Antisemitism: Up, Down or Both?

By Marc Perelman

Published March 20, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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The headlines seemed to say it all. “Global Anti-Semitism on the Rise,” one reads, while another proclaims: “Antisemitism Down in the United States.”

Over the past month, two separate, major antisemitism studies have been released. One from the State Department described an “upsurge” of hostility and discrimination toward Jewish people across the world. That came a few days after the Anti-Defamation League reported that the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States had declined for the third consecutive year.

But even the people behind the studies say that the reality behind the headlines is more complex. The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, says that antisemitism is also up in the United States, if you look at certain measures. In the case of the State Department, no original statistics are used, so it is difficult to get a specific handle on the problem.

The fuzzy findings point to the difficult science of categorizing and quantifying antisemitism. The recent ADL report analyzed statistics on documented antisemitic incidents, while the survey done by the State Department took into account government policies, attitudes and public sentiment. To complicate matters further, Israel and its supporters have in recent years advocated the inclusion of staunchly anti-Israel stances as a new form of antisemitism — a view endorsed by the State Department.

“There are a variety of ways to measure antisemitism, such as incidents and especially attitudes, but the recent addition of anti-Israel attacks makes it very tough to measure,” said Jerome Chanes, a faculty scholar at Brandeis University who authors the article on antisemitism in the American Jewish Year Book.

In one indication of the confusion, Foxman says that while his organization’s report indicated a decrease in antisemitic incidents, he believes that overall antisemitism is rising in the United States in a fashion similar to the rest of the world.

The ADL’s annual audit counted a total of 1,357 American incidents of vandalism, harassment and other acts of hate against Jewish individuals, property and community institutions in 2007, down from 1,554 in 2006. Foxman welcomed the trend in a statement, but he also told the Forward that he felt American sentiment toward Jews was deteriorating. Foxman pointed to the recent public criticism of Israel by such mainstream figures as former president Jimmy Carter and scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

“We are seeing a sinister change, because those arguments are no more limited to the fringes,” Foxman said. “It’s worse in many parts of the world, and it’s worse here.”

Given the difficulty of quantifying the spread of beliefs, Foxman’s beliefs about the United States are not universally held. Chanes said that by many measures, antisemitic beliefs in the United States are also on the decline.

“Although I agree that this is the trend elsewhere, we don’t see it in the United States. The record actually shows a dramatic decrease over the past 50 years in negative attitudes toward Jews, and that is still the case,” he said.

The Congressionally mandated State Department survey, called Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism, does not cover the United States. It details physical acts of antisemitism, and such manifestations as conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, anti-Zionism and the demonization of Israel. Over the past decade, “U.S. embassies worldwide have noted an increase in anti-Semitic incidents such as attacks on Jewish people, property, community institutions, and religious facilities,” the report says.

Jewish advocates hailed the report’s adoption of the working definition of antisemitism used by the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, which includes a variety of staunch anti-Israel postures.

“We are encouraged by the outcome of the report, which boldly identifies the growing problem of anti-Semitism through an anti-Israel lens,” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement. The report “laudably bases its definition of anti-Semitism” on the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

“The distinguishing feature of the new anti-Semitism is criticism of Zionism or Israeli policy that — whether intentionally or unintentionally — has the effect of promoting prejudice against all Jews by demonizing Israel and Israelis and attributing Israel’s perceived faults to its Jewish character,” the report stated.

The report also dedicates an entire chapter to the antisemitism pervading United Nations bodies, some of which are asked regularly to launch “investigations of what often are sensationalized reports of alleged atrocities and other violations of human rights by Israel.”

Leading human rights groups have been more circumspect about the linkage between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, arguing that it was sometimes used to stifle criticism of Israel’s policies. Nonetheless, Human Rights First recently released a report detailing a rise in antisemitic incidents in Europe.

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