Friday, May 3, 2013

The Paranoia Gap

A few weeks ago I started teaching our 10th grade Confirmation Class. It’s a real privilege and a lot of fun. One of the things that strikes me about our teens is how utterly comfortable they are with their Jewishness and at the same time, how multicultural and multiethnic their groups of friends are. There is none of the discomfort that previous generations had, none of the wondering about how accepted they really are in the United States.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege to spend a day studying in a small group of rabbis with Prof. Barry Kosmin, the leading demographer of American Jewry. He introduced me to a term I had never heard before -- “the paranoia gap” -- which refers to his sense (there are no data on this) that the older a Jew is, the more likely he or she is to feel that antisemitism is widespread in American society.

There is good reason for this. The perceptions we have growing up tend to stick with us over time. There was a time when in many towns and cities, certain neighborhoods were closed to Jews. The best colleges and universities had Jewish quotas. Jewish lawyers started their own firms because the most prestigious firms would not hire Jews. Jewish hospitals were started, not as many believe in order to treat Jewish patients, but rather because Jewish doctors could not get residencies in other hospitals.

In purely religious matters, virtually every Christian denomination taught that Jews could not achieve salvation, since only through Jesus was salvation attainable. New Testament Bible readings and Christian prayer were common in the public schools, since “majority rules” and the majority of Americans were Protestant Christians. Incidentally, Jews were not the only ones affected by the dominance of Protestantism in public life; the Catholic parochial school system was a direct result of the public schools seeking to indoctrinate their students in Protestant Christianity.

Today all of this has changed. There is virtually no field or profession which is closed to Jews. Protestants are no longer the majority in America though they are still the plurality -- that is to say, there are more Protestants than any other religious group in America but they are now slightly less than half the population. There are NO Protestants on the Supreme Court, which today consists of six Catholics and three Jews.

Prof. Kosmin shared with us an interesting poll which was conducted for Time magazine in 2010 regarding how Americans view members of different religious groups. According to this poll, Jews are the group viewed most favorably by other Americans, though just barely. Seventy five percent of Americans have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of Jews; the Protestants follow at 74 percent and the Catholics at 73 percent. The Mormons and the Muslims are not viewed as favorably; 57 percent have a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of Mormons and 43 percent a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of Muslims.

And yet, I regularly receive forwarded e-mails warning me of the rising tide of antisemitism, often, frankly, based on false or misleading information. (As an aside, check the Internet hoax site before forwarding a questionable e-mail.) Orthodox Rabbi Alan Brill, who teaches theology at Seton Hall, a Catholic university, recently wrote that “the ADL (Antidefamation League) fleeced American Jewry out of $54 million last year by arguing for the virulant Antisemitism everywhere.” (, accessed April 17, 2012). While “fleeced” may be too strong a word, I share Rabbi Brill’s feeling that antisemitism is not our main problem in America. Most of the money spent combating it would be better spent on Jewish education, Hebrew literacy, camps and day schools.

There is a Talmud text, Shabbat 63a, which deals with the question of what the world will be like after the Messiah comes. While there is certainly the more well-known opinion that the Messianic era will be filled with all sorts of supernatural phenomena, the Talmud also preserves the opinion of Shmuel that the only difference between the Messianic era and the present day is “servitude to the nations.” In other words, in Messianic times everything will be as it always was except that the Jews will be free to determine their own destiny.

Is this not the case now? To the extent we continue to believe that antisemitism is our main problem, we divert time and money from doing what is really necessary to insure the Jewish future -- building an educated, confident, and Jewishly-committed community. Our failure to do this, and not antisemitism, is what endangers our future.

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