Many of my conservative readers and colleagues are a bit dismayed on why the Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat.  There are many possible explanations, enough to motivate a book by Jewish conservative Norman Podhoretz to title his latest book, “Why Are Jews Liberal?”

The recent firestorm created by two South Carolina Republican chairmen should give you some insight.  Edwin Merwin and James Ulmer wrote a letter to their local newspaper defending Senator Jim DeMint in response to criticism of the senator for avoiding earmarks.

They commented, “There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves. By not using earmarks to fund projects for South Carolina and instead using actual bills, DeMint is watching our nation’s pennies and trying to preserve our country’s wealth and our economy’s viability to give all an opportunity to succeed.”

Since Senator DeMint is not Jewish (he is Presbyterian) it is hard to see the relevance of invoking Jewish penny pinching stereotypes to make their point. I doubt that the Republican chairmen meant the stereotype critically.  Frugality was a virtue of the Puritans and Benjamin Franklin. But whenever you resort to stereotypes, malicious or not, you risk offense.

Years ago, I was waiting in line to pay a traffic ticket and struck up a conversation with a young man in line.  He noticed my Macon Iron (our family owned scrap yard) hat and asked if I worked there.  I acknowledged I did, but did not acknowledge I was an owner. He commented that he had just sold some scrap to Hirsh Metals, a competitor. “He didn’t pay me much,” he said,”but that is probably the Jew in him.”

He played the penny pinching stereotype, but he certainly did not mean it as a compliment.

Growing up I heard all of the jokes about penny pinching Jews. You probably heard the one about the Grand Canyon being made by a Jew who dropped a nickel down a gopher hole. Whenever I expressed offense, the response was always, “I meant it as a compliment. You know the Jews are smart and wise with money.”  Right, how foolish of me to mistake your intent.

A local Jewish friend was approached years ago after a local program by a prominent school board member (a Democrat by the way) who innocently asked, “Where do the Jews get their diamonds?”  She was stunned that he seemed to insinuate that we had some secret to wealth that we are keeping from the general public.

The same stereotype that was meant by one as a compliment is used by another as a derogation and by yet another to invoke a sinister secret or conspiracy.  The cast of the miserly greedy Jew was calcified for generations by the wicked Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  It may be a clumsy compliment for Merwin and Ulmer, but for centuries it was just another reason to despise the Jews.

Stereotypes are dangerous because they isolate groups. The two from South Carolina were only guilty of ignorance which can be corrected.  Bill Nigut, Director with the Southeast Regional Anti Defamation League (ADL- I serve on his board), said a mere apology was not enough; there needed to be a dialogue for the two to understand why the comments were offensive.

I am unsure how to approach such events.  Especially when the offense was not malicious I fear that a heavy handed response creates a defensive wall, leading to further isolation.  While I do not expect my non Jewish friends to be as knowledgeable about our history as we are, I do wish they knew more about their own history with the Jews.

I have struggled to understand anti-Semitism for my whole life and it still baffles me. As I write this I can glance at over two dozen volumes on my book shelves, specifically on anti-Semitism, and that doesn’t include other titles on Israel or Jewish history.

If you are inclined to understand the problem I would recommend “Constantine’s Sword” by James Carroll, a Catholic and ex priest. It details the history of the Church and the Jews in Europe better than any single volume.

I would also recommend reading about the history of Leo Frank.  I recommend “And the Dead Shall Rise” by Steve Oney.  I do not think it was coincidence that the only white man lynched in Georgia during the early twentieth century was a Jew. That stunning legal case was the source of many legal principles instituted to make trials fairer and was also the event that led to the founding of the ADL.

In spite of some instances of violent anti-Semitism in American history, we have averted the catastrophic hatred seen in Europe and the Middle East.  America is a culture that respects the individual.  It is why the Jews have done well here, and it is why ethnic groups from all over the world want to come here.  It is why we can elect a black president with a distinctly ethnic sounding name.

If there is one piece of advice I would give to Merwin and Ulmer, who may feel that they innocently stepped on a stereotype land mine, it would be to consider people as individuals.

Reagan was the last Republican who got substantial Jewish votes (40%).  Conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s comments about Jews being unperfected Christians, may have fit her personal theology but it was offensive. Pat Buchanan has been insensitive to Jews, but he seems to have been somewhat marginalized by the Republican mainstream.

Yet the Democrats have had their own voices that crossed the line.  Jimmy Carter, denials notwithstanding, has clearly crossed the lined from legitimate criticism to anti-Semitism. Liberal feminist Phyllis Chesler expressed her dismay with anti-Semitism among her fellow liberals in “The New Anti-Semitism”.  Do we remember Jesse Jackson’s characterization of New York City as Hymietown? Obama’s reverend Wright’s anti-Semitic comments were ignored by the President’s substantial Jewish supporters and when recently asked if he has spoken with the president since his inauguration Wright said, “them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me.”

The anti-Semitism coming from the left is not nearly as innocent as the comment from Merwin and Ulmer; it is often hateful and malicious.  Charles Krauthammer noted that we too often invoke outrage at insensitive but non malicious episodes of anti-Semitism or racism, but remain cowardly silent when we confront the real thing.

But while the perpetrators of anti-Semitism on the left are dismissed as a fringe groups (even if it is the President’s ex spiritual mentor or an ex president himself), every insensitive comment from the right is seen as a warning sign that “we do not belong here.”

If this seems unfair to be held to a much higher standard of tolerance, it is. Get used to it. The Jews, of all people, should understand.