Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hating Us and Me

I’m thinking of moving to Laos. I don’t know anyone there. I don’t speak Lao. I have no idea what the job market for rabbis is like there, although the fact that the entire nation only has four permanent Jewish residents, one of whom actually is a rabbi, does not make me especially sanguine about finding work in my chosen field. (And even in the unlikely event that the Chabad guy actually is looking for an assistant, my chances frankly still aren’t that great.) Still, the Anti-Defamation League poll released this week indicated that Laos is the world’s least anti-Semitic country, with less than one-fifth of one percent of the population harboring negative views about Jewish people. That’s reassuring…for people like myself who are considering relocating to Vientiane. I’m sure the weather is fabulous! So my problem is solved (unless I change my mind), but the results of the poll will be distinctly less encouraging for Jewish people in the world’s other hundred-odd countries.  (To be fair, Vietnam, Sweden, the Philippines, and Holland also ranked very low in terms of the anti-Semitic views of its populace. So Laos isn’t our only option! If you are reading this electronically, you can click here to see the results of the poll in far more detail.)

The poll was a huge project designed to determine to what extent prejudicial, biased views about Jews have taken root in 102 of the world’s countries. Sponsored by the ADL, it was funded by philanthropist Leonard Stern and undertaken by a polling company called First International Resources which conducted over 53,000 interviews in 96 languages before collating the results. The results were, as noted, extremely depressing.  I have to disagree with Abe Foxman, the national director of the ADL, who declared himself sobered but not especially shocked by the results. I was shocked. I suppose I was sobered too. Clearly, you can be both. And I was.

Because of my own emotional involvement with the legacy of the Shoah, I looked to those results first. And there I found the almost unbelievable conclusion that a full 46% of the respondents hadn’t ever heard of the Holocaust and therefore had no specific point of view with respect to its historicity or any of the figures generally associated with it. To those must be added the 4% who have heard of the Shoah but who insist on insisting that the whole thing never actually happened, that no one died, that the whole thing is a nightmarish fairytale made up by Jewish people to garner the sympathy of the world. Those people, possibly (but probably unwisely) can be written off as hate-filled extremists who affect no one but each other. But what of the 28% of respondents who agree that something happened to the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, but that the number of victims has probably been greatly exaggerated? To parse the numbers differently, almost half the respondents hadn’t heard of the Shoah but well less than half of the 54% of respondents who had heard of it reported views that correspond, even more or less, to historical reality. Has the world forgotten to remember? Or, to ask the question more upsettingly, have we really done such a poor job in memorializing the victims that it is possible even this many decades after the fact never to have heard of them at all? Apparently, we have. The people who never go to Israel without visiting Yad Vashem are people who go to Israel and who visit Yad Vashem. But what about the rest of the world? While focusing so totally on enmity, have we forgotten to remember to combat apathy and ignorance no less forcefully? It’s hard to read the results of this survey and not conclude that that is precisely what we have done.

When the numbers are divided down into countries, the results are what one might expect. The countries in which the highest numbers of people are aware that the Shoah took place are the countries in which the Shoah actually did take place or those adjacent to them, and those are also the countries that generally have the lowest level of Holocaust denial. Interestingly, the highest rates of Holocaust denial are in the Arab world with the West Bank and Gaza leading the way with 82% of the citizenry believing the Shoah never occurred. That can possibly be written off as the result of direct propaganda campaigns intended to erase any vestige of sympathy for Israel’s founders. But even a nation of relatively educated, westernized citizens like Jordan has a Holocaust denial rate of 70%. And that somehow seems even more ominous to me.

Other statistics are no less grim. About 41% of respondents believe that, no matter where Jews may live, their true allegiance is “probably” to Israel and not to the countries in which they were born and of which they are citizens. (As insulting and silly as that may sound to us, the poll suggests that a majority of citizens in 51 of the 102 countries included in the statistics believe that to be true.) That would be distressing enough, but other prejudices are just as well entrenched.  About 35% of the respondents indicated that they believe that Jews hold “too much power in the business world.”  Nearly 29% of all respondents said that, in their opinion, Jews have too much control over global media. A full quarter of respondents indicated that, in their opinion, Jews have too much control specifically over the government of the United States. In some ways most shocking of all is the fact that 23% of the respondents blame the Jews for “most” wars in the world. It would be easy to wave away the idea of blaming the Civil War or the French Revolution on the Jews of nineteenth-century America or eighteenth-century France as mere silliness. But we are talking immense numbers here, numbers far too large glibly to be dismissed as nonsense: in the end, the final big figure put forward in the ADL poll is 1.09 billion people in the world (out of a global population of 7.2 billion) who harbor views that are irrational, bigoted, prejudicial, and untrue about Jewish people. Welcome to the twenty-first century!

Interesting too is that almost three-quarters of respondents reported that they personally haven’t ever met an actual Jewish person. Yet of those 74% of respondents, a full quarter somehow know enough even without any personal experience of Jewish people to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes or beliefs.  And interesting as well is the incredible degree to which the number of Jews in the world is dramatically inflated in the minds of so many: although the actual percentage of the world’s population that is Jewish is about 0.19% (which is less than one-fifth of one percent), 18% of respondents guessed that Jews make up more than 10% of the world’s population. Another 30% guessed that the correct number is somewhere between 1% and 10%. But even 1% is more than four times the correct number! Is it flattering or upsetting for our numbers to be so dramatically inflated in the minds of so many? It’s a little of both, I suppose. But it is precisely that kind of bizarre error that risks to serve as the seedbed for ideas about Jews and Judaism that at least potentially can lead to serious trouble.

I’ve already begun to read responses to the poll attacking its methodology and its conclusions. Some are irritated that only the ADL’s interpretative conclusions were released to the public, not the data itself. Others question the relatively few respondents for a poll designed to chart the opinions of all the citizens of every one of the world’s countries. And still others that I’ve read on-line are wondering how exactly the respondents were chosen, and if the kind of person eager to participate in such a poll might not more likely be someone harboring strong—and possibly strongly negative—feelings about Jews, while the individual less personally engaged or emotionally involved in the question might be concomitantly less willing to take the time to respond to all those questions.  I don’t know enough about the science of polling to be able to respond securely to any of those charges. But I have to assume that behind these very depressing statistics, even if they are not as fully accurate as the pollsters would have us believe, lies—to say the very least—a world of misinformation about Jewish people. And history has taught us more than adequately what folly it would be to laugh the whole thing off as an amusing example of statistical overkill.  How many Jews in how many places found out what malign fantasies their neighbors were harboring in their regard after it was far too late to escape? I ask that question not to answer it here, but merely to leave it for my readers to ponder thoughtfully and, I hope, productively.

In terms of our own country, it is marginally comforting to know that the number of American citizens who personally subscribed to at least six of the eleven most popular canards about Jews has dropped from 29% to just 9% in the fifty years since the ADL started conducting surveys regarding Americans’ attitudes toward their Jewish co-citizens in 1964.  That does sound comforting…but 9% of the American population is still well over 28 million people and saying it that way sounds distinctly less soothing to my ears. And it seems somewhere between irrelevant and perverse to find solace in the fact that even more people harbor negative stereotypes about Muslims than about Jews. I suppose that may be true. (The ADL says it is.) But taking comfort in that fact would merely be to avert our eyes from the actual problem we ourselves are facing.

Among the books I read last year was David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, published in 2013 by W.W. Norton. I was very impressed! Nirenberg, a professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, argues forcefully that anti-Semitism is a function of what he calls anti-Judaism, the belief that Judaism itself is inimical to western civilization…and not solely in its right-wing Christian, supersessionist guise. It was a shocking experience, reading that book…and, at least in terms of books about Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism, I don’t shock especially easily. To respond constructively and thoughtfully to the ADL poll means acquiring the ability, both intellectually and emotionally, to set the statistics in their larger context and Professor Nirenberg’s book would be an excellent place to start. For readers not quite ready to begin with non-fiction, I would like to suggest one of the first books on the topic I ever read and still consider one of the foundation stones on which my life as a reader rests: André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, a novel that even sixty-five years after it was first published—the book was written in French and published in 1959, then followed in 1960 by an English-language edition in Stephen Becker’s translation—retains its ability to affect the way I think about things in general, but specifically about the history and nature of anti-Semitism. Given that you can purchase the book on-line for one single penny, it should be something my readers rush to acquire and then to digest. But my best suggestion is that people read Schwarz-Bart and Nirenberg, then open the ADL website and read the statistics in light of those twin experiences.  The results will be both comforting and upsetting. But isn’t the hallmark of all true intellectual growth precisely that it unsettles and challenges at the same time it grants context to data that would otherwise be mere information?

The work facing us, clearly, is immense. Some of what you’ll read on the ADL site will make your hair stand on end. But facing the reality of things is precisely what countless generations of Jews forgot forcefully and intelligently to do, only subsequently to pay the price for having imagined that it hardly mattered what others thought. Trust me, it matters. And our job is not to wallow in self-pity or in regret, but to consider thoughtfully as a community how best to respond to numbers that, taken as a whole, suggest the degree to which we have utterly failed the prophet’s injunction to serve as a light unto the nations. For me personally, that is where I want to start…with responsibility born of humility, with candor, with sound information, and with resolve to respond usefully and meaningfully to what would otherwise only be bad news and not a goad to productive action.

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