The Anti-Defamation League released the results of a recent poll that indicates anti-Semitic attitudes have decreased by 3 percent since 2011. That’s the good news. The bad news is that according to the ADL, too many people continue to harbor anti-Semitic views. But I am not sure we can really call those who hold these views anti-Semites.
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Anti-Semitism used to refer to irrational hatred of Jews and violence stemming from that hatred. For most of history, people lived in communities, towns, and cities with like-minded people of similar ethnicity. Over the last 2,000 years, the “other” in many communities was the Jew. The Jew lived among the nations of the world as a second-class citizen or worse. The classically anti-Semitic cities of Eastern Europe were made up of people who shared common ancestry and lived together for generations. The Jews were the usurpers, the invaders, the minority, the people to blame for their problems. Thus, anti-Semitism.
Other forms of bigotry are really no different. Larger groups have always used smaller groups as scapegoats and muses for their hatred. Historically, and to a lesser degree contemporarily, the Roma in Europe, Armenians in Turkey, black people in predominately white countries, Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese, Chechens in Russia, Albanians in Greece and Italy, Copts in Egypt, among many others, are minorities who are discriminated against and the subjects of hatred in their host countries.
One thing that made anti-Semitism unique was how it permeated so many different cultures and locales. This is because we were minorities in so many places throughout our long exile that more groups had an excuse or opportunity to hate us. Other groups were concentrated into smaller areas and so were their enemies.
Today we live in a diverse, multi-cultural world. Many people live in communities with all kinds of people from all ethnicities and cultures. Minorities are majorities in some places. This translates into a society where people are generally exposed to people with difference skin tones, values, religions, ideas, and preferences than themselves. By default, this makes it harder to dislike people who are different simply because almost everyone in one’s social circle is going to be somewhat different.
The United States is particularly diverse and Americans are particularly welcoming of different groups most of the time. But in places where there are insular communities, ghettos, and more uniform social circles, we are – in my opinion - likely to find higher levels of bigotry against a multitude of ethnicities – Jews and other minorities alike.
In its survey, the ADL asked questions that would elicit responses revealing whether a person was biased against Jewish people. These questions are designed to help the ADL determine how widespread Jewish stereotypes are held as truth. While the numbers are disheartening they only tell part of the story.
In order to determine whether the people who hold these beliefs are anti-Semites, one has to eliminate the other possibility that they might be bigots in general. If they hate Jews and they hate everyone else too it’s hardly anti-Semitism. Their bigotry is not unique toward Jewish people if they are just plain old bigots.
Jewish people need to be concerned about all forms of bigotry. But we have a vested interest in anti-Semitism. We need to ask if Jew hatred is a different kind of hatred than the hatred found across the gamut of society. Not every Jew hater is an anti-Semite. The true anti-Semite is the one who does not hate anyone but Jews. This is a very rare person indeed. And that is very good news.
As to solving the problem of bigotry in general, the solution is to create more opportunities for minorities and majorities to interact in positive ways. In some places in the world, this is still impossible. Luckily, in the United States Jewish people interact with non-Jews all the time. But we do need to make a concerted effort to put our best foot forward and show those who hate us that their bigotry is based on false assumptions and ignorance. We must make an even greater effort in places where Jewish people are more prominently anti-social like the uber-insular communities of ultra-Orthodox Jews and the places where Jewish people rarely appear. It is in those two categories of places that ignorance and stereotypes about Jews are most likely to be found. We hold the key to changing those opinions by acting in a congenial and respectful manner.
Hopefully through our efforts we can eliminate bigotry and even eradicate the exceedingly rare exclusive hater of Jews. Let’s also be careful about whom and what we call anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or email. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com.