September 25, 2003
Just the Facts
Jews in America are more favorably regarded than Catholics, barely less well liked than Protestants and far more highly viewed than Evangelical Christians. Facts you are not likely to have read in the direct mail you receive from solicitors of contributions.
It's time for Jews, blacks and other minorities to reassess where we really stand in pluralistic America, not where many of our leaders would like us to think we are.
Last week The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal carried important op-eds by a Jew (J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward) and an African American academic (professor John McWhorter of UC Berkeley), which speak to our place in the United States of the 21st century.
McWhorter's piece, "My Master's House," criticizes the facile invocation of charges of racism from black leaders that "has drifted into a recreational crutch, assuaging the insecurity at the heart of the human soul ... fashioning one's self as eternally battling a white America mired in racism" is, he asserts, a troubling phenomenon.
McWhorter derides Jayson Blair, of New York Times fame, and his assertion of being the victim of bigotry. He also notes with concern other examples of claiming perpetual victim status, such as the president of the Florida NAACP who recently observed that "racism finds itself no matter where we are in the this country and holds its head high," and the head of the Georgia NAACP who announced that "if it were up to the majority of people in the state of Georgia, slavery would still be the law of the land."
I often speak about these and related topics. Invariably, white faces and Jewish heads will nod and agree that the scene regarding race and ethnicity in America has markedly improved in recent years and that those who see pervasive racism are beating a tired, if not nearly dead, horse. "How could anyone not see how the status of blacks, Latinos and other minorities have changed for the better!" the facial expressions shout.
But try and make the same case to a Jewish audience about Jews. Assert that we live in a better, far more accepting America than existed 25 -- or 10 -- years ago, and the vast majority of the heads will stop nodding vertically and begin a horizontal sweep of disagreement. Dare to tell that audience that Jews have made enormous progress and that anti-Semitism is not the biggest threat that we face domestically, and the arched eyebrows of skepticism spread like a wave across the audience. "Pollyanna" and "naïve" are the two nicest descriptors that inevitably emerge in the subsequent discussion.
The Goldberg piece in The New York Times gives a clue as to why our fears are so widely embraced despite all the evidence to the contrary -- we look for, occasionally manufacture, and seem to welcome bad news, and ignore or dismiss information that contradicts our fears.
The recently released National Jewish Population Survey is a case in point. The survey was widely reported to have found that the U.S. Jewish population declined by 5 percent between 1990 and 2000. At this rate, even the most mathematically challenged can calculate, American Jewry is destined for virtual extinction. Countless sermons, synagogue boards of directors meetings and "strategic planning" studies have already been focused on this threat to Jewish "continuity." But, as Goldberg asserts, United Jewish Communities, the funder of the study, got it all wrong and, in fact, "invented a crisis." He raises genuine questions about the methodology of the study and the presentation of its data.
Goldberg cites the analogous study of a decade ago that proffered incorrect data on Jewish intermarriage rates. Goldberg asserts that the 1990 report was motivated, at least in part, "out of a desire to shock straying Jews into greater observance.... American Jews are not disappearing," Goldberg concludes.
Similarly, our fears of anti-Semitism ought to be tempered by reality. Not only is meaningful anti-Jewish hate not about to emerge in America, it hardly plays a role in our or our children's lives.
A widely ignored 2002 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that Jews were viewed favorably by 74 percent of the sample of over 2,000 adults. Our 74 percent is identical with the favorable rating for Protestants and Catholics, as contrasted with 54 percent for Muslim Americans and 55 percent for Evangelical Christians. The unfavorable rating for Jews (9 percent) was less than that for Catholics (13 percent), Evangelicals (18 percent) or Muslim Americans (22 percent) and only 1 percentage point below that for Protestants (8 percent).
We ought to just look around us. The vibrancy and activity levels of countless synagogues and Jewish cultural institutions are manifest (in Los Angeles alone, one could keep perpetually busy going to programs at the Skirball, the University of Judaism or the Museum of Tolerance, to name but a few) and belie any data that suggest our demise or ossification.
The American Jewish community needs to read what a McWhorter and Goldberg have to say. We are blessed to live in the real-world incarnation of the "Goldene Medina" that our forebears dreamed about and crossed oceans for. Residual racism and anti-Semitism exist, but the idea that this impedes our success is a fiction. We can be or achieve virtually whatever we set our sights on.
As we begin the New Year and evaluate ourselves, we should be honest in assessing how far we have come and realize that our future success depends most of all on us and what we create from within.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates, a year-old human relations organization chaired by former Mayor Richard J. Riordan.