Study Finds Jews Moving Up America’s Social Ladder
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Study Finds Jews Moving Up America’s Social Ladder

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The social status of Jews in America has improved slightly since the mid-1960s, according to a new study, but is not as high as warranted by objective measures like income and education levels.

And while negative attitudes about Jews have declined, stereotypes continue to be widely held, according to an American Jewish Committee study of several surveys taken from 1958 through 1990.

The study found that Americans rank Jews half way up the ladder of social standing, occupying a rung below most Western Europeans and above most Eastern Europeans, Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners and South Americans.

Jews are also at the midpoint of social standing when compared to other religious groups, ranking lower than Catholics and mainline Protestants like Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, and higher than Christian fundamentalists and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

If the ranking were based only on objective factors, like socio-economic achievement, Jews would rank higher in social standing, according to Tom Smith, author of the study. The discrepancy, he said, indicates that being a Jew “holds people back” in American society.

Smith is director of the General Social Survey, an annual nationwide poll of adults conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Much of the information in the study, which was released Jan. 7, is based on the 1990 General Social Survey.

Those polled gave Jews the highest scores when asked to rate their intelligence, wealth, work ethic and self-support compared to whites in general, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Southern whites. But they also said that American Jews are not as patriotic as whites in general or as Southern whites.


That finding is presumably related to a perceived conflict of loyalty between the United States and Israel, Smith said.

“The news at first glance is all good,” Smith said. “But the same people who say these things about Jews are most likely to say that Jews have too much influence. These are the traditional, over successful stereotypes of Jews.

Just over half of those polled in 1990 said that the amount of influence Jews have in American life and politics is “about right.”

In fact, the percentage of those polled annually from 1984 through 1989 who believe Jews have too much power in the United States has remained static at 8 percent, with only a dip of one percentage point in 1987.

In contrast, 47 percent of those polled in 1989 thought that corporations have too much power, 45 percent say the same about the media, 23 percent about Arab interests, 23 percent about Orientals and 14 percent about blacks.

Fourteen percent of those polled in 1990 would object to living in a neighborhood where half the residents were Jewish. But those polled objected much more strongly to having blacks, Hispanics and Asians as neighbors.

And 18 percent of those polled who were raised in the South would object to living in a neighborhood where half the residents were Northerners.

Acceptance of non-Jews’ marriage to Jews has increased over time, according to the study. In 1968, 59 percent of those polled approved of marriage to a Jew. By 1983, that had increased to 77 percent.

And Jews have shown considerable improvement over the last 30 years in another area.

“Willingness to vote for a Jew for president increased from 61 percent in 1958 to 89 percent in 1987,” a figure that has not noticeably changed since 1969.


“However, some evidence remains that a Jewish candidate’s religion might noticeably reduce his/her vote,” according to the study.

Anti-Semitism has been on the decline in recent decades, Smith said, but “there are continued barriers to interaction” in society, and “there are potential danger points at which latent anti-Semitism could become more serious.”

For example, “if Israel and the United States were seen as seriously at odds,” he said, “there is some existing sentiment that could be tapped in a negative fashion.”

One area that merits further attention, he said, is the black community.

“Blacks are more likely than non-blacks to hold traditional economic prejudices about Jews, like thinking of them as ‘crafty businessmen,'” Smith said. “And blacks have tended to be consistently less supportive of Israel than non-blacks.”

He pointed out that “there are people in the black community who have expressed anti-Semitic feelings and have some following, which is not true of any established non-black leaders.”

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