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Don’t buy a narrative about hate that fuels unreasonable fear

Anti-Semitism in America is real. But the ADL’s overhyped statistics paint a false picture of contemporary Jewish life intended to push a political and fundraising agenda.

Credit: Andrii Koval/Shutterstock.
Credit: Andrii Koval/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

If you are an American Jew, are you feeling afraid? Are you convinced that America is fast becoming a cesspool of anti-Semitism with white supremacists seeking to attack and kill you lurking around every corner? If so, it’s hard to blame you. Especially if you’ve been reading press releases and tweets from the Anti-Defamation League or news articles based on the polls and studies they publish. Jews who read nothing but such material would likely either be hiding under their beds on the brink of a nervous breakdown or holed up somewhere armed to the teeth with the sort of weapons that the pro-gun-control ADL doesn’t think any of us should own.

Their latest contribution to the growing sense of fear about the future of what most of us thought was the most welcome spot for Jews in the history of the Diaspora is a study published this week that claims that that 62 percent of American Jews have personally experienced or witnessed some form of anti-Semitism since 2016. It also reports that 56 percent of Jews have either heard anti-Semitic comments or slurs directed at others. One in four claims to have been targeted by anti-Semitic comments, slurs or threats. And a staggering 9 percent say they have personally been physically attacked because they were Jewish. These are astounding numbers that represent increases from the last such survey the ADL published in 2020 when it reported that 54 percent had experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism.

And that’s not all. Earlier this month, the ADL published another study that reported that there had been a big increase in the amount of white-supremacist propaganda spread in the last year.

That’s on top of last year’s ADL numbers, which said that anti-Semitic incidents had reached an all-time high in 2019.

Add in the memory of the deadly attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Poway, Calif., and the ADL’s highlighting the presence of anti-Semites at the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, and the picture they are painting of the United States is that of a very scary place for Jews.

While anti-Semitism in contemporary America is very real, the moral panic that the ADL is working hard to promote is not. Like any other set of polls and studies, it’s important to read those produced by the ADL with a critical eye and with the understanding that their purpose is to produce exactly a sense of alarm that will fit the group’s organizational and political agenda, as well as boost their fundraising.

Unlike many other national Jewish organizations that were founded in the last century and have long since outlived their usefulness, the ADL has a real job to do with respect to monitoring anti-Semitism. A wave of anti-Semitism has swept around the globe in the last decades, largely fueled by a virulent movement that focuses hate on Israel. The need for a reliable Jewish defense agency that can both accurately report on incidents of hate and advocate against them is more important than ever.

Yet what has happened in the United States is nowhere close to the avalanche of anti-Semitic incidents occurring in Europe. There, hate from the right has mixed and merged with that of the extreme left and anti-Zionists supported by intellectual elites and immigrants from the Middle East. It has created an atmosphere where it’s not possible to safely walk the streets of some Western European cities while dressed in attire or jewelry that depicts Jewish identity.

Looking at the ADL statistics, it might seem that the same is true in the United States. But with the exception of one particular group of Jews and anti-Semitic assailants that generally get short shrift from the ADL, we all know that isn’t the case.

The one group that does face constant threats of anti-Semitic attacks in the street are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews living in greater New York, where there was an epidemic of such incidents in late 2019 to which the ADL responded only belatedly. The reason for that was because those responsible for this very real surge in violent Jew-hatred were not white supremacists or supporters of President Donald Trump, but African-Americans.

The other place where a Jew is most likely to come face to face with hatred of Jews is on college campuses, where BDS activists routinely engage in anti-Semitic discourse that is sometimes thinly veiled behind arguments about Israel.

While those attacks help buttress the ADL’s hate-crime statistics, they don’t push a preferred narrative about Trump and white supremacy.

Once you drill down into the ADL numbers, the picture of peril is a bit less daunting. The total number of reported incidents that the group hyped as an all-time high in 2019 was 2,017. Even one would be too much. But in a nation of 328 million and an estimated Jewish population (if you accept the loosely defined number produced this month by Brandeis University) of 6.1 million Jewish adults, then you have to admit that these are still rare occurrences.

As for the high numbers of those experiencing or witnessing anti-Semitism, if you take the Internet out of the equation, the numbers are less scary. There is a lot of hate to be found on the web and social-media sites. Marginal groups and otherwise isolated individual haters and those with mental-health issues are able to find each other more easily and to have their voices amplified. But while suffering or exchanging insults with disturbed people on Twitter or reading re-tweeted threads with such words is upsetting, it’s not the same thing as being assaulted on the street by an anti-Semitic thug.

It’s also true that the terms of the ADL studies are so loosely defined that someone who has heard or read about anti-Semitism is able to answer yes about witnessing them so as to produce a larger number.

Even more troublesome is the one number produced by the ADL that is truly alarming: the claim that 9 percent of American Jews have been physically attacked in the last five years because they were Jewish. If that is accurate, then it would mean that at least half a million Jews have been the victims of an anti-Semitic assault since 2016. If so, then the ADL’s annual reports, which peaked at 2,000 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 and of which only a relatively small percentage were claimed to be violent, represent only 2 percent of those alleged attacks.

Once you do that math, it’s necessary to ask whether that 9 percent figure could possibly be true. The answer is no. The survey that according to the ADL was produced by a sample of 503 people with a margin of error of 4.4 percent has produced a number that, for one reason or another, isn’t credible. A group more concerned with accuracy, rather than the financial and political reasons to fuel a sense of panic, would not have published it.

The truth about contemporary American anti-Semitism is frightening enough. But it’s still the case that the overwhelming majority of American Jews live their lives without experiencing the sort of anti-Semitic hate that those living in an earlier era would have taken for granted as part of their normal existence.

If, as ADL claims, more Jews feel less safe than they did a decade ago, it’s partially due to the higher profile that anti-Semites on the left and right have achieved. It’s also the result of the screaming headlines about anti-Semitism produced by the ADL. In recent years, the group has become more interested in pursuing a liberal political agenda as opposed to defending Jewish interests and Israel, as its repeated partisan attacks on Republicans and Trump have made clear. Hyping the threat of anti-Semitism in this manner for the prosperous and politically liberal donor base of the ADL is good business. The group raised $73 million in 2018 and may well have exceeded $100 million last year. More sober reporting and less alarmism would make it difficult to keep that up.

American Jewry must remain vigilant and outspoken against hate coming from ends of the political spectrum. But America in 2021 isn’t Berlin in 1932 or even contemporary Paris. That’s why those who want to understand the truth about this vital issue should take some of those ADL headlines with a shovelful of salt.

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

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