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Rabbi Justus N. Baird

Rabbi Justus N. Baird

 

What if Jews Knew That Americans Love Them?

Posted: 03/18/11 01:00 AM ET

During Purim, we hear a lot about who hates the Jews (Haman), but what about who likes the Jews? The Jewish holiday that is full of upside-down surprises is a perfect time to confront a difficult truth: Americans love Jews -- a lot. Even more than they love Protestants and Catholics.

As a 38-year-old American Jew, I am a product of my generation's anti-Semitism education machine. For me and probably most older Jews, it is difficult to digest the data. But the numbers, which come from multiple respected studies in the last five years, are irrefutable.

In their recent and remarkable survey of American religion, American Grace, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell report about the "feeling thermometer" they use to measure how Americans feel about various religious groups. They asked respondents to indicate "how warm they feel toward different social groups on a scale of 0 to 100."

In the period they gathered the data, 2006-2007, Americans said they had warmer feelings toward Jews than any other religious group -- even a degree or two higher than Catholics and Mainline Protestants.

Readers who might be tempted to doubt the veracity of the data (after all, one of the study's authors, Putnam, converted to Judaism when he got married and raised his children as Jews) must also digest a decade of studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which show exactly the same results: that American attitudes toward Jews are as positive -- or even a few degrees warmer -- as attitudes toward Catholics, and significantly higher than toward any other religious group (the Pew data does not ask about attitudes toward Protestants).

Polling reports from the Anti-Defamation League also point toward a growing American love for Jews. In 2009, an ADL nationwide survey of Americans found "anti-Semitic attitudes equal to the lowest level in all the years of taking the pulse of the American attitudes toward Jews. The survey found that 12% of Americans hold anti-Semitic views, a decline from 15% in 2007 and matching lowest figure ever recorded by ADL, in 1998."

There are only two ways to interpret these multiple sources of data: either Americans now believe it is completely socially unacceptable to tell a pollster that they don't like Jews, or Americans really do have really positive feelings towards Jews.

As a rabbi who works primarily in interfaith settings, I have countless personal anecdotes that suggest we have entered an era of philo-Semitism in America. A large class of evangelical seminary students hangs on every word I teach them about the rabbinic tradition or the biblical prophets. Non-Jews come in to the office, ask me about the collection of Hebrew volumes of the Talmud, and ask me, with deep curiosity and respect, to show it to them. Wherever I go, hosts go out of their way to make sure there is something kosher I can eat.

These are superficial examples, of course, but that is exactly the point: at a superficial level, instead of treating Jews with disdain, fear or disgust, large majorities of Americans now have positive associations with Jews.

This data, of course, does not mean that real threats to the Jewish people do not exist. Anti-Semitism remains rampant and goes unchecked in countries around the world. Hateful attitudes toward Israel, whether one counts such attitudes as anti-Semitic or not, proliferate. Some Iranian leaders continue to threaten the destruction of Israel and the Jews and are working diligently to obtain the tools needed to carry out such threats.

All these realities mean that philo-Semitic attitudes in America are that much more unique and compelling. In America today, threats toward Jews are not external but rather internal; millions of intermarried couples are not raising Jews (even though many are), and levels of participation in Jewish life by post-b'nai mitzvah teens is dangerously low.

Paying attention to American philo-Semitism matters so much because young Jews are caught in a major cognitive dissonance: They are taught from an early age that the world hates the Jews, but they feel fully embraced by their American peers. Putnam and Campbell note that since the 1960s "anti-Semitism has continued to fall through generational replacement -- younger people are less likely to harbor anti-Semitic views than older generations."

Are American Jews ready for a narrative of philo-Semitism? I recently presented this data to an adult education class organized by a regional chapter of the American Jewish Committee. I asked the learners to rank different religious groups by likability by Americans. Of 20 learners, 19 got it wrong. Middle East scholar Aaron Miller has said, "Jews worry for a living, because the arc of history has taught them to." Is it any surprise we have trouble hearing a narrative of philo-Semitism?

American Jews regularly tune in to stories like the Jewish passenger who caused a plane to land early when he pulled out his tefillin, an eruv (community border that allows carrying on the Sabbath) in the Hampton's that is meeting resistance, and a grave marker that was desecrated by hoodlums. Such stories make headlines in American Jewish press precisely because they are exceptional and not the norm, and because they feed a narrative we expect. Yet these headlines do not represent mainstream American Jewish life in 21st century America.

Three recent major newscycles, each of which would have been devastating for American Jews two generations ago, suggest how powerful this new context of philo-Semitism really is: Madoff, Mezvinsky and Muslims.

Why didn't coverage of the Bernie Madoff scandal spiral into anti-Semitic rants about evil Jewish business practices? With an identifiable Jewish antagonist bilking everyone -- even nonprofit endowments -- it was the perfect setup for anti-Semitic headlines, cartoons and jokes. But they never materialized.

And where was the American uproar when the daughter of an American president married Marc Mezvinsky wearing a tallit under a chuppah in a ceremony by a rabbi?

And if you were asked to choose the most likely faith group to serve as America's scapegoat, could the answer be in doubt? The same polls that say Americans love Jews also say that Americans are queasy about Muslims, who score the lowest of all religious groups in all the surveys noted earlier. While Jews can put a synagogue wherever they want, Muslims are forced to engage in sophisticated public relations battles in communities across the country if they want to build a mosque. If Chelsea had married a Muslim, what would the headlines and blogs have said? Any Jewish joy about being well-liked in America is dampened by the fact that Americans have found a new scapegoat.

Nevertheless, American Jews would do well to accept the fact that American culture had definitively shifted away from the old stereotypes. Jews are no longer the Other. American Jews are not strangers in a strange land.

Can Jewish identity survive being so well-liked? Some will cling to old narratives and say that philo-Semitism is just an advanced form of anti-Semitism -- a sophisticated strategy to kill Jews with kindness. They'll argue that without the threat of anti-Semitism, a central component of Jewish identity, Jews will slowly disappear.

I, for one, believe American Jews will survive the transition to being well-liked in America. Like singing in a major key after centuries of singing in minor, it will feel weird at first but it will eventually become authentic. The 4.7 million people who listened to that Hanukkah song by the Maccabeats have a clue as to what major-key Judaism might feel like.

The challenges of Judaism in a major key are great. Fundraising letters that claim the Jewish sky is falling in America must be re-written to attract younger Jews like me who throw such letters directly into the trash. Our educational approaches must shift by teaching young Jews that throughout Jewish history the world has often treated us with disdain and that there have been numerous exceptions to the rule, with 21st century America as the most prominent example. Most importantly, conceptions of Jewish identity that require a negative environment to thrive must give way to positive, more nuanced and complex conceptions of Jewish identity that can thrive in an environment of philo-Semitism.

It is time for American Jews to see the everyday respect, kindness and fairness that Americans offer to Jews as a sign that Jews in America today are actually respected, well-liked and considered normal. And when we internalize that acceptance, we can do even more to help others who are not yet accepted in America.

The Book of Esther mentions no Persian resistance to Haman's decree to destroy the Jews. Is there any doubt how Americans would react to a modern-day Haman's decree? This Purim, as Jews drown out Haman's name with shouts and groggers, let us thank God for our lot in America and commit to building and celebrating Jewish lives that can thrive even when we are loved.