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FALL 2003  
Vol. 32, No. 1

See: Roots of the Jewish Power Myth, a Web Exclusive

UNDERSTANDING THE UNEXPECTED
by Daniel Levitas

Why, after steadily declining for half a century, is antisemitism on the rise?

n their landmark 1969 study on American antisemitism, The Tenacity of Prejudice, Gertrude J. Selznick and Stephen Steinberg confidently declared that political antisemitism and preoccupations with Jewish power were "almost at the vanishing point." Today, almost forty years later, antisemitism and public fears about excessive Jewish power are on the rise. Consider the following statistics based on a May 2002 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey:

  • Seventeen percent of Americans--35 million adults--were identified as "strongly anti-Semitic," as determined by their answering "yes" to six or more out of eleven statements indicating anti-Jewish attitudes or beliefs (see graph, above, and the eleven statements, page 26). This is an increase from the all-time low of 12% measured in 1998.
  • One out of every five adults in the survey (20%) agreed with the statement "Jews have too much power in the U.S. today"--nearly double the number (11%) reported by Selznick and Steinberg in the sixties.
  • One of every four respondents (24%) said that Jews "have too much power in the business world" and one out of five (20%) said Jews have "too much control and influence on Wall Street," up from 16% measured for both statements in 1998.

Data from a survey conducted last May by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco suggests a similar reversal of the trend of steadily declining antisemitism since the end of World War II. In this study, people who are thirty-five years old and younger expressed more antisemitic beliefs than the generation of their parents, leading researchers to question whether social constraints against antisemitism are weakening.

What are the causes of this sudden trend toward rising antisemitism and what, if anything, can be done about it?

Measuring Antisemitism

Social scientists have been monitoring antisemitism in America since 1938, when Elmo Roper, the future founder of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, reported that 41% of Americans believed that "Jews have too much power." Anti-Jewish prejudice peaked in 1945 and then declined steadily. Still, the level of antisemitism remained substantial. According to research funded by the ADL and conducted by the University of California, stereotypes of Jews as unethical, dishonest, aggressive, pushy, clannish, and conceited were held by approximately one-third of adult Americans well into the 1960s. As late as 1964, 51% of Americans surveyed agreed that "Jews should quit complaining about what happened to them in Nazi Germany." Faced with such data, researchers Selznick and Steinberg declared that there is a "large body of evidence pointing to the conclusion that the cultural resources for fascism are widespread in American society."

But the 1960s also produced a significant counterforce against antisemitism. The civil rights movement and the increasingly multicultural nature of American society influenced many baby boomers and other Americans to reject bigotry and racism. By 1981 the percentage of "strongly antisemitic" Americans had dropped to 23%, and by 1992 to 20%, largely as the result of the death of elderly, more prejudiced Americans. Six years later, the 1998 ADL survey classified only 12% of adults as "most antisemitic"--an all-time low. Even so, this figure represented 20-25 million people, hardly a fringe phenomenon. The downward trend ended in 2002 with an upward spike to 17%. Why? Pollsters have suggested a number of reasons.

Making Sense of the Reversal

Daniel Yankelovich, a leader in the field of public opinion research, attributes this dramatic change largely to September 11, which he says "stirred up some very primitive anxieties in America....To the extent that Jews and Israel get caught up in that emotionalism, there is a real danger." Immediately following the attack, Arab propagandists began promulgating the message that 9/11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were linked. "This is a fresh, well-oiled, well-funded campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel and demonize Jews," says Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. "It uses the media, the United Nations, terrorism on the ground--it uses any venue it can--to export antisemitism across the globe. And the crossover between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism is becoming more frequent."

Indeed, in a poll conducted in September 2001 by Tobin's group and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Hudson Institute, one out of every five Americans attributed the 9/11 attacks to "American support of Israel" (64% blamed "Arab terrorist groups and the countries that harbor them"). A Time/CNN poll taken two days after the attacks found that 21% of Americans said they felt less favorably toward Israel since 9/11, as compared to 10% who said they felt more favorably toward the Jewish state. And an even greater number (31%) told Newsweek in March 2002 that the U.S. should "reduce its ties to Israel in order to lessen the acts of terrorism against us."

According to pollster Yankelovich, U.S. support of Israel is itself a source of antisemitism, "because it feeds the [classic antisemitic] myth of Jews having too much power.... People with that predisposition can say that there is an influential American Jewish lobby that has all this money to contribute to the political process."

The perception of American Jews' dual loyalty, or even greater loyalty to Israel than the United States, also drives up antisemitism. In last year's ADL survey, fully one-third (33%) of all Americans agreed with the statement that "Jews are more loyal to Israel than America." Although this represents a significant decline over the 48% figure measured in 1981, subsequent surveys in 1992 and 1998 show that approximately one-third of all Americans have consistently harbored suspicions about supposed Jewish "dual loyalty."

Jews in the Spotlight

In the years between the ADL's 1998 and 2002 surveys, the second intifada (which began in September 2000) and the September 11 attacks have kept Israel and Jews in the media spotlight. Given the reality that 65 million Americans still believe that Jews killed Christ, 58 million believe that Jews control Wall Street, and 48 million believe Jews control the media (Tobin, 2002), heightened Jewish visibility--or simply drawing attention to Jews--is in itself a significant spur to antisemitism. Antisemitic myths and prejudices have long maintained a firm foothold within the American body politic. During times when Americans feel threatened by world events in which Jews are perceived to play a central part, these archetypical hatreds are revived and heightened. We have seen this phenomenon in the past--most notably in 1945, when, at the very time that the Nazi genocide of European Jewry was constantly in the news, antisemitism in the United States rose to an all-time high: fully 64% of all Americans said Jews had too much power, compared to 41% in 1938 before the war. Victimization does not appear to elicit sympathy; in fact, the very opposite may be true--when Jews suffer, be it through war or terrorist attacks, antisemitism often rises.

The constant media focus on Jews and Israel at a time when Americans are feeling increasingly vulnerable to terrorism has once again brought to the fore two classic antisemitic myths: that Jews wield too much power and that they are secretly plotting to control the course of events to further their own interests (i.e., support of Israel), even if it leads to global instability and war. This perception is reinforced by Jews themselves, when groups like the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or prominent Jewish neoconservatives such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol loudly proclaim their influence in the nation's capital. For example, the AIPAC website crows that "Fortune magazine has consistently ranked AIPAC among America's most powerful interest groups" and cites laudatory praise from presidents and politicians, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, whom AIPAC quotes as saying, "You are the most effective general interest group...across the entire planet." As Michael Kinsley, the founding editor of the online journal Slate dryly observed about AIPAC, "[Y]ou shouldn't brag about how influential you are if you want to get hysterically indignant when someone suggests that government policy is affected by your influence."

It was probably high-profile Jewish neoconservative ideologues like William Kristol, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and former Defense Policy Board head Richard Perle that U.S. Representative James Moran, Jr. (a liberal, seven-term Virginia Democrat) had in mind when he told a group of antiwar activists last March that Jewish leaders "are influential enough that they could change the direction of where [the war with Iraq] is going." However, as Kinsley also observed, "Moran's words are less alarming for their own direct meaning than for their historic association with some of the classic themes of anti-Semitism: the image of Jews as a monolithic group suffering from 'dual loyalty' and wielding nefarious influence behind the scenes."

Assertions about secret conspiracies and outsized Jewish power are not limited to liberal partisans of the Palestinian cause such as Congressman Moran or to right-wing ideologues like Pat Buchanan, who wrote recently in The American Conservative that neoconservatives (read: Jews) are a "cabal" that "harbor[s] a 'passionate attachment' to a nation not our own that causes them to subordinate the interests of their own country...." This antisemitic canard has filtered into the mainstream, finding expression on college campuses, in magazine articles, news commentary, and even late-night comedy routines--all raising Jewish visibility in a negative context. The ABC network television news program Nightline, for example, employed the antisemitic codeword "cabal" when reporting on the political influence of neoconservative hawks who have pushed for "regime change" in Iraq. In his introduction to the segment, host Ted Koppel announced: "Tonight, 'The Plan,' how one group and its blueprint have brought us to the brink of war.... Take away the somewhat hyperbolic references to conspiracy, however, and you're left with a story that has the additional advantage of being true." Neither Koppel nor his Nightline correspondent used the word "Jews," but, in essence, the Nightline piece highlighted how high-profile supporters of Israel had devised a plan to push America into war. Interviewee William Kristol played right into the Nightline plot line by bragging on camera about the influence of his Project for the New American Century, which had sponsored a series of public letters by prominent neoconservatives in 1998 urging an overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Senator Joseph Lieberman's highly visible 2004 presidential bid, as well as media disclosures about the Jewish genealogy of other Democratic presidential hopefuls, might very well help catalyze more anti-Jewish bigotry. Fully one-third of Americans believe that a Jewish president might not act in the best interests of the United States if those interests conflict with Israel's (Tobin, 2002). Of course, this is not an argument against Lieberman or others seeking the Democratic nomination. But a Jew running for president is a concern that many Jews share privately, even as the Jewish establishment and mainstream Jewish press chooses to put a positive spin on Lieberman's "barrier-breaking" presidential bid.

When analyzing the recent upsurge in antisemitism, one thing is certain: it cannot be neatly attributed to any specific actions, real or imagined, on the part of Jews. It is certainly not being driven solely by a public backlash against a handful of Jewish neoconservatives. Nor can it be closely linked to America's economic woes. Surveys have shown consistently since the 1960s that economic deprivation is not correlated to antisemitism. In commenting on its 1992 survey, the ADL asserted: "Contrary to popular belief, neither financial well-being, nor job security, nor income level appear to be determining factors for anti-Semitism."

The rising antisemitism we have seen in recent years is the result of Jews being perceived as having a major stake in highly visible social and political events, which in turn helps stimulate widely held and culturally embedded antisemitic beliefs. This is why a variety of political groups have been so successful recently in stoking the fires of antisemitism, and why we must continue to expose and combat their propaganda. Because antisemitism is fluid, it can also be driven downward, either by future events that lower the visibility of Israel and American Jews or through concerted action by Jewish groups and their allies.

This is not a time for the Jewish community to pull back from the struggle against racial and religious prejudice. Just the opposite: we need to intensify our efforts to rebuild relationships with like-minded groups, as well as strengthening ties with groups that may be critical of Israeli policies but otherwise share our values and concerns. Because the Jewish community has felt increasingly under siege since the breakdown of the Oslo peace process and 9/11, many leaders have circled the wagons and increasingly focused inward. As a result, fewer resources are being devoted to community relations and coalition building. "This agenda has not been pursued vigorously by most of the organized Jewish community for some time," says Gary Tobin. "There must be increased coalition building of all kinds between Jews and the significant proportions of Americans who do not hold antisemitic beliefs."

The most critical issue influencing attitudes toward Jews today is the Arab-Israel conflict. A great deal now hinges on the success or failure of international peace efforts. Says Yankelovich: "If it is apparent that American pressure can be even-handed, keeping faith with the notion of Israeli security and a two-state solution, while urging the Israelis to abandon the settlements and be less brutal in their crackdown on the Palestinians, then that will have the positive effect of lowering antisemitism. However, if Jews are seen as being an obstacle to settling that issue, then we could easily see a reverse effect."

At this historical juncture, a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israel conflict may be one of the best antidotes to the latest outbreak of antisemitism in America.

Daniel Levitas is the author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2002). For nearly twenty years, he has researched and written about hate group activity and testified as an expert witness in American and Canadian courts.


First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a UAHC Congregation

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