Nothing endures like change.
The Anti-Defamation League announced this summer that the painting of a swastika — a symbol of anti-Jewish expression if there ever was one — would no longer automatically be considered an act of anti-Semitism.
What? The swastika? Not anti-Semitism?! In fact, many analysts of anti-Semitism have been making this point for years.
The “swastika” question is in fact a microcosm of the larger issue of whether vandalism is a means to measure anti-Semitism, and is ultimately a piece of the question of evaluating anti-Jewish bias.
The ADL Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents has for some 30 years been a most visible vehicle for counting incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism. But social scientists and Jewish communal pros have long questioned the validity and value of the audit. First, it has always been difficult to evaluate what is being reported, and what isn’t. Second, the thousand-plus incidents reported annually (the ADL reported 1,211 incidents in 2009) need to be taken in the context of an American population in excess of 300 million. How serious ought we to consider the audit number to be, especially when any number of the incidents reported might not in fact represent anti-Semitism? The ADL, exercising good judgment, has acknowledged that the presence of a swastika in a given context may not be enough to yell “Anti-Semitism!”
Further, as the ADL itself has always maintained, the audit is but one of many indicators of anti-Semitism. If this is the case, then there needs to be a “hierarchy” of anti-Semitism. While there is no question that a person who has been the victim of an incident of anti-Semitism is a person who has been abused, it is absurd to equate such incidents with the more serious forms of anti-Semitism, such as large-scale discrimination and political anti-Semitism — the kinds of anti-Semitism that make a difference in the lives of Jews, and that compromise the ability of Jews to participate in the society. These forms of anti-Semitism have all but disappeared.
This last verity tells us that the ADL audit, and other measurements of anti-Semitism that have gotten a lot of ink over the years, ignore a basic reality of American Jewish life: Very little, if any, of what is characterized as “anti-Semitism” in the United States today — remember, we are not talking about the USA in 1940, or about Europe today — has anything to do with the security of Jews in this country.
The distinction between anti-Semitism, which continues to exist, and Jewish security, which is strong, is a crucial one when talking about Jews in America over the past 25 years and more. For me, Jewish security is the ability of Jews, individually and collectively, to participate in the workings of the society on a day-to-day basis, without fear of anti-Semitic animus. It is very difficult in 2010 to find Jews in the United States who cannot participate fully in the society, whatever the numbers offered by the annual ADL audit.
We are not the Jews of Europe in the early decades of the 20th century, who appeared to enjoy this measure of security, but who in fact were very vulnerable, and who indeed were ultimately destroyed. The difference is that in the Europe of earlier decades, anti-Semitism was deeply embedded in the institutions of power. Whatever anti-Semitism there has been in the United States — and there has been plenty — anti-Jewish animus was rarely salient in the central political institutions of American life.
And this is today’s reality. For the first time in history, the conversation about the security of Jews, at least in America, is not the conversation about anti-Semitism.
There is a larger question, that of the dynamics that inform the criteria by which anti-Semitism is measured, and, by extension, the counteraction against anti-Semitism. It is a basic principle of social psychology that with rare exceptions, attitudes — including anti-Semitic attitudes — don’t change. So what explains the long-term downward trend of anti-Semitism in this country? What does change when anti-Semitism declines? Does the individual bigot all of a sudden become a philo-Semite? Absurd, of course. The lessening of prejudice (including anti-Semitism) is a result of generational changes in social, economic and educational status, rather than in the “conversion” of individual bigots.
It’s not the individual who changes, but rather society. When you improve the social and economic conditions of society, bigotry — including anti-Semitism — goes down. This “negative correlation” is true in all groups in the society.
This principle underlies a simple reality that provided the underpinnings for the great anti-bias struggle of the 20th century, namely the civil rights movement. The strategies that were developed by the movement were premised not on the idea of changing attitudes of the individual bigot. Rather, the strategy was that of changing the core institutions of the society — education, employment, housing, the political arena — and thereby achieving maximum impact, by making use of legislative and judicial vehicles. The great legislative victories of the 1960s — the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act — and the judicial triumphs beginning with Brown v. Board of Education, were based on the understanding that individual attitudes were not going to change; better to focus on what truly will make a difference and not waste time on the psychology of the individual bigot. “Shrink-time” was not going to change society.
Heraclitus was on to something — as is the ADL in its belated, but spot-on, recognition that some of the acts that appear to be directed at Jews may not be what they seem. n
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Anti-Semitism through the Ages” and editor of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism.”