Rabbi: American Jews Should Not Worry About Anti-Semitism

A new survey from the Anti-Defamation League estimates that nearly one in 10 Americans are prejudiced against Jews. But Rabbi Eric Yoffie says American anti-Semitism is not a real threat.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of religion and faith and spirituality. Today, we want to talk about anti-Semitism - prejudice or hatred towards Jewish people. The Anti-Defamation League recently surveyed people in 100 countries and estimated that more than a quarter of those people harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. That number is lower in the United States, but the group still found that 9 percent - nearly 1 in 10 Americans - have those views.

Now, many American Jews and others were alarmed by that number, but Rabbi Eric Yoffie says that that's the wrong message to take away from the survey. Rabbi Yoffie is President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, and he recently wrote about his views for Time magazine online. And he is with us now to tell us more. Welcome, Rabbi Yoffie, thanks so much for joining us.

ERIC YOFFIE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: And for those who are interested or concerned, I just do want to point out that we are having our conversation in advance of the Sabbath today. So having said all that, you wrote, quote, "Anti-Semitism is not a threat to the security and well-being of the Jews of America." Why do you say that, especially when the survey, if accurate, suggests that 1 in 10 Americans still holds anti-Semitic views?

YOFFIE: Well, in the first place, the survey measures attitudes rather than behaviors. And attitudes are very, very difficult to measure. And also they use some methodologies which, in fact, are very questionable. There's been a lot of comment and criticism about those methodologies.

And what's important, really, for American Jews is the security question - meaning, can they go about their lives as individuals and as a community without running into ongoing discrimination and disruption? And what I was contending is, yes, they can. That's the American reality.

MARTIN: Why do you think it's important to point that out, to lift up that particular perspective?

YOFFIE: Well, there is a lot to worry about in the world. I think the survey was helpful in that regard. Anti-Semitism is getting worse in Europe. It's a problem in the Muslim world - in the Arab world, in particular. And so there are real reasons of concern. But we really need to make distinctions. And I think American Jews were so distressed by what they read, my fear was that they really weren't understanding that America is different, and I wanted to bring that point home.

MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip from Abe Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, and he - these were some comments that he made in announcing the results of the survey. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABE FOXMAN: We also find that bigots don't believe that they are bigots. That means you ask people, are you favorable? And people say, yeah, you know, some of my best friends are Jews. However, then you ask them about some of the stereotypes, and they believe them. And it's important.

MARTIN: So, you know, to that end - to the question of belief and support those stereotypes, I mean, I think the argument is that if you have certain beliefs, at some point, you might act on them. You don't buy that?

YOFFIE: Well, sometimes you might. Look, we have some very specific ways to measure anti-Semitism over the course of modern Jewish history, in particular. We asked the question, can Jews live in the neighborhoods they want to live in? Can they work anywhere, or is there discrimination when they tried to enter certain industries? Are they able to go to any university that they want to go to? Those are the questions that we normally ask. All of those questions were a problem 50 or 60 years ago. None of them is a problem today. So - and I think there would be very few in the Jewish community who would dispute that fundamental fact.

MARTIN: Why do you think that some American Jews obsess about this question or are overly concerned, you know, about this question? You address this in the piece. Do you have it in front of you? Do you want to read the line?

YOFFIE: Yeah, well, look, we have a long history - we have 3 millennia - during which Jews have often been victims and the objects of discrimination. Of course, the Holocaust was only 70 years ago. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust. That shapes our thinking.

And, as I said before, the situation in Europe is deeply disturbing. That's very real. It's getting worse. You have anti-Semitic parties that are functioning in Greece and Hungary. And then, of course, you have the Jews' ongoing concern with the welfare of Israel. Israel is a country at war with our neighbors, and many of our neighbors want to exterminate her from the face of the earth.

Those are all deeply disturbing things. So of course Jews are going to be concerned. But nonetheless, as I said, America is different. Our experience here is not what the experience is elsewhere. I think we need to understand and appreciate that.

And then the other - look, the other motivation that I have as a rabbi is a tremendous issue now for the Jewish community - is how do we access the Jewish religious civilization from which we emerged? And that really has sustained us for millennia - Jewish education, Jewish continuity. Sometimes we are distracted by an excessive concern about discrimination and anti-Semitism with the result being that we don't focus on internal education and religious revival issues that are essential for our survival.

MARTIN: Constantly on a war footing, perhaps...

YOFFIE: Right.

MARTIN: ...Not taking care of the matters here at home.

YOFFIE: Right. That can be a danger here in America, and I wanted to point that out.

MARTIN: You pointed out that you're concerned about the methodology of the survey, though. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that? I mean, is it because of the kinds of questions or statements that were deemed to be inherently anti-Semitic, or were there other things that concern you?

YOFFIE: Well, the survey put out 11 statements about Jews - 11 prejudices - and then you are asked whether or not they were true. And if you said six were probably true - 6 out of the 11 - then you were then categorized as anti-Semitic or infected with anti-Semitism. But it's a problematic methodology from many perspectives.

The index that they use was created 50 years ago - slightly revised - but whether it currently applies now at all, has no way of taking into account ambiguity. It can't measure intensity. In other words, if someone has strong prejudices against Jews in two or three areas and just mild feelings in other areas, they won't be considered anti-Semitic.

And some of the questions, I think, were simply asked wrong. In other words, if you say, the Jews have too much power - Americans don't like power - you know, 20 to 25 percent may say, yes. But if you asked the question the way it should be asked, which is, which of the following groups has too much power? And then you list a whole range of groups - banks, labor unions, blacks, the Catholic Church, WASPs - under those circumstances, the number of people who say, the Jews have too much power, will be cut in half.

So, look, the ADL is a wonderful organization. They do great educational work here. That's very, very important to remember. But this particular survey, I think, was really done in the wrong way.

MARTIN: But, you know, the Anti-Defamation League also releases an annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents, and it tracked 751 incidents across the U.S. during the 2013 calendar year. I think the one that may stand out for some people is that last April three people were killed in a shooting outside Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas. So that is behavior. How would you...

YOFFIE: That is behavior.

MARTIN: Yeah.

YOFFIE: That's absolutely behavior. One anti-Semitic act is too many. We ought to be clear on that. Nonetheless, we have to recognize - first of all, there is always going to be anti-Semitism. It never disappears from the human heart. I mean, we need to understand and appreciate that. But most of the incidents that we talk about are acts of individuals on the fringe - desecrating cemeteries and those kinds of things. And while they're disturbing and must be watched, they don't make anti-Semitism a major problem in America. They don't make America an anti-Semitic country.

MARTIN: If you could be the, you know, Rabbi of the country and just - and help shape people's thinking about this, what would you wish people to be thinking about, you know, going forward?

YOFFIE: Discrimination and prejudice are a problem. They're a problem for Jews and for many other groups. We have to work on intergroup conflict. We need ongoing education. On the other hand, we don't want, in any way, to exaggerate what is there. We need to recognize the wonderful nature of this extraordinary country in which we live. And that needs to be the context in which we fight the prejudices that exist.

MARTIN: Rabbi Eric Yoffie is President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. His piece for Time magazine online is titled "Anti-Semitism: Not A Threat To American Jews." And we reached him in Boston. Rabbi, thanks so much for speaking with us.

YOFFIE: Good to be with you.

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