What It Means to be No. 1

For many Jews who are concerned about rising anti-Semitism in Europe and attacks on Israel by Hamas rockets, a recently released survey from the Pew Research and Public Life Project may be confusing. Add the fact that the survey’s conclusions appear to conflict with our own perceptions about how others view Jews, and you understand the mixed reactions that have been expressed to the finding that Jews are America’s favorite religious group.

The new Pew survey is titled: “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups.” And in it, Jews came out on top.

Asked to rate groups on a “warmth feeling” scale of zero to 100, with 50 being where cool feelings turn to warm, survey takers gave Jews a mean rating of 63, just ahead of Catholics (62) and Evangelicals (61). Even when you subtract the high scores that Jews give themselves, the rating is virtually the same.

The report is particularly interesting, however, since it adds a dimension to the much-discussed 2013 Pew Report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which focuses in part on how Jews view themselves. That 2013 report found that 94 percent of U.S. Jews (including 97 percent of what Pew called “Jews by religion” and 83 percent of “Jews of no religion”) are proud to be Jewish, suggesting that even those without strong religious and community ties are comfortable with their Jewish selves in America. And now it appears that we are not just comfortable with ourselves, but that others are very comfortable with us, as well.

Many 2014 respondents (54 percent) also reported that they do not think there is a lot of discrimination against U.S. Jews. According to those respondents, there are large numbers of other minorities — particularly gays, lesbians, Muslims and African-Americans — who face more discrimination than Jews.

So what are we to make of these good feelings? Frankly, we’re not sure.

The new report raises a lot of questions. For example, what does it really mean to be America’s most popular religious group? Is popularity a fad, and are Jews just the flavor of the month? Or has America truly gotten comfortable with Jews? And how that does all this warmth fit with the Jewish self-conception of being an oppressed and harried people?

More important, what brought about the change? Fifty years ago, Jews were much less visible and vocal in American society, yet anti-Semitism was prevalent and institutionalized. How did things change so dramatically in so short a time? One theory, expressed by an online commentator, is that although Jews were not accepted, they have been able to blend into society much easier than other minorities.

We are not so sure. But whatever the reason for the somewhat surprising survey results, it is fair to say that being the most favored religion is something new for the Chosen People.

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