Behind the Headlines: Paradox of Anti-semitism in America: Dissonance in Perception Vs. Reality
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Behind the Headlines: Paradox of Anti-semitism in America: Dissonance in Perception Vs. Reality

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Anti-Semitism in America today constitutes something of a paradox.

The reality, experts say, is that Jews no longer face serious discrimination in American society — not in the community, the workplace, politics or academia.

But American Jews are convinced more than ever that anti-Semitism remains a serious threat, although few have encountered any real bias themselves.

The organizations founded to combat anti-Semitism continue to attract funds and commission studies that seem to reinforce the community’s sense of concern.

Why is there such dissonance between the reality and the perception?

And in this liminal time, as the Jewish community grapples with the immediate effects of assimilation and makes the transition from a community of immigrants to a community struggling to retain its religious and ethnic identity, critics wonder what price — financial and psychological — is being paid for a contiued preoccupation with anti-Semitism.

To be sure, America is not now, and surely will never be completely rid of anti-Semites.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s first annual tally of bias crimes nationwide covered 1991 and showed that Jews were by far the most targeted religious group, accounting for about 17 percent of all bias incident victims, behind only African Americans and whites as an ethnic group.

And the Anti-Defamation League’s 1991 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents documented an 11 percent upswing in the number of anti-Jewish acts over the previous year.

There were 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in 1991, by ADL’s count.

But there has been little distinction made publicly between the type of wholesale discrimination against Jews that existed just a generation ago, and the more obvious, but less threatening, expressions of anti-Semitism that exist today.


The very lumping together of graffiti and epithets with occasional acts of violence in order to emphasize an upward trend in anti-Semitism may obscure the issue and raise undue alarm.

Even so, surveys show that the number of people who hold the attitudes which could lead them to commit acts of anti-Semitism is on a slow but consistent decline.

In fact, if anti-Semitism is measured by how secure Jews can feel in America, and how open America’s economic, political and educational systems are to Jews, then even the bad news is not bad, say sociologists.

American Jews are “more secure today than they have ever been in this century, in this country, and perhaps in the history of the Diaspora,” wrote anti-Semitism expert Earl Raab in a 1989 essay.

Of course, some private clubs continue to exclude Jews. David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan and other white racists continue to scapegoat Jews.

And a large handful of extremely visible black Afro-centric activists and scholars posit that Jews are disproportionately responsible for their oppression.

But in the context of daily life in America, by any measure, Jews face far less discrimination today than existed only twenty years ago.

Only one generation ago, Jews were not permitted to buy houses in certain neighborhoods, to climb past a certain rung in the corporate hierarchy in many professions and firms, and were considered generally undesirable by other ethnic groups.

A generation before that, most colleges and professions were closed to Jews completely.

Widespread anti-Jewish discrimination, political anti-Semitism and the inability of the Jewish community to express itself on issues of concern to the body politic are simply no longer factors in American life, said Jerome Chanes, co-director of domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.


“This kind of anti-Semitism — the kind that makes a difference in terms of the security and the status of American Jews — has declined steadily and dramatically,” he said.

Anti-Semitism has evolved into a bifurcated phenomenon; fewer Americans than ever before hold negative attitudes about Jews, but those who do have negative attitudes are more likely to express them in acts of anti-Semitic vandalism.

But this trend of bigots expressing themselves more freely with epithets and vandalism “has less to do with anti-Semitism than with the nature of conflicts in American society and inter-ethnic phenomena,” said Chanes.

Still, poll after poll shows that American Jews say that anti-Semitism is bad and getting worse.

In a 1983 survey of American Jews conducted by the American Jewish Committee, about half the respondents said that anti-Semitism was a serious problem.

By 1988, the percentage of Jews who said it was a serious problem had jumped to 76 percent, and in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, that figure rose again to 85 percent.

The contradiction was illuminated by a poll of rabbis in the early 1980s, according to Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL.

Almost all the rabbis surveyed — 95 percent — said that anti-Semitism was a serious problem in America.

But when asked if it was a serious problem in their own communities, nearly all said no, the anti-Semitism was elsewhere.

And only one of 10 American Jews has personally experienced anti-Semitism within the last 10 years, said Raab, director of Brandeis University’s Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy, in an interview.

Part of the paradox may lie with the organizations which commission surveys and present the findings in a light which justifies their own fund-raising needs, say some observers.

If anti-Semitism in the United States were measured only by the press releases and direct mail sent out by Jewish defense groups, it would appear that the very existence of American Jewry is being threatened by neo-Nazis, skinheads and closet anti-Semites waiting to set upon overly complacent Jews, say critics.

But defense organizations say they are not being alarmist, but are rather calling attention to issues that urgently need to be addressed.

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