Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Grim Numbers


There are many things to be depressed about today.  Number one should probably be the fact that for the first time in millions of years, the average daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million.   And number two – a solid second – is the extent to which we now live in polarized societies characterized by widespread disrespect and fear.   Here in America, that is reflected in the trials and tribulations of Capitol Hill, where our lawmakers have trouble agreeing on just about anything (save, perhaps, for their love of the Washington Nationals).  But such polarization is hardly limited to America.  It is a worldwide epidemic.  And never did the extent of that problem become as apparent to me as when I read a report from the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project.  

If you want to see the horrific facts for yourself, go to  As the saying goes, “read it and weep.”  Yes, the survey is nearly two years old, but I suspect that if anything, the numbers are only getting worse over time, not better.  If you want a highlight – or should I say a “lowlight” – look at the table where Pew asked people from different countries whether they had a favorable view of Muslims, Christians and Jews.   The percentages of folks in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Pakistan and Indonesia who had a favorable view of Muslims ranged from a low of 72% in Turkey to more than 90% in all those other countries.  For Christians, it dips to lows of 6% in Turkey and 16% in Pakistan, but increases to 96% in Lebanon.  And for Jews?   The percentages in the above countries who feel favorable about my tribe are 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 2 and 9, respectively.  Thank God for those loving Indonesians – because if not for them, one might think that more than 24 out of 25 of the world’s Muslims don’t like Jews.  

Ah, but we Jews have our own prejudices, apparently.  In Israel, the percentage who felt favorably toward Jews was 88 and the percentage who felt favorably toward Muslims was a mere 19.  Yes, that’s nearly 10 times as high as the proportion of people who liked Jews in Jordan, Egypt or Pakistan – but it’s not exactly what was meant by “loving thy neighbor as thyself,” if you get my drift.

As I think about this survey, I can at least offer some good news – of the fourteen countries surveyed, the United States was one of only four where most of the respondents had a favorable view of Jews, Christians AND Muslims.  The number for Muslims was only 57% -- compared to more than 80% for Jews and Christians – but still, that suggests that Americans tend not to dislike people because of their religion.  As I have mentioned before, much of that credit goes to President George W. Bush, who for all his mistakes as a President (and there was no small number), made the fateful and beautiful decision after 9/11 to reassure the nation that the problem was NOT Islam but rather a certain extremist perversion of that religion.   Most Americans, apparently, bought that message.

In reflecting on the above numbers, I must say that I am really upset with the 2’s, 3, and 4’s that the Pew Survey reported from the Arab world.  As a Jew who coordinates the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I am incredibly disappointed with my Arab cousins in learning about those numbers.  Clearly, this survey suggests that Arabs don’t merely disagree with Zionism or the conduct of the Israeli Government, but are flat out anti-Jewish.  You hardly have to be a historian to be scared when such figures are reported.

But as an American, I feel that my own country has some work to do when it comes to the issue of Islamophobia.  A 43% non-favorability rating is not acceptable.  That’s three out of seven Americans, which is three too many.   How do we get the number down?   Perhaps we begin by considering the constant references in the media to words like “Jihadis” and “Islamists.”   Jihad is a beloved word in Islam and it does NOT generally refer to a violent struggle, but rather to an internal, spiritual, and peaceful struggle to be the best people we can be.  Unfortunately, most Americans don’t know that.  Similarly, “Islamists” sounds so much like “followers of Islam” that you can understand why so many Americans associate the religion generally with violent extremism.

Clearly, we need to come up with better words for the sickening philosophy adopted by Osama and his ilk.  “Extremist Islam” or “A Perverted, Extremist form of Islam” don’t exactly roll off the tongue, so I appreciate why members of the media want to use shorthand in reference to that philosophy.  But we need a different type of shorthand – we can’t continue to use words that associate a holy belief system with a perverted, violent philosophy and not expect to produce a whole lot of bigots.

Ultimately, that’s surely the problem in the Arab world when it comes to their attitudes about Jews.  They associate Jews with the state of Israel, which is spoken of much in the same way that we Americans speak of North Korea – as blight on the world.  Personally, I like to refer to myself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine.”  Yet to most Arabs and Jews, that expression is almost nonsensical.  It would be like saying “Pro Indian, Pro Custer.”   You can’t be “pro” both sets of enemies.  And the reality is, in the Middle East, Arabs and Jews see themselves as enemies, not cousins.  That is precisely what we in the peace movement need to change.

It is sad whenever you see people define themselves based on who they hate, rather than what they agree with.   All you have to do is turn on American talk radio and you can see that this problem isn’t limited to the Middle East.  In essence, our society is reaching our own milestone of toxicity – our own analogue of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide.  Let’s just say our society is no less sick than our planet.  So, if you’re into nurturing, rest assured – there’s plenty of work to do everywhere you look.

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