more interested in volunteering for non-Jewish causes than Jewish ones. But Harry Potter helps us see our individual struggles as connected. As the series culminates in the epic battle between good and evil, we see the importance of alliances and community building across and between groups. As many Jewish service organizations understand, it is critical to fight for the rights of others as well as your own.