American Jews are commemorating 350 years of life on the country's shores, recalling the first arrivals to New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil. As a result, there is a lot of stocktaking about the American Jewish experience.
At the Anti-Defamation League, we are among those engaged in this activity. Our latest public opinion poll on the attitudes of Americans toward Jews in America - a survey of 1,600 Americans conducted by the Marttila Communications Group from March 18-25 - provides an opportunity to do just that.
Clearly, America is different. The Jewish experience in the U.S., it can be argued, is different from every other Diaspora community. The level of integration and the comfort of American Jews in U.S. society is unmatched. Still, America is not immune from Jew-hatred, not in the past and not even today.
What happened in our country shortly before the start of fighting in Iraq two years ago was a reminder. The old canard espoused by Charles Lindbergh before WWII - that Jews, because of their narrow self-interest, were bringing the country to war - was now being updated to blame neo-conservative Jews. Unlike when Pat Buchanan accused Jews of causing the first Gulf War, this time the accusations took on a life of their own.
This duality of America being a hospitable place for Jews, but also one where anti-Semitism can resonate, surfaced once again in our 2005 survey. The most important finding of the poll - that 14 percent of Americans had anti-Semitic attitudes - was confirmation that anti-Semitism has dramatically declined since our initial survey in 1964. At that time, 29 percent of Americans were deemed to possess anti-Semitic attitudes. The 2005 findings are generally consistent with what we have found over the last decade, with some variation - in 1998, the number was 12 percent, in 2002 it was 17 percent.
Of course, these declining figures are matched by many other indicators in American society, whether it is the number of U.S. senators, now 13 out of 100, or the access that Jews have at every level to just about all institutions in America, to the wide acceptance of Jewish cultural norms in society.
So where are the dark spots? First, 14 percent means there are still some 35 million Americans whose views of Jews are unacceptable. Our surveys have consistently identified older and less-educated Americans as those who most frequently fall into this category. That would seem to offer hope for the future, though age remains a consistent factor, even when a new generation replaces the last.
Of great concern is the persistence of two of the most insidious manifestations of anti-Semitism: The beliefs that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America, and that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since so much of the history of anti-Semitism relates to the charges that Jews are always aliens to the societies in which they live, and are Christ-killers, these realities should not be taken lightly. In our recent survey, 33 percent of those polled said American Jews were more loyal to Israel than America, a remarkably consistent finding that goes back four decades. Thirty percent of Americans said Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.
These are jarring findings that raise questions as to how they square with the broader, highly optimistic reading of the American scene. What can be said is that the negative attitudes reflected in these responses don't seem to translate into any major anti-Jewish behavior.
Those of us who have led missions of influential Americans to Israel are sometimes struck that we, as American Jews, are often referred to by the people we are escorting as if we were Israeli citizens, rather than Americans like them. And yet, there are deep friendships and no hostility attached to these strange expressions.
Similarly, with regard to the deicide charge, when Mel Gibson's highly popular movie, "The Passion of the Christ," with its clear blame-the-Jews motif, appeared, it did not lead to any significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents.
This leads to two conclusions. One is that since the overall society is so friendly and open to Jews, Judaism and Jewish life, the impact of these usually destructive stereotypes of Jews is mitigated. In Europe, these views historically were not only the causes of anti-Semitism, but were part of a more pervasive hostility to Jews that does not exist in America.
The other is that there is nothing to be complacent about when these stereotypes persist. The charges of disloyalty and excessive power against Jewish neo-cons, and the fact that millions of Americans will be viewing the DVD of "The Passion" with their children, are matters of concern. Even in America.
Philip Roth, in his latest novel "The Plot Against America," conjured up a fantasy of an anti-Semitic presidency in 1940, and its impact on American Jews. It spoke to the theme of, "Can it happen here?"
We think not, but we still have a lot of educating to do.
The writer is the director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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