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Anti-semitism in the U.S. Assessed at Njcrac Plenum

A striking consensus that, despite a number of serious but relatively isolated incidents, anti-Semitism in America continues its long-term declining trend, emerged from a panel discussion of experts in the field at the recently-concluded Plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), in Houston.

But the panelists, assembled to consider whether anti-Semitism in America is growing or declining, also expressed serious concern about the prominent use of the spectre of anti-Semitism by national political figures during the recent AWACS campaign.

While citing the long-term decline in anti-Semitism, the panelists also agreed that individuals within the Jewish community tend to perceive a rising danger and level of anti-Semitism, despite contrary statistical studies; and that continuing vigilance is needed since the seeds of social discord are fertilized by current domestic trends.

Dr. Milton Himmelfarb, director of information and research services of the American Jewish Committee, cited recent surveys commissioned by the AJCommittee, conducted by the Daniel Yankelovich and Gallup organizations, that indicated a low level of anti-Jewish attitudes among Americans. Since one study was done before, and the other after, the AWACS campaign, the two together indicate “no discernable effect on public attitudes” about Jews as a result of the controversy or “Jewish-lobby” smears made during that campaign.

AMERICAN JEWS’ PERCEPTION

But American Jews’ perceptions of anti-Semitism are quite another matter, Himmelfarb said, as he cited a 1981 “National Survey of American Jews,” also commissioned by the AJCommittee, and conducted by Prof. Steven Cullen of the City University of New York. The study indicated that individual Jewish Americans perceive anti-Semitism to be a major current threat, and that a majority assume a much higher level of anti-Jewish attitudes than statistical studies indicate. Himmelfarb noted a great disparity between the gloomy view, and a much more positive perception shared by most leaders in organized Jewish life.

Justin Finger, civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, focused on recent audits of anti-Semitic attacks, involving vandalism or violence, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League. Those studies show a continuing three-year rise in the number of such incidents, with 974 recorded in 1981, up from 377 in 1980, and 120 in 1979.

But Finger also noted that overwhelmingly the perpetrators tended to be teenagers; only minimal organized hate group connection was indicated; and that the vast majority of incidents involved swastika graffiti rather than arson or other physical violence. Finger asserted that although continuing concern and monitoring is essential, he noted that 974 episodes are an annual total for a country of 220 million people.

SEES USE OF ‘JEWISH LOBBY’ AS CODE WORDS

Phil Baum, associate director of the American Jewish Congress, stressed that while in the past, anti-Semitism in America took the form of denial of the right of access to facilities and opportunities in U.S. society, this was now rarely in evidence. But he saw the recent AWACS-campaign use of “Jewish-lobby” code words as truly disturbing, indicating anti-Semitism on very high political levels.

A community perspective was given by Dr. Lawrence Rubin, executive director of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council, who saw rank and file fear and foreboding about anti-Semitism as stemming from AWACS-battle smear tactics, Holocaust “revisionism” that denies the reality of the events, and the “devastating impact” of isolated but alarming incidents of vandalism in a community.

Albert Vorspan, director of the Commission on Social Action of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who was the panel moderator, expressed concern about contemporary currents in America that threaten basic freedoms and the very concept of pluralism, which he viewed as dangerous not only to Jews, but to all groups that represent political or ethnic diversity.

Himmelfarb challenged that view, claiming that present day America is more accepting of diverse life-styles and opinions than it has ever been. In that accepting atmosphere, he claimed, the Jewish community has become strikingly comfortable about asserting its views and expressing its Jewishness.

OVERVIEW OF BASIC TRENDS

The attitudes of the panel were closely paralleled in an “Overview” of “Basic Trends and Priorities in Jewish Community Relations” presented by NJCRAC executive vice chairman Albert Chernin, at the Plenum’s opening, and later adopted by the entire group.

Chernin noted that “While we find most American Jews believe that the threat to security is real and growing, standard measurements of anti-Semitism do not indicate a dramatic upsurge in anti-Semitism, even though there are increasing reports of anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti.”

“The exception that may justify Jewish unease,” Chernin’s “Overview” stated, is “the perceived use of anti-Semitism by significant influentials, in and out of government, to achieve the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.” But he noted that while these tactics “did stir up anti-Semitism and old-fashioned xenophobia in letters to Congressmen,” they “failed to intimidate the Jewish community,” and failed to strike a responsive chord in Congress or among other AWACS opponents.

Over 400 delegates of the 11 national, and 111 local Jewish community relations organizations that comprise NJCRAC attended the four-day Houston Plenum. The Plenum is the highest policy-making entity of NJCRAC, which is the national coordinating and joint planning body for community relations policies of its member agencies.

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