Loving Jews, Hating Jews

By Alex Joffe
Monday, January 10, 2011

In their new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell advance the striking claim that "Jews are the most broadly popular religious group in America today." Although this assertion is not central to their book, which uses a vast array of sources and opinion surveys to explore the fluidity of American religious identities in the 21st century, it has attracted considerable attention. And for good reason: it reflects an extraordinary historical fact, traceable to a decade-by-decade shift of attitudes on the part of non-Jewish Americans over the past half-century.

How, though, are we to reconcile Putnam and Cambell's observations with other data suggesting a movement in a very different direction?

Take, for instance, the FBI's recently released hate-crime statistics for 2009. Leading the pack, and not for the first time, are "anti-religious bias crimes" against Jews, at 72 percent of the total. As against this, roughly 8.5 percent of reported crimes were against Muslims, and an equivalent proportion against other categories, including Protestants, Catholics, and "Atheist/Agnostic." In New York State, the number of hate crimes against Jews rose in 2009 from 219 to 251, while hate crimes against Muslims increased from eight to eleven.

Several obvious conclusions may be drawn. First, the absolute number of religiously-oriented hate crimes—a total of 1,575 reported in 2009—does not suggest an especially bigoted country: a conclusion very much in keeping with Putnam and Campbell's own findings. Second, American "Islamophobia" is a myth if not a lie. But, third, Jews, "the most broadly popular religious group in America," are still the victims of vastly more hate crimes than any other religious group. To understand this conundrum, we need to look behind the statistics.

Who is responsible for hate crimes against Jews? The FBI's report does not tell us, but other data point to a certain pattern. To judge from news reports, some percentage is attributable to drunken teenagers, neo-Nazis, and extremist Christian groups. More ominously, there is the activity by radicalized Muslims like those recently convicted of attempting to bomb New York area synagogues. Individual Jews were murdered by Muslims in Los Angeles in 2002, in Houston in 2003, and in Baltimore and Seattle in 2006. Since 9/11, over 180 Muslims have been arrested in the U.S. for conspiracies to attack American, Israeli, or Jewish targets. (To be sure, these numbers pale in comparison with attacks conducted by Muslims overseas against Christians and other Muslims.)

What about hate speech, as opposed to actual criminal behavior? Surveys of the Internet turn up many of the same sorts of suspects, including neo-Nazis and radical Muslims, as well as a large cohort of "progressives": anti-globalization activists, socialists, anarchists, and the like. These, with a fierce if almost reassuringly traditional passion, hate Jews for allegedly representing an international cabal of capitalist manipulators. To their ranks may be added such media paragons as Helen Thomas, Oliver Stone, and Rick Sanchez.

An old-new twist on all this is hatred of the state of Israel as a proxy for Jews. Re-packaging accusations out of Soviet and Muslim sources, purveyors of Israel-hatred portray the country as a fanatically religious, imperialist-colonialist outpost that violently oppresses the peaceful, the weak, and the authentically indigenous. Anyone who supports Israel is complicit in its alleged criminality, and Jews who do not repudiate it are assumed to be supporters. These attitudes were amply on display at the University of California at Irvine when Muslim students shouted down the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, and on every campus where "Apartheid Week" makes an appearance.

Here, practically speaking, is the real source of anti-Semitism in America today. As Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, put it, evidently without irony: "It's a scary time, with people losing the ability to differentiate between a Jew, any Jew, and what's going on in Israel." Variants of such "progressive" thinking ripple outward from places  like the Huffington Post, the most viewed left-liberal website, through the pages of the Nation and the New York Review of Books, to the coverage of Israel in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and on National Public Radio. A prominent role in the drama is played by Jewish journalists and intellectuals, who, though not anti-Semites themselves, enable the anti-Semitism of others.  

Unless one were to set out to sample the centers of political opinion in the U.S., which Putnam and Campbell did not do, one would miss the story of anti-Semitism in present-day America. Unless one were to survey urban Muslim enclaves, one would miss that story as well. Putnam and Campbell's oversight was clearly unintentional; the omissions of the mainstream media tend to be more deliberate.  

Still, the encouraging picture drawn by the two authors is a good and a true thing. What the general data continue to demonstrate is the high levels of tolerance and even philo-Semitism that characterize "middle America." Jews in this country have achieved an acceptance and degree of integration perhaps unprecedented in history. Changes will no doubt occur with shifting demographics both in the larger population and among Jews themselves; for the time being, however, manifestations of anti-Semitism, although real, genuinely threatening, and occasionally lethal, remain a relatively isolated phenomenon. In the America that really matters, Jews and their Israeli cousins enjoy a highly positive image—a fact and a message that can never be repeated enough.  

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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