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Jewish World Review March 23, 2001 /28 Adar, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Anti-Semites Past,
Present and Future

Too much focus on domestic incidents misses the big picture -- THE annual audit by the Anti-Defamation League on anti-Semitic incidents is something of a rite of spring in the world of Jewish journalism. This compilation of recorded incidents of harassment, threats and/or vandalism allows us to focus on just how much hate for Jews might be lingering in American society.

As such, the report, which is put together with admirable meticulousness, is something of a necessary evil.

It is necessary because any religious minority that has endured a history of persecution and prejudice such as that experienced by the Jewish people does well to watch its back.

The ADL statistics showed a slight rise in the overall total of incidents labeled as anti-Semitic, with 1,606 reported for the year 2000 as opposed to 1,547 in 1999. On the local level, the number of incidents was actually down, with only 72 reported in Pennsylvania and 213 in New Jersey in 2000. In 1999, there were 82 such reports from Pennsylvania and 226 in New Jersey.

Yet even one report of anti-Semitism or a hate incident aimed at another religious/ethnic or a racial group is too many. And the ADL "No Place for Hate" campaign, which encourages individuals to take a pledge against prejudice, is a constructive effort that can only elevate the tone and content of life in our area.

That said, focusing so much on the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in the year 2001 is inevitably a matter of not being able to see the forest because we are busy counting all of the trees. Not that I want to minimize those 1,606 events, but in a nation approaching 300 million, that small a number shows we’re not exactly in the throes of a crisis.

Anti-Semitism was once prevalent in American society. Today, it barely exists even on the margins of American culture, confined as it is mostly to the fever swamps inhabited by the far right and far left of the spectrum.

But polls taken in the last year by the American Jewish Committee and Public Agenda for the Pew Charitable Trusts show most American Jews seem to think they’re still living in the 1930s.

According to the AJCommittee’s 2000 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, 32 percent of American Jews think that anti-Semitism in the United States is a "very serious problem." Another 63 percent said it was somewhat of a problem. And far from thinking that things are getting better, 37 percent believe it will increase in the future.

Even more remarkable was the fact that 47 percent of those surveyed actually disagreed with the statement "virtually all positions of influence in the United States are open to Jews." This took place in the same year that Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman was a much-admired candidate on a major party’s presidential ticket, with 11 Jews in the U.S. Senate, five sitting in the Cabinet, two on the U.S. Supreme Court and countless others in positions of influence in every sector of American life!

Why do American Jews still feel this way? The Pew study seems to point to part of the answer. American Jews are still profoundly suspicious of their neighbors’ religious convictions. Fifty-nine percent said they thought America would be a less tolerant place if more Americans became deeply religious. The poll showed that Jews and nonreligious Americans were the two groups that most feared a heightened role for religion in American public life.

Reflecting the Jewish historical experience in Europe where religious fervor by non-Jews was a leading indicator of impending persecution, American Jews seem to think that if their neighbors take their faith more seriously, they will be in danger.

And that belief is what lies behind Jewish opposition to even the most moderate of schemes in which government and faith are co-mingled. Jews fear plans such as President Bush’s charitable choice program, as well as voucher plans that would enable parents to choose private or parochial schools for their children. That’s because these issues have been foolishly hyped by liberal Jewish groups as a threat to our liberties.

Such fears are, at best, exaggerated, in light of the vast changes that have occurred in the way American Catholics and the various Protestant sects regard Jews and Judaism. And the fact that we recently emerged from a century where the two leading forces of anti-Semitism were the anti-Christian Nazi and Communist ideologies also makes viewing American politics in this way seem senseless.

But before we plant a stake in the heart of anti-Semitism, any discussion of the topic needs to take into account that America is not the whole world. While anti-Semitism here exists on a miniscule level, that is not the case elsewhere. Europe, and in particular France, has seen a genuine increase in anti-Semitic incidents. Even normally placid Canada has seen a distressing rise in acts against Jews.

Most of these incidents seem to stem from the venting of hatred against Israel any time the conflict with the Palestinians flares up.

Even here, this anti-Israel feeling has had an effect. Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, noted that even the small number of anti-Jewish incidents in America rose after the latest round of Palestinian riots and violence began in the Middle East last fall.

"Many acts of violence and harassment [in the United States] were acted out by sympathizers of the Palestinian cause," said Foxman.

Though he put this down as "a unique, one-time occurrence," the role of pro-Arab forces in fomenting anti-Semitism should not be discounted elsewhere in the world.

Rather than worrying about what the lunatics in the woods of Idaho are up to or how many teenage punks get caught scribbling graffiti, American Jews need to focus on the fact that the Muslim world has become the center of world anti-Semitism.

Jew hatred is not being taught in fundamentalist Protestant seminaries or in local Catholic schools. On the contrary, these are the places where American Christians are generally being taught respect for Judaism. Rather, it is places like Cairo, Baghdad and the Palestinian territories where you can most easily pick up a copy of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

What we need is not more extremist interpretations of the extent of the "wall" of separation between religion and state, but an acceptance of the fact that a more religious America will probably be one that is safer for all persons of faith, as well as one friendlier to Israel.

Unfortunately, polls show American Jews are still more afraid of religious Christians than they are of Yasser Arafat and his pals. That’s a serious mistake. History has a way of punishing those who cling to myths and ignore reality. Jews must leave the ghosts of the past behind and start confronting our current enemies without illusions.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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