Commentary Magazine


The Real Anti-Semitism in America, by Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter

America & the Jews

The Real Anti-Semitism in America.
by Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter.
Arbor House. 303 pp. $15.50.

About two years ago, the level of anti-Semitic violence throughout the United States seemed suddenly on the rise. According to statistics compiled by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), there were 377 reported incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism and violence in 1980, triple the number for 1979. In 1981 the number of such incidents more than doubled. While there was little doubt that the primary motive behind these acts of personal harassment and property damage was to victimize Jews, no one was quite sure what to make of them. Did they foreshadow a new cycle of anti-Semitism in American society? Or did they, perhaps, represent little more than a passing teen-age fad in suburban neighborhoods?

The answer one gave to this question depended in part on where one lived. New York Jews, a hardy lot, seemed to me, a born New Yorker, to take the news in stride. But during a three-month stay in supposedly laid-back California, I noticed that Jews there were responding much more intensely. Indeed, when I addressed an audience of California Jews on “Anti-Semitism in the Perspective of Jewish History,” and attempted to show that the recent incidents, however alarming, nevertheless did not indicate a potential for the rise of an organized anti-Semitic movement—to show, in other words, that in anti-Semitism as in other matters affecting Jews, America really was different from the pattern we associate with the Jewish past in Europe, or even with the Jewish present in places like Argentina—I was told politely but firmly that I did not understand how bad things were, how parlous was the condition of the Jews in the United States.

This agitated and, I believe, somewhat disproportionate response reflects feelings of unease with which the Jews of Los Angeles, like Jews all over the United States, have been troubled for well over a decade. Many American Jews, however prosperous and successful, have been beset by inchoate feelings of anxiety which they have been unable to articulate. Somehow or other, the position of Jews in America no longer seems to them as secure as it once did. Ever since 1967, when Israel’s victory in the Six-Day war sparked a rise of hostile rhetoric, and when anti-Semitism erupted with force in the black community, American Jews have had a premonitory feeling that the climate around them was changing for the worse. And if for a long time the actual evidence seemed uncertain and sporadic, the eruption of unmistakably anti-Semitic incidents in the late 70′s gave tangible substance to these nagging Jewish anxieties.

But what is the nature of anti-Semitism in America today? It is precisely this question that Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter address in their new book, The Real Anti-Semitism in America, an indispensable work for anyone who cares not only about the security of Jews but also about the many faces that America shows to the world. Nathan Perlmutter is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, but this book is by no means an institutional document. In fact, it is a rather personal work, imprinted with a distinctly individual idiom in its language as in its substance. The Perlmutters summon up their own memories, describe their own experiences, and distill the lessons of their own readings in Jewish history. In a judicious balance of moral passion and political sobriety, they explore the locales in the United States where anti-Semitism is centered, analyze the social, political, and psychological characteristics of leaders and followers of anti-Semitic organizations, evaluate the extent and effectiveness of their operations, and assess the degree of danger posed to Jews and to Jewish security.

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The Perlmutters begin by summarizing the latest and most substantial public-opinion poll on anti-Semitism in America, which was conducted in 1981 by the opinion-research company of Yankelovich, Skelly, and White on behalf of the American Jewish Committee. To give the study historical depth, Yankelovich compared the findings of this national survey, based on 1,250 personal interviews, with those of a survey conducted in 1964 by a research team at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Yankelovich survey found that anti-Semitic attitudes declined significantly during the past two decades, although the statistics still seem rather high for comfort: 45 percent of those polled in 1981 were unprejudiced, while 23 percent were prejudiced, and 32 percent were neutral. If we add the neutrals to the prejudiced, the figures are hardly reassuring. The Perlmutters put it this way: “The Gentile fever seems to be subsiding, but gone it isn’t.” Older people, and people with little education, tended to express anti-Semitic attitudes more frequently than younger and better educated people. Anti-Semitism among blacks was more prevalent than among whites. Finally, the Yankelovich survey showed that attitudes toward American Jews “were significantly correlated with attitudes toward Israel.”

The responses of the better educated need some explication and qualification. Do respondents tell the truth when asked their opinions? On most questions they probably do, but on questions probing prejudice and bigotry, I suspect that not all do—and certainly not the better educated. For these are precisely the people least likely to express socially undesirable opinions. I would not be at all surprised if the low anti-Semitic response among the better educated is a function of their sophistication rather than a true reflection of their views. But then, it could be said in defense of the findings that if the present climate makes people feel that prejudiced opinions are not comme il faut, then anti-Semitism really is at a law level.1

As for the recent incidents of vandalism and violence, the Perlmutters find that these were mainly committed by teen-agers acting alone, or in twos or threes, and were sparked in equal measure by mischievousness, maliciousness, and bigotry. But the Perlmutters discount these incidents as a significant anti-Semitic factor because the perpetrators have no political organization and no built-in structure that can be developed or exploited for systematic anti-Semitic goals. The Perlmutters also downgrade the Ku Klux Klan, because of its present low estate in membership and influence. They do not think that Jews are in imminent danger of pogroms.2

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Where, then, is the “real” anti-Semitism lodged? The Perlmutters write that groups which Jews once regarded as friends and allies are now adversaries, and groups which Jews once regarded with suspicion, even with antipathy, may now be allies. Protestants of liberal denomination (in contrast to fundamentalists), leftists, and blacks no longer share common interests and goals with most American Jews. Fundamentalists and political conservatives are more likely nowadays to be on the same side as Jews on certain issues which affect Jewish interests. Affirmative action, to which the Perlmutters devote a full chapter, is a case in point and one of the important domestic issues on which blacks and Jews have diverged.

At this late date, readers of COMMENTARY will find these conclusions familiar, even commonplace. But for many Jews, whose lifelong commitment to liberalism has kept a tight leash on their old and by now sclerotic ideas, the message that the Perlmutters bring may well be a disturbing one.

Nevertheless, it is true. Our political landscape has been radically altered from the days when liberal Protestants and blacks were friends of the Jews. After all, it is nearly fifty years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States and since Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The demographic configuration of the Jewish population today has changed profoundly from what it was before World War II, and so has the psychological complexion of the Jews.

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As everyone knows, the major catalyst of this transformation has been the state of Israel. Israel’s establishment in 1948 and its evolution since then have shaped a new agenda for American Jews. At its creation, the Jewish state enjoyed the political support and the moral approval of the international community, except for the Arab world. Then, as the Soviet Union sought to expand its influence in the Middle East by wooing the Arabs, anti-Israel propaganda began to spread widely throughout the Third World, among the so-called uncommitted nations, and finally among their sympathizers in the developing countries of the West. In the 1960′s and 70′s, Israel became increasingly isolated, a Jewish island in a raging ocean of hostility, a pariah among the nations.

Here lay a bitter irony for Jews and especially for Zionists. As the founders of Israel conceived it, the Jewish state was expected to transform—that is, to “normalize”—the status of the Jews throughout the world and thus to eliminate anti-Semitism. Instead Israel, as the embodiment of the aspirations of the Jewish people, became the butt of worldwide anti-Jewish prejudice.

There were, to be sure, real and vital political interests in the Arab opposition to a Jewish state in Palestine. But it is a common pattern in history that a bona-fide conflict of interests in which Jews are involved, whether as individuals or as a collective, quickly becomes tarnished by anti-Jewish invective. Thus the original conflict becomes perverted and its moral level debased. And so it was with the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs in the Middle East.

The Yankelovich survey, it will be recalled, found that attitudes toward American Jews “were significantly correlated with attitudes toward Israel.” While the survey drew no particular conclusion from the finding, that correlation is, to my mind, the critical indicator of anti-Semitism today.

Many Jews have been hesitant to call attention to the new symbiotic relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism lest they be accused of trying to shield Israel from valid criticism. But enemies of the Jews have not hesitated to use criticism of Israel as a cover for anti-Semitism, and the phenomenon has not gone unnoticed even in non-Jewish quarters. The Perlmutters cite a declaration issued by a German Evangelical church group in 1981 which defined the “New Anti-Semitism” as nothing more than the old anti-Semitism hiding behind criticism of Israel. The German Evangelicals explicitly state that Israel is and should be open to criticism as any government is and should be, but they note with alarm that criticism of Israel has increasingly become a vehicle—and a pretext—for anti-Semitism. One paragraph of their statement reads:

It is anti-Semitism when erroneous actions by the Israeli government are judged one-sidedly, without regard for the actions of Israel’s enemies, and are pointed out and judged more sharply than similar actions by other governments.

In the course of their history, Jews have been persecuted for being whatever they were at any given time. Because Israel has become the most precious collective entity of the Jewish people, the embodiment of Jewish civilization, and the hope for Jewish survival, it has, most glaringly since 1967, become the primary target of anti-Semites throughout the world. As one reads the documentation which the Perlmutters provide on the presence of anti-Semitism on the Left, among liberal Protestant church groups—not least the National Council of Churches—and among blacks, it becomes clear that nowadays all the old anti-Semitic stereotypes have been displaced onto Israel.

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At first blush it might appear that an anti-Semitism rooted among the Left, among liberal Protestant church groups, and among blacks would not pose too formidable a threat to American Jews. After all, the organizations of the political Left are relatively small. As for liberal Protestant church groups, one need only map the geographical distribution of American Protestant denominations to see that liberal Protestants constitute small enclaves of Christianity and that they are vastly outnumbered by the Catholics in the Northeast and by the fundamentalists in the South and the Midwest. Surely most low-church Protestants feel a closer affinity to the fundamentalists with whom they identify by class and status than to big-city, well-to-do Protestants who attend the services at Riverside Church and its equivalents elsewhere.

Nevertheless, ever since the countercultural revolution and the antiwar movement of the 60′s, the influence of the Left in all its varieties has penetrated into areas which, in another time, might have proved resistant. The two most conspicuous such areas are the universities and the media. A recent public-opinion survey among media professionals shows that on a wide variety of national and international issues, they tend to hold political views considerably to the Left of the general public. An automatic sympathy with the Third World, a romantic idealization of selected groups of “oppressed peoples,” and a tendency to denigrate the political values of the free world are some of the hallmarks of the media “mindset,” and in the case of the Middle East they have resulted in blatantly slanted coverage of Israel’s policies and actions, most dramatically during the recent fighting in Lebanon.3

The UN is another major source for the dissemination of anti-Semitism. It has in fact been the chief conduit of Soviet and Arab anti-Jewish propaganda, even long before the passage in 1975 of the infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism. On the subject of the UN, the Perlmutters provide a rich body of documentation drawn from the relentless flow of rhetoric in that “amphitheater for the Esperanto of anti Semitism.” Americans may discount the impact of this as so much hot air, but the ceaseless production of anti-Jewish propaganda at the UN has at the very least helped to “naturalize” anti-Semitism, making it commonplace and acceptable in daily discourse.

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What conclusions do the Perl-mutters reach with respect to anti-Semitism in the United States? They are primarily interested, of course, in shaping policy for the Jewish community, and in this regard they do not think it unseemly to profess their self-interest. Unlike others who speak in the name of the Jewish community, the Perlmutters do not mistake the liberal agenda for the Jewish agenda. Neither, however, do they identify conservative interests with Jewish interests, even though there now is greater congruity between the two than between Jews and liberals. The Perlmutters say: “If here and there, liberals or conservatives are potential allies, the alliance should evolve ad hoc, when our interests coincide, and we ought not to mistake liaisons of convenience for lasting marriage.”

The Perlmutters note that the fundamental political and economic problems which America confronts today—oil and petrodollars, defense and disarmament, the conflict between Communism and freedom—have and will continue to have a profound impact on Jewish security and even on Israel’s future. The positions taken by Jewish leaders on these issues, they argue, ought to address the interests of the United States, but they ought to be true to Jewish interests as well. The Perlmutters’ hope is that Jews will have learned from the bitter experience of history to distinguish friends from enemies, to exercise both flexibility and imagination in building alliances and defenses, so that they will be able to protect themselves and their children against the deadly fallout of anti-Semitism.

Underlying this hope is a sober confidence, which I happen to share, in America’s traditions of political liberty, social equality, and religious freedom. For, as I told my audience in Los Angeles, America is different. The history of the Jews in America has, until now, testified to that difference.


Footnotes

1 For a critical analysis of public-opinion surveys of anti-Semitism, see my essay “Can Anti-Semitism Be Measured?,” which first appeared in COMMENTARY, July 1970, and was later updated in my book, The Jewish Presence: Essays in Identity and History (1977).

2 In contrast, a shoddy book by Ernest Volkman, A Legacy of Hate (Franklin Watts, 358 pp., $16.95), tries to exploit the ripple of anti-Semitic incidents by sounding a general alarm in a chapter called, of all things, “Kristnallnacht.” Stretching evidence is only one of this book's flaws. Parasitism is another: the author lives off other writers' works without appropriate acknowledgment.

3 Of course it may be unfair to attribute all the deficiencies of the media to prejudice. Some account has to be taken as well of the impressive ignorance which many journalists and reporters demonstrate when it comes to the history and politics of the Middle East. For a recent analysis of the political attitudes of media professionals, see “Media and Business Elites,” by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, Public Opinion, October/November 1981. An excellent essay by David Sidorsky on media coverage of the Middle East, “Balance and Responsibility in the Media,” appeared in the June/July Midstream.

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