The reaction to the recent Anti-Defamation League study on anti-Semitism has been swift and passionate.
Some believe that the study is a badly flawed and transparent attempt by the ADL to make a case for its own importance and overstate the extent of real anti-Semitism in the world. Forward columnist Jay Michaelson, a rabbi with a deep and lifelong history of commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, came to that conclusion. He took the test himself and scored as an anti-Semite – which he clearly is not.
Others believe that anti-Semitism in the US and around the world is bad and getting worse. They seem less concerned with the validity of the survey than they are with emphasizing their belief that there are Jew-haters all around us and that Jews should be as fearful as ever. Jewish Federation professional Robert Horenstein wrote praising the study and offered this daunting conclusion: “Not only has there been an uptick in anti-Jewish attitudes among Americans over the past 15 years, but what is even more disturbing, anti-Semitism has been gradually creeping out of the shadows into the mainstream. The tragic murder of three people at two Jewish facilities in Kansas City in mid- April served as a stark reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and well.”
Actually, one could easily conclude that the incident in Kansas City proved just the opposite. It was a reminder that while Jew haters are alive and capable of doing some damage, there is virtually no significant anti-Semitism in American society any more.
Jew hatred in the US is racism and bigotry felt and acted upon by individuals and small groups of hateful people.
Anti-Semitism, a condition where the behavior of those bigots is tolerated or even welcomed by the standards of the broader community, is very different.
As we saw in Kansas City there are very few places in our country where these people are welcome and where the entire community does not rise up and speak with a single voice to condemn, punish and ostracize them if they speak or act in a violent, hateful way.
The most important conversation about anti-Semitism is not taking place – it is a conversation which no Jewish funder has shown interest in sponsoring.
The real question for American Jews is why so many cling so tightly to the belief that Jews have always been and will always be hated and hunted victims – people who are supposed live in suspicion and fear of non-Jews. After all, we live at a time and in a country where non-Jews overwhelmingly and actively are seeking us out as neighbors, club members, business partners, friends and spouses.
Why do so many Jews believe that Israel is a victim of unfair bias in our mainstream media even though we live at a time and in a place where Israel has never been more widely supported or admired by Americans and when an important study by Robert Putnam showed that Jews are the most widely respected religious group in the US? So why do so many of older Jews still obsess about anti-Semitism at a time when few American Jews under the age of 50 can ever cite a personal experience or situation where they suffered in any way from Jew hatred or even minor religious discrimination? Most of what we feel and believe is based on personal life experiences. We can only change our narrative so much.
It is understandable that older American Jews, who grew up in a society where discrimination against Jews was widespread and accepted by broader society, would cling to the time-honored mantra that “if you scratch a goy, you’ll find an anti-Semite” long after that slogan ceased to be based on fact and current experience.
Growing up in St. Louis 50 years ago, I knew people who were getting nose jobs and changing their names so they would appear to be less Jewish. There were clubs, neighborhoods, professions and private schools where Jews were not welcome. Today, most Jews are very proud to be Jewish. I don’t know any Jews who are changing their names or appearance anymore – at least not for that reason.
Today, most non-Jews seem very anxious to befriend, work with, partner with, and marry us – so much so that many Jewish leaders have declared intermarriage to be a crisis.
Intermarriage is certainly a challenge, but let’s be honest. The main reason that there is so much intermarriage is not because Jews are less Jewish – it’s because non-Jews are so much more willing to marry us than ever before. It’s because our parents fought bigotry and intolerance for decades to create a society where we would be fully accepted and have freedom to choose where we want to live, go to school, play golf, work and socialize. And to fall in love with and marry anyone we want.
Teaching about the Holocaust and the persecution and genocide that Jews have suffered over centuries is critically important. It is important to realize that there are still places in the world where anti-Semitism is alive and to appreciate how blessed Jews are to live in the US or Israel.
Jews should never forget our past, and we need to be informed about challenges in an often hostile world. But let’s keep it in perspective.
Instead of arguing over frightening studies and wringing our hands over how many people hate us, we should be getting on with the conversation about how to build a pluralistic, values- and wisdom-driven Jewish community that is both sustainable and compelling. A narrative that than can thrive in a world in which Jews have unlimited choices – a situation that we fought to create for a very long time.
We need to find the right balance between tribalism and living in the US.
Let’s focus on what it means to be Jewish and how to help Israel without exaggerating the problem.
The choice is ours. We control the outcome, not the anti-Semites. Whether there are hundreds or billions of them out there. They are not the biggest challenge in a world where so many Jews have so much power and unlimited choices.
The author is a financial consultant who has held major leadership positions in a broad range of American Jewish organizations including the Tucson and Milwaukee Jewish Federations, Israel Bonds, CLAL, AIPAC and J Street. He is a graduate of the Wexner Heritage program and has lectured in the US and Israel on Judaism and business ethics.