November 22, 2011
Opinion: Proud bastards
A few weeks ago we sent out one of our regular e-blasts with the following headline:
“Poll: One in five Americans believes Jews have too much control of Wall Street.”
The linked story details the results of an annual Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey of anti-Semitic attitudes that showed 20 percent of Americans hold somewhat disagreeable views on Jews.
I didn’t think much of it, until two men I respect for their passion for Jewish life as well as for their cool, dispassionate approach to default Jewish hysteria e-mailed me back.
“The ADL does its annual survey on anti-Semitic attitudes,” read the first e-mail, “and discovers that despite the worst recession since the 1930s, the overall level of anti-Semitic feeling in the U.S. remains at the same level it’s been for six years — half the level it was during the mid-1960s.”
He went on: “The poll shows that this stability has been achieved despite the growth of the Latino immigrant population, meaning that among the rest of the population (including native-born Latinos) anti-Semitism is declining. And it shows that the public overwhelmingly does not believe that the ‘Israel lobby’ has disproportionate power in Washington. And what ends up as the headline? ‘Poll: 1 in 5 Americans believes Jews have too much control of Wall Street.’ ”
The subject line of his e-mail was, “An example of the ‘Oy! Reflex.’ ”
Oy indeed. My second correspondent underscored just how misguided our headline was.
The poll, he wrote, “doesn’t mention that anti-Semitism is at the level it is despite the fact that the lightning rod for populist anger is a firm called Goldman Sachs, not McElroy Finnegan, and despite the fact that you have an Israeli prime minister, one of whose claims to fame is telling [his nation’s] biggest supporter and underwriter to f—- off.
“It is the balm of feeling superior and beyond reproach that allows a study like the ADL’s to proceed as if there is no impact of the conduct by the Jewish community/Israel that contributes to the incremental shifts in answers to the poll’s questions,” the e-mailer continued. “It’s as if the attitudes exist in a vacuum that is irrational and just waiting to manifest bigotry no matter what we do or say.”
OK, he may be a little harsh when it comes to the prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu acceded to a historic settlement freeze at President Barack Obama’s request before their relationship got frosty. But his point nevertheless hit home.
Polls like this, and headlines like ours, he wrote, exploit “a fear that no one wants to dismiss out of hand, but is baseless if you look at the data.”
A week later, a press release arrived from Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. This time, I was well prepared.
“Israelis Report 1/3 of Families in Diaspora Are Assimilated,” the big, bold headline read.
The survey of 500 Israeli Jews found that, “24 percent of those with relatives abroad report of assimilation (a member of their family abroad is married to a non-Jewish spouse), 11 percent do not know.”
The survey didn’t report whether the non-Jewish spouse was converting, whether the kids were off at Jewish camp, and as for the 11 percent who “do not know” — I think that means, “Leave us alone with your dumb surveys.”
Let me offer an alternate press release to the ministry’s missive: “Between 76 Percent and 87 Percent of Israeli Jews Abroad Maintain a Strong Sense of Heritage.”
But who wants to read that?
No, our Oy Reflex is so finely honed, we can stare good news right in the face and panic. Give us a glass that’s not just half full, but brimming to the top, and we’ll scream, “Oy, it’s gonna spill!”
The most anti-Semitic incident I can think of in the past year can be found in the report this week that just-released secret government memos show Secretary of State Henry Kissinger calling American Jews “self-serving bastards” because they insisted on trying to free their brethren from oppression in the Soviet Union. It was outrageous, but, hey, it was 1972, and he’s a Jew.
Our default anxiety is all charming, and understandable, given millennia of persecution and, even in our own day, some very real challenges.
But the Oy Reflex causes two big problems.
One, it leads to panic-based decision-making and misplaced priorities. We spend gobs of money battling anti-Semitism when we should be investing in strengthening education and community. And we throw big, big dollars at programs for “the next generation” — Have a trip! Have a minyan! Have a program! — while an entire generation of spiritually searching 40-, 50- and 60-somethings get written off as lost.
And, two, it prevents us from feeling grateful. We are so busy worrying, so busy trying to get others (especially donors) to worry, we don’t stop to acknowledge how lucky we are to be Jewish in this country, in this time. No, scratch that; in this world at this time.