American Jews say they face discrimination in the U.S., but they see Muslims, gays, and blacks facing far more.
This and other findings from the recently released Pew Research Center’s landmark study on Jewish Americans help make the case that Jews — once unwelcome in many a neighborhood, universitym, and golf club — now find themselves an accepted minority.
“While there are still issues, American Jews live in a country where they feel they are full citizens,” said Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism.
“You have (Jewish) Ivy League presidents in schools that used to have Jewish quotas,” he said.
Most American Jews are descendants of the great migration of Jews to the U.S. from 1880 to 1920. Today, they make up little more than 2 percent of the population, but their influence is outsized. Jews make up 10 percent of the U.S. Senate, and they lead major cities, corporations, philanthropies, and arts organizations.
Anti-Semitism has most certainly waned in the U.S.
The ADL’s 1964 benchmark survey, conducted by University of California researchers, showed that 29 percent of Americans held hard-core anti-Semitic views. The ADL’s latest poll, in 2011, found that 15 percent did.
But interpreted differently, the Pew numbers can also paint a portrait of a Jewish community that sees anti-Semitism as a persistent problem.
The more than four in ten (43 percent) Jewish Americans who see Jews facing “a lot” of discrimination in the U.S. is still a “pretty substantial” proportion, said Alan Cooperman, co-author of the Pew study, “A Portrait of American Jews.”
Seventy-two percent of American Jews surveyed believe that Muslims face “a lot” of discrimination in the U.S., and the same percentage said gays and lesbians face such levels of bigotry. Slightly fewer — 64 percent — said blacks face such prejudice.
“One way of looking at these numbers is to say that Jews perceive a lot of discrimination against a whole bunch of groups in American life,” Cooperman said.
Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the largest movement of Judaism in North America, called Jews’ perceptions of prejudice against others “inspiring.”
“Because of our somewhat painful history of persecution, we have a deep sensitivity to the suffering of others,” he said.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the Pew numbers reflect the reality of “an increasing Islamophobia in American society today.”
Islam is the least favorably viewed of four U.S. religions in a 2010 Gallup poll, with nearly a third (31 percent) of Americans saying their feelings about Islam were “not favorable at all.”
The Pew pollsters posed one other very direct question about anti-Semitism: “In the past year, have you either been called an offensive name or been snubbed in a social setting because you are Jewish?”
To one or the other question, 15 percent of Jews said they had.
The number was higher for Orthodox Jews, 21 percent, who wear kippot (skullcaps), sideburn curls and other distinctly Jewish markers.
But researchers were surprised that younger Jews were far more likely than older Jews to say they had been called an offensive name: 22 percent of those 30 and under said they had an epithet hurled at them within the past year, compared to 5 percent of those 50 and older.
Cooperman speculated it could be that young people are likely to “bounce up against more strangers” or that they live in what some people consider a “coarser” society.
Kayla Sokoloff, a junior at the University of Texas, where she is involved in Jewish life, said she hasn’t experienced any anti-Semitism in the past year and isn’t sure how to explain the statistic either.
As the “token” Jew in her high school, she said, her Jewishness more astonished classmates than inspired them to taunt her. But she was often called “Jewks” — “Jew” plus her initials — and a boy once came up to her to tell her that his stepbrother uses “Jew” as a curse word.
The darkest expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment show up in the 2011 FBI statistics, which counts 771 hate crimes against Jews, more than any other religious group.
That year, the agency counted 2,076 hate crimes against blacks, 1,293 against gays and 157 against Muslims. But the statistics do not capture unreported crimes and noncriminal acts of bias or hate speech.
The general comfort Jews seem to feel in the U.S. is not shared by their counterparts in Europe.
A 2012 ADL study showed majorities or large minorities in most European countries endorsing statements considered indicators of prejudice, for example: “Jews have too much power in the business world” and “Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.”
“Overall the situation of European Jews is not dire,” said Jacobson. “But it is of concern.”
Lauren Markoe covered government and features as a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years before joining the Religion News Service staff as a national correspondent in 2011. She previously was Washington correspondent for The State (Columbia, S.C.).