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To see the good, we need to know one another

There is a profound irony in the fact that we are closing ourselves off to others at exactly the same time as anxieties about antisemitism are rising, writes Jonathan Boyd

    (L_Shtandel/iStock / Getty Images Plus)

    Avraham Infeld, the renowned Israeli Jewish educator, has a big heart. Both in his teaching and his very being, he regularly expresses his love for the Jewish people. As he said to a packed audience at Limmud conference a few years ago: “Most of you people I don’t know. But I love you.” And then he quipped, in his inimitable, playful style: “maybe I love you precisely because I don’t know you.”

    You can watch his full talk online on the JDOV website — the Jewish equivalent of TED. But I was reminded of his words following the publication of the recent JPR/CST report on antisemitism in Great Britain. In the days after the launch, several people asked me the same question. “Does it make any difference if people know Jews or not?” Or, expressed slightly differently, “are people more or less antisemitic if they know Jews personally?”

    We gathered data on the question in our study but didn’t report on it. When we write these types of reports, at some point we have to determine what to include and exclude. And that issue didn’t quite make the cut. But we do know the answer.

    If you’re anything like me, you know what you want the answer to be. You want to know that people are less likely to be antisemitic if they know us. Because, deep down, you know that, fundamentally, we’re all reasonably decent people. Most of us anyway. So you’d like to think that to know us is to love us. Or, at the very least, not to hate us.

    But you have a niggling doubt nonetheless. What if people become more antisemitic after encountering us?

    What if, upon meeting us, they begin to develop an element of antipathy towards us that only grows with greater familiarity? What if it turns out that they hate us precisely because they know us?

    For those tortured by the question, you can relax. Of those who don’t have any Jews among their friends, family, colleagues or neighbours, about 10 per cent have an unfavourable view of Jews. Of those who do have Jews in one or more of those circles, that proportion drops to five per cent. So we pass the test. If you know us, there’s a good chance you’ll like us. We are lovable after all.

    The same, interestingly, is also true for people’s opinions about Israel. If they know Jews, they are more likely to have a favourable view of Israel than if they don’t know Jews. The proportions aren’t great — of those who know Jews, just 25 per cent have a favourable view (although many have no view at all). But for those who don’t know Jews, the figures are worse: only 14 per cent have a favourable view.

    But here’s the thing. The same applies to all groups. The more people know Muslims, or Hindus, or Christians, the less likely they are to view them unfavourably. The figures are slightly different in each case, but the trend is the same regardless. The more we know one another, the more likely we are to see the good in one another.

    All of which raises a very important question. If levels of antisemitism are somewhat dependent upon the extent to which we are known by others, what are we doing to ensure that as many of those others know us as possible? And, equally, if levels of antipathy towards other groups are in some way dependent upon the extent to which they are known by others, what are we doing to get to know people outside of the Jewish community?

    Two-thirds of us send our children to Jewish schools. The parts of the Jewish community that are growing at the fastest rates are those that are most Orthodox, which often (not always) equate to those who are most inward-looking. There is a profound irony in the fact that we are closing ourselves off to others at exactly the same time as anxieties about antisemitism are rising.

    So, perhaps, as we cling onto the Yom Kippur spirit and celebrate Z'man simchateinu — the season of our joy — we need to think about how to share some of that joy and cultivate our relationships with others. Not simply to help combat antisemitism, but to create a more harmonious society for all.

    Dr Jonathan Boyd is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

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