Maybe it's Seinfeld, or the ubiquitous appeal of bagels. It could be all the Jews in Hollywood, or the YouTube a capella sensations known as the Maccabeats, who flip their latkes with undeniable verve. Whatever the cause, at some point during the last 100 years, America developed a little crush on the chosen people: Jews are officially cool.
Or at least, that's how I read the latest poll from Pew on American attitudes toward other faiths. The researchers asked a panel of more than 3,200 nationally representative adults to take a "feeling thermometer" about religious groups in America, rating their level of "warmth" or "coolness" toward Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, evangelicals, atheists, and more. Here, the researchers used "cool" to mean "chilly"—the opposite of "cool" as in "you're awesome." Despite making up only two percent of the country's population, despite having only 100 representatives in this 3,000-person poll, Jews were at the top. For Jews like me, this feels like the statistically impossible triumph of Hanukkah, only better.
As the researchers pointed out, respondents were much more likely to report feeling "warmly" toward the religious group they were part of; Catholics were all about other Catholics, evangelicals were enthusiastic about evangelicals, etc. Of all the groups in the survey, Jews felt most loyal to their own tribe; their mean "warmth" rating of other Jews was "89" out of 100, which roughly translates to "we're totally awesome guys" on Pew's ratings scale.
Religious Groups' Attitudes Towards One Another
Still, despite the home-team advantage of the Christians in the survey, who made up more than two-thirds of the sample, Jews got the highest overall ratings. A good chunk of the respondents said they don't even know any Jewish people; only 60 percent said they'd ever met a Jew. These feelings of warmth toward Jews aren't just fond personal memories of Mrs. Rosenberg from down the street, who makes an excellent kugel; they're a sign of a broad acceptance and appreciation of Jewish culture. Outside of New York City, Jews are generally rare in terms of numbers. Yet in spite of this, they've become seen as normal—and popular—by the population at large.
Which, it's worth noting, wasn't always the case. A century ago, when Jewish emigration from Central and Eastern Europe was at its peak, American anti-Semitism was common and fierce. In 1915, a factory superintendent named Leo Frank was lynched without a trial in Georgia after being accused of murdering a Christian girl who worked for him. There were caricatures in newspapers; poverty and isolation in New York City; and widespread suspicion of Jews who participated in popular culture. Strains of anti-Semitism stayed strong throughout the twentieth century, despite the world's horror at the Holocaust: In 1952, on the floor of the United States Capitol, Mississippi Congressman John E. Rankin declared that Jews "have been run out of practically every country in Europe in the years gone by, and if they keep stirring race trouble in this country and trying to force their communistic program on the Christian people of America, there is no telling what will happen to them here."
The world at large is full of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. Jews, it seems, are not universally accepted; their cool-kid status is unique to America. So why is it different here? Why, despite the anti-Semitism that still exists in the United States, are Americans mostly down with the Jews?
There could be a few factors at play. There's generalized cultural cachet, which is a little hard to pin down, but from doting articles about deli food in The New York Times to Adam Sandler's famous ode to Hanukkah, staples of Jewish culture have become ubiquitous and adored.
But Jewish cool is probably more complex than think pieces and schticks. It's worth noting that white evangelicals rated the faith more highly than respondents from other religions; they were more enthusiastic about Jews than anyone besides Jews themselves. This is not a coincidence; evangelicals have typically been strong supporters of Jews and Zionism, citing the group's status as God's "chosen people" in the Bible and the prophesied future of Israel as the site of Jesus's second coming.
Jews have also had time to become normalized in American culture in a way that people of other faiths have not. Groups like Buddhists and Hindus were given decidedly chillier ratings than their Jewish brethren, and Muslims ranked the lowest out of all religious groups, including the ever-despised atheists. People of these faiths are more likely to be first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants; they haven't been around as long as Jews.
Is it right that this vague connotation of "foreignness" probably influenced people's reported comfort levels? Of course not. But then again, looking too closely at this whole experiment is an invitation to feel uneasy about pluralism in America. It's unsettling that "63" out of 100 was the mean rating for the most popular group in the survey (and I'll say it again, just because it brings me pleasure: that would be the Jews). Americans from all groups, it seems, feel pretty lukewarm about anyone who isn't like them.