A series of controversies erupted around Jon Stewart and the Harry Potter series at the outset of 2022, following remarks made by Stewart on his podcast, The Problem With Jon Stewart.
Stewart was discussing the Harry Potter franchise in a Dec. 2021 episode when the topic of goblins came up. In a viral two-minute clip, Stewart called out the goblins in the Harry Potter world as suspiciously similar to the anti-Semitic depictions of Jewish people contained in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1903 book that outlines a supposed plan for Jewish global domination.
Noting that the caricatures within the book share a large amount in common with the large-nosed, pointy-teethed goblins that run banks in the Harry Potter world, Stewart joked that he was shocked upon seeing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time. He pointed out that Rowling created a fantastical world in which characters can “ride dragons” and own a “pet owl” but relied on stereotypes in the creation of goblins.
“Who runs the bank,” he said. “Jews.”
The internet at large quickly latched onto Stewart’s comments, sparking a massive online conversation about the Harry Potter franchise, anti-Semitic tropes, and Rowling, the series’ author. Other problematic aspects of the books quickly became talking points as well, as people pointed out issues with character names — like Cho Chang and Kingsley Shacklebolt — as well as archetypes within the work, and circled back to previous Rowling controversies.
As the conversation spread online, previous criticisms of Rowling’s goblins also arose. People linked back to comments made by comedian Pete Davidson in 2020, in which he likewise called Rowling out for relying on anti-Semitic stereotypes in creating goblins.
“The woods are controlled by centaurs, the schools are run by wizards and ghosts. But who controls the banks? Jews, obviously,” Davidson said in the October Saturday Night Live Weekend Update segment.
The conversation dominated Twitter on Jan. 4, nearly a month after the original podcast aired, as people continued to discuss and debate the tropes contained within the Harry Potter books and films. A day later, Stewart addressed the controversy via a succinct tweet, in which he invited news outlets like Newsweek to “eat my ass.”
Responding to the controversy, Stewart said that “no reasonable person” would see the conversation as anything more than “lighthearted conversation” among friends. He claimed that he was simply sharing his personal experience as “a Jewish guy” watching the film, and pointing out that “some tropes are so embedded in society that they’re basically invisible, even in a considered process like movie making.”
Stewart’s pushback against the conversation his own words prompted was quickly called out as disingenuous by some, including political commentator Paul Waugh. Waugh wrote that, while he is a “big fan of Stewart,” he was “struggling to see why he is so upset at Newsweek quoting what he actually said.”
Human Events editor Jack Posobiec likewise pointed out that Stewart seemingly altered the thumbnail of his own video to sidestep the controversy. The original thumbnail appears to label the segment as discussing “the anti-Semitism of Harry Potter,” while the altered thumbnail simply labels it as “‘anti-Semitic tropes.'”
The controversy has since simmered down, but Stewart is staunchly standing by his claims that he never accused Rowling of including anti-Semitic tropes in the Harry Potter series. The conversation can’t be erased, however, and many people were forced to once again re-examine the series and some of its more problematic aspects. Stewart sparked this reevaluation, whether he wants to admit it or not, and it’s not a bad thing.
Harry Potter fans have had a complicated relationship with the series for a long time, thanks to Rowling’s insistence on repeating anti-trans rhetoric over the years. Add Stewart’s revealing comments into the mix, along with the other issues people pointed out during the discourse, and it can be hard for some people to enjoy the franchise in the same way they used to.
This isn’t Stewart’s fault, of course — he simply pointed out a longstanding issue that some of us hadn’t caught on to. Regardless of whether he’s willing to lean into his own statements or not, he lifted the curtain on problematic imagery within the Harry Potter franchise and educated a large portion of the American public in the process.