There’s a crazy disconnect happening right now in the Jewish world. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be in a state of fear, if not outright panic, because our leaders and the media keep telling us that anti-Semitic hell is upon us. On the other hand, the great majority of Jews feel safe and strong in America.
Which one is it? Are things good or bad for the Jews?
There are an estimated 6 million Jews in the United States. In the first six months of 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League, about 780 anti-Semitic incidents were reported, a slight decrease from the 785 reported during the same period in 2018.
Even one incident is too many, but is 780 incidents in a country of 330 million cause for panic?
In the recent American Jewish Committee survey that has caused so much alarm, only 5 percent of respondents avoided “visiting Jewish institutions or participating in Jewish events because [they] would not feel safe there.”
Should we be shocked if, in the same survey, 88 percent of respondents believe that anti-Semitism is “a problem”? Not if you consider that we’re all being bombarded daily with that message. We’re pretty much repeating what we hear.
Of course, anti-Semitism is a problem. It always was and always will be. That’s not the point. The point is: What is the most effective way to deal with it?
Here is what I think is the wrong way: Looking weak. Looking afraid. Looking like victims.
In other words, we must fight Jew-hatred without giving the haters the power to frighten us.
Imagine being a Jew-hater who has spray-painted a swastika late one night on a synagogue wall. The next morning, you discover that your “creation” is now all over the airwaves and social media. You’ve triggered a media storm! Jewish leaders are freaking out! You’ve got the bastards running scared! That’s power.
Let me make a professional confession—in the Jewish world, anti-Semitism is like money in the bank. Whether we like to admit it or not, when we make a big deal of Jew-hatred, it boosts readership and fundraising. That’s because fear sells, and the haters know it. They expect us to advertise our fear, and every time we do, they win.
But there’s a silver lining we rarely hear about. A key reason people hate Jews is because we’re seen as being successful. Said another way, the silver lining to anti-Semitism is that it is a measure of Jewish success, a sign of our strength, especially here in America.
In a 2018 essay in The New York Times, social psychologist Amy Cuddy explained this phenomenon.
“In our research,” she wrote, “a widespread stereotype of Jewish people … falls in the competent-but-cold quadrant. Groups in this quadrant elicit respect but also resentment for their success. We call this ‘envious prejudice.’”
I know it’s not polite to talk about “Jewish success.” As Jews, we’ve learned through our long history of persecution that it’s much safer to just keep quiet about things like “Jewish success” or, even more so, “Jewish power.”
As a result, we embrace any opportunity to tell the world: “See, things are not that good for us! We’re not that powerful!” Maybe we figure that if we’re quiet about our success and loud about our victimhood, we’ll gain some sympathy to balance the envy.
Well, maybe. But let’s not kid ourselves: We pay a price when our body language is more about fear than about strength.
For one thing, freaking out after each anti-Semitic incident only encourages the Jew-haters to do more of it, so they can feast on our fear.
But on a deeper level, when so much of the Jewish conversation revolves around fighting Jew-haters, we must ask: Is that the Jewish identity we want to pass on to the next generation? Do we want them to “light up” only when Jew-hatred shows its face?
Yes, Jews should light up, because they’re blessed with an ancient tradition that nourishes the soul and enriches life; because they’re part of one of the greatest stories ever told; because they’re committed to repairing the world. Jews, in other words, should be inspired by what we are for, not what we are against.
By all means, let’s defend ourselves. Let’s work closely with law enforcement, let’s call out hateful rhetoric, let’s use the courts to punish offenders.
But let’s not show fear. In the end, the smartest way to fight the haters is to show them that their hatred is a useless act that will neither frighten us nor make them famous.
Replacing alarmism with the language of strength and pride may not boost ratings or fundraising, but it’s good for the Jews and terrible for the haters.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.