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Is Anti-Semitism Dying Out?

Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred

by Robert S. Wistrich
Pantheon, 341 pp., $25.00

The History of Anti-Semitism

by Léon Poliakov, translated by Richard Howard
Vanguard Press (out of print), Four Volumes pp.

Foreigners Out’: Xenophobia and Right-wing Violence in Germany

a Helsinki Watch Report
52 pp., $8.40 (paper)

Highlights from an Anti-Defamation League Survey on Anti-Semitism and Prejudice in America.

55 pp., $3.00 (paper)

What Do We Know About Black Anti-Semitism?

by Jennifer L. Golub
34 pp., $2.50 (paper)

Attitudes Toward Jews in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (1991)

by Renae Cohen, by Jennifer L. Golub
44 pp., $2.50 (paper)

Attitudes Toward Jews in the Soviet Union: Public Opinion in Ten Republics

by Lev Gudkov, by Alex Levinson
all three pamphlets published by the American Jewish Committee., 80 pp., $10.00 (paper)

1.

Is anti-Semitism reviving? Could it become again a major threat to Jews? Some of the closest observers of contemporary anti-Semitism disagree about these questions; they interpret quite differently such incidents as the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the painting of swastikas on Jewish grave-stones in Germany. The chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Simcha Dinitz, for example, has suggested that the 40,000 Jews in Germany should pack their bags and move to Israel. The president of the Central Organization of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, disagrees, insisting that the neo-Nazis are small, marginal groups, and that Jews are safe in a country where hundreds of thousands of Germans have taken to the streets to express outrage on behalf of the minorities that have been attacked.

In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League released last November a “survey of anti-Semitism and prejudice in America” which had what sounded like a sensational conclusion: that “one in five Americans—or between thirty-five and forty million adults—hold views about Jews which are unquestionably anti-Semitic,” and that this percentage among the American population has declined only very slowly during the last thirty years.1 The survey was based on a list of eleven anti-Semitic beliefs, including such propositions as “Jews stick together more than other Americans,” they have “too much power in the business world,” are “more loyal to Israel than America,” and “don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.” Those who agreed with six or more of eleven negative statements about Jews were considered to be among the one in five Americans who are anti-Semites.

The conclusions in the Anti-Defamation League report were widely publicized but they were challenged and attacked by other agencies. Jerome Chanes, the director of national affairs for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, has said repeatedly that anti-Semitism continues to decrease in the United States. On March 1, in a speech to the officials of the American Jewish Congress, he said that “each succeeding age group tends to display fewer anti-Semitic attitudes than the preceding generation,” and that anti-Semitism has fallen dramatically in the United States in the last forty years.

After making a survey of all the Jewish communities of the world, the World Jewish Congress was less alarmed than the Anti-Defamation League, but not quite as hopeful as Jerome Chanes. At the congress’s conference on anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice held in Brussels in July 1992, the Institute of Jewish Affairs, a London-based research group, issued a report with a country-by-country account of current anti-Semitism, from Austria to Uruguay. Tony Lerman, the director of the institute, wrote in the introduction to the report that “the anti-Semitic climate has markedly worsened since the beginning of the 1990s,” but he also pointed out that

anti-Semitism is by no means the primary form of bigotry apparent today. Racial prejudice and violence are experienced most acutely by blacks, Turks, Gypsies, Moslems, Asians and other ethnic minority groups and by foreign workers, immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

The president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, was equally emphatic in saying that “nationalism, religious assertiveness and ethnic pride” were the main problems today and that they affected non-Jews more acutely than Jews. Bronfman’s point was that Jews had a particular responsibility to help solve these problems because Jews had long been charged with being “a light unto the nations…. The Bible enjoins us to think not of our own problems but of the larger human context.”

Anti-Semitism may or may not be growing more virulent today, but every recent study, both in the United States and in Europe, shows that at least seven out of ten Jews believe that it has increased to the point where they should be particularly concerned about it. At the same time, non-Jews everywhere, even those who harbor some anti-Jewish feelings, believe that today’s anti-Semitism is simply not very important. This difference is most striking in the countries of the former Soviet Union. A survey in 1991 found that among non-Jews 10 percent thought pogroms were “somewhat likely” and 3 percent thought they were “very likely” to occur soon. Among the Jewish respondents, 44 percent thought that pogroms were “very likely,” and 27 percent thought they were “somewhat likely” in 1991. In fact, there were no pogroms in the former USSR during that tumultuous year.

The fears of the Jews are often connected with memories of the Holocaust. The sight of even a handful of skinheads in Nazi uniforms shouting “Juden ‘raus” can seem highly threatening. Moreover, those who are fearful of renewed anti-Semitism assert with some plausibility that anti-Semitic attitudes can’t adequately be detected by public opinion polls, since many people hide their deepest prejudices when questioned by poll-takers. These latent anti-Semitic feelings could be awakened one day by overt anti-Semites.

A pattern emerges from the many sociological studies on anti-Semitism that have been produced during the last year or so (see box). Almost everywhere in the West, anti-Semitism can be found among two groups: poor people who feel dispossessed, or are afraid of being dispossessed, and a variety of ideologues for whom anti-Semitism is a useful weapon in what they believe is a political struggle, whether the campaign in the US for black power or the campaign against the reformers in Russia. In dozens of countries today, anti-Semites continue to publish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and denounce the domination of the world by Jews through their alleged control of the press and power in international finance. But the fiercest expression of anti-Semitism can be found in places like Slovakia, where there are very few Jews.

Today’s anti-Semites do not see the world as the scene of eternal conflict between the Aryan and the Semitic races, or between the truth of Christianity and the satanic error of Judaism, or between Jewish monotheism and paganism. The conflict over anti-Semitism is therefore no longer a cosmic battle between “us” and “them.” Whether in Europe or in the US, anti-Semitism is used by people who want to show they are the truly loyal and pure representatives of their ethnic group or nation. In Europe anti-Semites themselves admit, according to almost all the available studies, that they do not feel most threatened by Jews. In France their principal enemy is the growing Muslim minority from Algeria; in Germany it is the Turkish “guest workers.” In this new situation, the consequences for the Jews are still little understood.

First, contrary to the fears of many Jewish leaders that anti-Semitism has recently increased, the evidence from opinion polls seems to support the optimism of Jerome Chanes. This is true not only in the United States but also in Europe, especially in those parts of Russia and the Ukraine where there is a large Jewish population. It is true that an increasing number of speeches have been made on American campuses during the last year by black anti-Semites; and that Pamyat and its allies in Russia published more anti-Jewish leaflets in 1992 than they had previously. But if we look at the many studies of black anti-Semitism in America that have been made during the last twenty years, we find it has been decreasing. As for Russia, Dr. Michael Chlenov, the co-president of the main organization representing Russian Jews, told me a few months ago that there has been no visible increase in anti-Semitism there.

Jews in the United States react, and often overreact, to inflammatory speeches at colleges, such as those by Leonard Jeffries and Muhammad Khalil; and Russian Jews react angrily to some of the anti-Semitic signs displayed at Pamyat rallies. But the position of Jews in American society is unchanged, and anti-Semitism has remained marginal in Russia, even though the new freedom of opinion there protects anti-Jewish propaganda.

Indeed, if we look at the ADL’s study itself, not the sensational interpretation of it issued by the organization, it shows that belief in the classic stereotypes about Jews has fallen sharply since 1964. A generation ago 42 percent of Americans thought that Jews were more willing than others to use shady practices in order to get what they want; according to the ADL survey, that number fell in 1992 to 21 percent. In 1964, 35 percent thought Jews were particularly pushy, but 19 percent did so in 1992. Three decades ago two out of five Americans thought that “Jews have a lot of irritating faults,” but by 1992 the number had fallen to one in five. These answers reflect the acceptance of Jews in American business and cultural life. This part of the study could have been used by the ADL not as a call to action but as proof of the decline of anti-Semitism in America.

The authors of the ADL study make much of the new stereotypes about Jews that have arisen since 1964, when, for example, only one in ten Americans thought Jews had too much power in the US. In 1992, three out of ten held this view; but, according to the study, almost half of the American public also believes that whites have too much power. Both of these answers are less representative of traditional anti-Semitism or reverse racism than of the envy of the underclass. About half of those surveyed believe that “Jews stick together more than other Americans,” but this is nothing new: the same percentage thought this in 1964. So did the percentage who believe “that Jewish employers go out of their way to hire other Jews.” These figures have remained constant for thirty years, while all the other indices of anti-Semitism fell dramatically.

Moreover, are these responses proof of anti-Semitism? The Jewish establishment has been asserting for a generation that it wants political power beyond its numbers, and it has been getting it. Why is it anti-Semitism if non-Jews are aware of this desire? One of the main tasks of the organized Jewish community is to maintain Jewish identity in the American melting pot; and members of Jewish organizations take special pride in the claim that Jews value continuity more highly than other ethnic groups do. Among most Jews, moreover, it is clearly a virtue to feel closer to other Jews than to anyone else. Why is it an index of anti-Semitism if other Americans are aware that many Jews feel this way?

All of the surveys made during the last few decades have shown that black Americans are markedly more anti-Semitic than whites. In the ADL survey, nearly two out of five blacks agree that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America” and that Jews “still talk too much about the Holocaust.” Among better educated and more progressive blacks one in four has anti-Semitic views such as “Jews have too much power in business.” This evidence suggests that black anger at Jews is associated with economic status and that it diminishes among blacks who have become part of the educated middle class, the approximately 30 percent of blacks who have had some higher education or whose family incomes are above $35,000 a year.

  1. 1

    See Highlights from an Anti-Defamation League Survey on Anti-Semitism in America, published by the Anti-Defamation League, New York, November 1992.

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