The latest report from the FBI contained alarming news: There were 1,013 cases of hate crimes motivated by anti-Jewish bias in 2008 — an increase from the previous year, and the highest number of hate crimes against Jews reported since 2001.
The report, released November 23, also showed that crimes against Jews comprise the large majority — about two-thirds — of the total number of religiously motivated hate incidents that were reported last year.
But analyzing these numbers demands a heavy dose of perspective. One key reason for the increase is the continuous improvement in reporting of hate-motivated attacks, both by the victims and by local police authorities. Even the Anti-Defamation League, which has a mandate to highlight and combat violence against Jews and therefore is always reluctant to minimize the problem, acknowledged that the increase in hate crimes “may be partially attributed to improved reporting.”
And the uptick in incidents targeting Jews is not accompanied by a noticeable increase in antisemitic rhetoric accusing American Jews of being responsible for the economic downturn. Nor is there any visible correlation between the number of attacks and Israel’s policy in the Middle East.
In fact, antisemitism in America is at an all-time low. A survey commissioned by the ADL, published October 29, found that 12% of Americans hold views defined as antisemitic, compared with 15% in 2007 and 29% in 1964.
Other indicators also support the idea that anti-Jewish attitudes in the American public are losing ground. Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said recent polls show that many Americans view Judaism as being close to their own faith, an indicator of a favorable approach toward Jews. “We haven’t picked up any backlash against Jews in our polling in recent years,” Smith said.
When asked to explain the apparent disconnect between the decline in antisemitic views and increase in hate crimes against Jews, Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the ADL, cautioned, “It is impossible to make a one-to-one correlation between attitudes and violence.”
A global look at antisemitism and violence also fails to provide many clues. Documenting hate crimes against Jews in Europe is still a sporadic exercise, and a recent report prepared by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe pointed out the fact that most European countries do not yet have in place a system of monitoring crimes against Jews.
A comprehensive analysis of antisemitism around the world, compiled by the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University, concluded that “the year 2008 witnessed a continuation of the trend of relative stability in numbers of antisemitic violence.” Authors of the study noted that despite an increase in hate rhetoric following the 2008 economic crisis, noticed mainly in Eastern Europe and in Arab countries, levels of violence remained stable.
Experts following the issue in the United States do believe that the numbers provided by the government reflect an accurate picture of hate crimes against Jews, thanks to the high level of awareness in the Jewish community toward fighting any form of antisemitism. Jews are more likely to identify a hate crime and do not hesitate reporting the crime to local authorities. Crimes against members of other communities — especially Hispanic new immigrants, and gay men and lesbians — are usually underreported because of a fear of turning to police authorities when attacked.
“There might be some ups and downs, and it is hard to know an exact number, but the FBI report provides us with a pretty good sense of the hate-crime level,” said Paul LeGendre of Human Rights First, a group that monitors incidents and advocates strong government response to hate crimes.
Reporting of hate crimes, defined as crimes “that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” is expected to increase in coming years, following the recent inclusion of gender and gender identity to the definition.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Types of anti-Jewish hate crimes 2008:
Aggravated assault 25
Simple assault 58
Total incidents 1,055
Religious-biased motivated hate crimes 2008:
Anti-Other Religion 191
Anti-Multiple Religions, Group 65
**Total 1,519 **
FBI 2008 Hate Crime Statistics report
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.