What was most startling about last week’s poll showing growing support for businesses discriminating against minorities — including Jews — on religious grounds is that it caused barely a ripple in the news cycle. Apparently overt bigotry, even if it is the kind based on religious conviction, has lost the power to shock in this new age of rage and resentment.
According to a survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, 19 percent of Americans think it’s OK for small businesses to deny serving Jews, if such denials are based on religious convictions. That is up from 12 percent in 2014.
The numbers were higher for Republicans than Democrats, and mainline Protestants than evangelicals, although support for religion-based discrimination about doubled among white evangelical Protestants. Support for discrimination against Jews on religious grounds has increased across all age groups.
But we are not alone — far from it. Thirty percent of Americans say small business owners should be allowed to refuse products or services to gays and lesbians; the number was even higher among white evangelical Protestants (42 percent). Twenty-two percent say it should be all right to refuse service to Muslims. And more than a half-century after the American civil rights revolution, 15 percent say businesses should be allowed to turn away African Americans on religious grounds.
As a religious minority, our community cherishes religious freedom, but we believe it is a perversion of the concept to use religious conviction as an excuse to discriminate. And we know from history that when discrimination against one group is legitimized, others — with Jews topping the list — will inevitably be in the crosshairs of the haters.
Experts are careful to note that the study is attitudinal and that they’ve seen no actual evidence of Jews being denied service at small businesses. Some also note that the publicity around such high-profile religious liberty cases as the Colorado wedding cake decision might have led respondents to extend the right of businesses to deny service to minorities other than the LGBTQ community.
Even so, the findings of the survey are “disturbing,” one expert says. And there are several lessons to be drawn from these appalling numbers.
The first is that the focused fight against anti-Semitism must adapt to a changing environment. Today’s climate of unrestrained and unfiltered rage — in politics, in social media, on the airwaves — presents new and complex challenges that we, as a community, must address.
The second is that we cannot afford to see ourselves as the only victims. Yes, Jew-hatred has unique qualities that have persisted through the ages, but as this survey demonstrates, the growing tolerance of intolerance targets numerous other groups. We need to work with other vulnerable communities so that it is simply not acceptable for businesses to discriminate or for politicians to endorse expressions of hatred, overtly or though sly winks and dog whistles.
Helping other victims of collective hate is part of our Jewish DNA. But it is also a matter of enlightened self-interest. In today’s increasingly intolerant America, that lesson is more important than ever.