Mirror, mirror

Mirror, mirror

How would you or I do on the ADL’s survey of global anti-Semitism?

The Anti-Defamation League is taking its lumps for a recent survey which suggested that more than a quarter of the world — with the notable exception of Laos — is anti-Semitic. 

ADL’s surveys are based on 11 statements that reference age-old stereotypes about Jews. Respondents who agree with six or more of the index statements are considered anti-Semitic. 

Some critics have pointed out that many of the statements may not reflect anti-Semitism at all, or that the questions themselves implant the very ideas they are meant to gauge. (How often do you think of elephants?)

I’ll leave the battle over methodology to others; what I do find fascinating is how the ADL index could be a tool in exploring our individual and communal Jewish identities. 

By my count, seven of the index questions are unambiguously anti-Semitic. Five invoke canards about Jewish power: “Jews have too much control over the United States government,” “have too much power in international financial markets,” “have too much control over global affairs,” “have too much control over the global media,” and “have too much power in the business world.” (I’m not sure why you need all five questions. It’s the hair-splitting bigot who would agree to the statement about financial markets, but disagree with the one about global affairs. And I’m pretty sure that were you to agree with any one of these statements, well, to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, you just might be an anti-Semite.)

Two others are fairly straightforward as well: “People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave” and “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars” (until the survey, I didn’t know that last one was a thing).

But other questions, even if they are markers for anti-Semitic attitudes, also mirror uncomfortable debates within the Jewish community itself — not just how the world sees us, but how we see ourselves. These are propositions for familiar, if not happy, Jewish discussions — or should be. Ask yourself how you might respond to the following:

“Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.” Certainly, one can imagine an anti-Semite saying this, and plenty do — but so might a Jewish educator who believes too much emphasis on the Holocaust is preventing young Jews from embracing “a more uplifting Jewish identity,” as a Forward columnist argued a few years back. I know day school-educated Jews who complain that they were “burned out” by Holocaust lessons. Some pro-Israel activists also argue that it is important to recognize the complex web of religious and historical factors beyond the Holocaust that justify Israel’s existence.

The Jewish educators’ dilemma is this: engaging young people with a confident sense of Jewish possibility, while telling the dark, unfathomable story around which contemporary Jewish history pivots.

“Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [the countries they live in].” How do we calibrate our Americanism with our deep devotion to Israel? Dual citizenship and close ties between Jerusalem and Washington make the dilemma seem easier than it really is. What would happen were the foreign policy goals of the two countries to diverge (as, by the way, a number of staunchly pro-Israel activists say has been happening for years)? This question is asked in one form or another before every presidential election.

The American-born Israeli writer and translator Hillel Halkin argues that there is nothing wrong with dual loyalties: “The truth is that any American Jew who doesn’t care as much about a Jewish state as he or she does about the United States can’t be very identified with the Jewish people.” Agree or disagree, no American Zionist can ignore his challenge. 

“Jews think they are better than other people.” The concept of the “chosen people” has been a stumbling block for educators for as long as Jews have confronted modernity, although the weight of tradition says chosenness is less a statement of superiority than of responsibility. However, Jewish self-congratulation often finds its way into the communal conversation, through the boasts we make, the jokes we tell (about ourselves and gentiles), and the sociological and even genetic theories about “Jewish exceptionalism” we are often too happy to embrace.

Self-regard and triumphalism are the pitfalls of any religious tradition; pluralism is the antidote.

“Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.” In some communities, fervently Orthodox homeowners have flexed their political power to elect school boards and town councils that are hostile to public education. But even within the more assimilated mainstream, Jewish distinctiveness can morph into chauvinism. Advocates of “tikun olam” toss this charge at proponents of “peoplehood,” saying it is both moral and expedient for Jews to embrace universal causes (the counter argument is that, if Jews don’t take care of their own, who will?). 

Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, suggests that Israel itself is the best Jewish answer to the conflict between “tribalism and universalism.” When Jews act together as a people, he argues, they generate contributions — from technology, to medicine, to security know-how — that benefit the whole world.

Even the 25 percent that’s anti-Semitic.

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