As a recent visitor to America, I was struck by how much of the wrenching national conversation over race and gender resolves around things like micro-aggression, coded messages and accusations of insensitivity. In that context, the murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh last Saturday stands out.
Robert Bowers didn’t code any of his anti-Semitic feelings: he acted on them in a quintessentially American way by assembling a small arsenal of weaponry to use against Jews.
It’s the nature of things that a traumatic event has caused people to worry that anti-Semitism is a real problem in America. The massacre has been routinely juxtaposed in the media with an Anti-Defamation League survey showing the number of anti-Semitic incidents jumped 57% last year from 2016.
It leaves you thinking that in Trump’s America, Jews are feeling the same rise in hatred as others.
But statistics show otherwise. The ADL survey is misleading on multiple counts.
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Among other things, it relies on reports of anti-Semitism, which is in the hate-conscious environment of America today, has simply led to more reporting of incidents.
In any case, the great, great majority of incidents involve incidents like spray-painting graffiti on a Jewish building, probably by bored teenagers. The most serious category of all – physical assaults against Jews – amounted to just 19 in 2017. That was down nearly half from 2016 and amounted to a blip in a screen in a country of 325 million people and 5.5 million Jews.
Most misleading of all, it that in the category of “harassment,” which ran to 1,015 incidents, up from 721 in 2016.
Most misleading of all is the category of “harassment,” in which there were 1,015 incidents — 294 more than in 2016. More than half of that increase, however — 163 incidents — consisted of bomb threats to Jewish institutions that turned out to have been made by a lone, disturbed Jewish teenager living in Israel. Whatever else you might think of him and what he did, the unnamed man is not an anti-Semite.
If anything, it's getting warmer
Like any kind of racism or sexism, anti-Semitism isn’t that easy to define. But if you look at what is probably the longest running survey of American attitudes towards Jews, the American National Election survey conducted a dozen times from 1964 through 2016, you find that Americans have grown much less anti-Semitic.
Respondents are asked how much warmth (100) or coolness (0) they feel toward various minorities. In the case of Jews, the temperature rose from an average of 62.4 in 1964 to 70.5 in 2016. And the base year of 1964 understates the trend: By most reckonings, anti-Semitic attitudes in America were far more virulent and widespread in the 1940s and 1950s.
Surveys understate the level of Jewish acceptance in America, and here’s why.
It’s no secret that American Jews are well off, which a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center confirms: Among all religious groups, the one with the biggest percentage of people earning $100,000 or more were Jews (44%). They were way ahead of Hindus, who were No. 2 at 36%, and even WASPs (32% to 35%).
Two or more generations ago Jewish wealth relied more on business acumen. Largely barred from establishment jobs in law, medicine and banking, for instance, Jews made their money by going into business for themselves, most famously the fraternity who created Hollywood from scratch.
Nowadays, Jews are welcome everywhere. There are still Jewish entrepreneurs, but there is no university that has a quota of Jewish admissions, no law firm that wouldn’t take on a Jewish partner, no Jewish actor who change his name to something gentile and no election where a Jewish candidate might not win solely because of her religion.
When Jewish leaders agonize over the high rates rate of intermarriage, it’s usually framed in terms of Jews’ weakening identity, but the flip side of this is that it shows just how much non-Jews are ready to welcome Jews into their families. Intermarriage is perhaps the ultimate sign of acceptance.
What America does suffer from a growing but still tiny number of people like Bowers who subscribe to anti-Semitic tropes. You can easily find them online and they have easy access to guns, both of which give them more power and presence than they merit.
It’s not (to quote Sinclair Lewis’ dystopian novel of a Nazi America) that “It Can’t Happen Here,” rather it isn’t happening and is unlikely.
Unfortunately, haters in modern day America and Europe have a wide array of groups to direct their anger at. Jews don’t stand out as being particularly different or numerous enough to attract their attention.
More than that, there are no big political and social movements with anti-Semitism on their agenda. America has no laws or quotas that discriminate against Jews. Rather, there are lone and marginalized people who rant against Jews and, once in a while, act.
If just one man hadn’t been able to buy a gun so easily, or if it had jammed before he could kill so many, or if he had decided to express his rage with another online post, the little anti-Semitism there is would have been invisible to all.