American Jews are mostly secure, scared and deeply partisan

A new survey shows that most Jews are thinking a lot about anti-Semitism but not experiencing or changing their habits because of it. And they tend to view the problem through a partisan lens.

Anti-Semitic graffiti. Credit: Yonderboy/Wikimedia Commons.
Anti-Semitic graffiti. Credit: Yonderboy/Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

If ever there was a time for an opinion survey that would measure “The State of Anti-Semitism in America,” this is just such a moment. Concerns about a rising tide of Jew-hatred seem to be higher than at any time in decades. Between the cacophony of intolerance and anger that can be encountered on the Internet and social media, the recent memory of extremist right-wing attacks on synagogues, the targeting of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the anti-Zionism and contempt for Jews bubbling up on the left-wing of the political spectrum, there’s plenty to worry about.

But while the new survey of American Jewish opinion that was published this week under that title by the American Jewish Committee reflects these concerns, they also reveal some other pertinent observations about a community that is clearly torn between its fears and the reality of life in the United States in 2021. Just as important, the poll reflects the grim reality of partisan polarization within the community. Though it’s clear that left-wing anti-Semitism is on the rise and that its advocates have far more influence in our political system than extremists on the right, the majority of Jews still view this problem solely through the prism of their political allegiances. That makes the possibility of a united or even a coherent response from American Jews highly unlikely.

As with every other recent poll or audit of anti-Semitic activity produced by Jewish organizations in recent years, the impulse to sound the alarm about an uptick in hate often drowns out the need to place it in perspective in a country where anti-Semitic attacks remain relatively rare. Vigilance and the need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for any expression of Jew-hatred should always be the priority. But the problem with the way such surveys are interpreted to the public by Jewish leaders is that the data is always spun in such a manner as to create the maximum sense of fear without providing context that would help direct their audience’s angst about the reality of anti-Semitism in a productive way.

It’s true that, as AJC’s numbers show, approximately one out of four Jews have experienced some form of anti-Semitism in the last year, and that four out of 10 decided to conceal their Jewish identity or curtail their participation in Jewish activities in the past year because of such concerns. That, in and of itself, is bad. But once you drill down into the numbers, it’s necessary to point out that the survey doesn’t validate the kind of catastrophic view of American Jewish life that such quotes tend to produce.

For example, quantifying those who face anti-Semitism requires us to count hateful remarks encountered online or on social media, whether or not it was personally directed at the respondent or not.

It’s true that the Internet has been the best thing that ever happened to extremists of all stripes, including anti-Semites. Previously, their ability to articulate their hate to an audience was limited by the sort of gatekeepers that kept them out of mass media, coupled with their small numbers and the fact that most were relatively isolated. But the virtual communities and widely available platforms provided by new technology have enabled them to come together and to have their voices amplified in a way that would have previously been impossible. In this manner, all sorts of radicals have not only been able to avoid being labeled marginal fever-swamp dwellers but to spread their message in such a way as to grow their movements.

The fact remains that while hate is readily available on the Internet, its presence in the real world remains minimal. That’s why the AJC survey shows that the number of Jews who have say they have experienced at least one act of actual violence against Jews rather than just virtual insults—3 percent over a five-year period—remains extremely small when compared to those who claim to have seen an anti-Semitic remark online.

Moreover, the survey’s results depicting how Jews responded to such acts demonstrate that the majority are behaving quite sensibly about the subject.

More than two-thirds say they have not avoided places, events or situations out of fear of encountering anti-Semitism. And an overwhelming majority—90 percent—say they have not stopped attending Jewish events or institutions out of fear of a repetition of atrocities like the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting or the 2019 attack in Poway, Calif., both on Shabbat mornings. That’s not merely a tribute to the increase in security measures at such places since those horrifying events; it also reflects the fact that most Jews understand that while there is good reason for caution, such crimes are unusual. Moreover, it is encouraging that Jews realize that the proper response to these assaults is to demonstrate that they are not going to be intimidated by hate, even if lone armed gunmen can do a great deal of harm.

Even the results concerning those who encounter anti-Semitism on college campuses show that while the problem is real, many, if not most, students are being spared this trial. Another survey sponsored by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League that focused on student opinion showed a sharp increase in the number of incidents in the 2020-21 academic year as a result of anti-Israel activity, especially in the context of the fighting between Israel and Hamas terrorists. But even there, the percentage of those who had experienced even online anti-Semitism was just 31 percent. Though Jews are the group that sees academia as the least welcoming of religious diversity and perhaps the demographic slice of the population most likely to be exposed to anti-Semitic behavior or imagery, the situation is still not one in which the majority are confronted with hate towards Jews.

So while the growing numbers of those who say that anti-Semitism is growing and that they feel less secure as a result of this are reflecting reality, the notion that American Jews are panicking is clearly an exaggeration. Yet the most discouraging of the AJC survey results reflect the way partisanship has become the touchstone of every aspect of American life.

When asked whether Republicans or Democrats, the extreme right or the extreme left represents a threat, the responses are almost a perfect representation of partisan affiliation.

Approximately two-thirds of American Jews say both Republicans and the extremist right are worrisome threats while dismissing any worries about anti-Semitism among Democrats on the left. Given the increasing volume of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist invective coming not just from marginal left-wing constituencies but from influential members of Congress who are applauded by the media and pop culture, those numbers remain puzzling. They become clearer, though, when you understand that they align with the number of Jews who are loyal Democrats and political liberals. Sadly, blind partisanship is the only explanation for this result. The same can be said for the one-out-of-four respondents who are not concerned by right-wing extremism. Those who answer in that manner are just as blinded by their partisanship as their liberal counterparts.

Polarization is a toxic force throughout American society and is greater than ever. But those hoping for a strong response from the Jewish community to the undoubted surge in anti-Semitism are bound to be disappointed. As long as most Jews are determined to ignore hate from their political allies while focusing solely on extremists that they can tie to their opponents, the entire discussion about Jew-hatred will remain a function of partisan talking points rather than honest distress. That’s good news for the anti-Semites and a guarantee that future surveys will produce even more alarming results.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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