What Jews and non-Jews think about anti-Semitism

What Jews and non-Jews think about anti-Semitism

American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey director discusses survey results

Rabbi David Levy
Rabbi David Levy

Last year, the American Jewish Committee conducted a survey probing American Jews’ fears and assumptions about anti-Semitism in the culture around them.

This year, the AJC redid that study, but it also authorized a survey of American non-Jews. The study found that American Jews are increasingly worried about anti-Semitism and Americans in general not only don’t worry about Jew-hatred but are unlikely to notice it should they run smack into it.

Rabbi David Levy is the Millburn-based director of the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey region.

When he talks about the two surveys, both done by a polling firm, SSRS, he begins by noting their solidity. The pollsters talked to 1,338 Jewish respondents and 1,110 people were surveyed for the general one; all were 18 or older and talked on either a landline or a cell phone. The margin of error was 4.2 percent for the poll of Jews and 3.7 percent for the other. These are results to be taken seriously, Rabbi Levy said.

So what did the results show, and what surprised him? “Jews and the general public disagree about whether anti-Semitism has increased in the last five years,” Rabbi Levy said. “Eight in 10 Jews said it has, and only four in 10 in the general public.

“And it’s especially shocking to see the lack of knowledge about anti-Semitism; 21 percent of American adults reported that they have never heard the term, and another 25 percent didn’t know what it means.

“The other surprising finding was that the general public doesn’t believe that Jews’ views need to be taken into account when they consider whether or not something is anti-Semitic. Seven out of 10 Americans said that if a Jewish person or organization considered a statement to be anti-Semitic, that would not make a difference to them, and seven percent said that it would make them less likely to consider it anti-Semitic.

“One of the major takeaways that hit me personally is that almost one in three Jewish Americans report hiding their Jewishness is certain places or situations, out of fear for their safety or comfort.

“That one really resonated with me personally because we have a program — it’s in its third year now — called Leaders for Tomorrow. It’s a training program for Jewish young people, primarily high school juniors and seniors. Last year we sat down with our cohort — 20 of them — and we asked them that question. ‘Have you hidden your Jewishness? Tucked your Star of David inside your shirt?’ We asked day school kids, ‘Have you taken off your kipah?’

“Over half of the 20 young people reported having hidden their Jewishness.”

That cohort of up-and-coming new leaders was in central Jersey. “This year,
we are doing the program across the state, and we will ask the same question.

“It was on the one hand a little upsetting, and on the other hand we totally understand. They live in a world with certain situations, when they are traveling or they are in places where they felt that showing their Judaism wasn’t safe or comfortable.

“This is sad. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor, and I don’t remember feeling that way. That one hit me hard.”

Another takeaway was that “four in 10 American Jews reported feeling less secure today than they did a year ago. Clearly we are seeing this as a serious problem.”

Another, more positive, finding is that “the majority of the general population agrees with a majority of American Jews that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. An overwhelming number of American Jews believe that.

“We found that three quarters of Americans agree that the statement ‘Israel has no right to exist’ is anti-Semitic. Eight-five percent of American Jews feel that way too. Three-quarters of the general American population feeling that is a powerful statement.”

Social media platforms present problems as well. The survey found that “almost half of the anti-Semitic content reported to social media platforms went unaddressed,” Rabbi Levy said. “We found that nearly half of American Jews who said they reported online anti-Semitism to one of the social media platforms said that no steps were taken to address the incident.

“We have been working very hard on the national level, talking to leaders of the various online platforms; we’ve been in especially deep conversation with Facebook,” he continued. “I think that all of us in the Jewish community were pleased with Facebook’s move about Holocaust denial” — the platform moved from its earlier stance, in which it deplored Holocaust denial but said that it could do nothing about it, to vowing to scrub it from the site.

“This speaks to the fact that there is more work to be done,” Rabbi Levy said. “One of the next big areas of concern will be how the algorithms will deal with online hate and online anti-Semitism. I know that some of our lawmakers are working on it right now; in Congress, Tom Malinowski [D-NJ Dist. 7] and Anna Eshoo [(D-Calif] co-sponsored a bill on it.” (The bill, proposed in Congress earlier this month, is the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act.)

“What we were looking for in these reports was to get a sense of people’s opinions and attitudes,” Rabbi Levy said. “We know from that incidents have been increasing, but how are people receiving that news? What is their understanding of it?

“What is clear here is that we as an American Jewish population certainly have felt a sense of increased anti-Semitism over the last five years. It hasn’t been felt in the same way by the general public, and that is a place where we need to create more understanding. We need to be able to take the results of important studies like these and use them in our outreach to our interfaith partners and to the general community.

“We also hope that it will inform our advocacy work. One of the things that we are working on across the country and here in New Jersey is having local and state governments recognize the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.” (That definition is “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”) “That’s the definition used by the State Department,” Rabbi Levy added.

Highland Park passed a resolution accepting that definition; “we would like to see other municipalities around New Jersey make that same move. We think that it has a lot of impact in terms of the general community’s understanding. When a town council passes a resolution like this, it makes clear that anti-Semitism is a real problem.”


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