The events surrounding the taking of hostages at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 15 by Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British Pakistani armed with a pistol, received considerable attention and live coverage in the United States.
Following the escape of the hostages and the subsequent storming of the synagogue by law enforcement—which resulted in the death of Akram—dialogue and discussion ensued regarding issues of anti-Semitism in the United States, synagogue security and the Jewish community’s general sense of safety.
We undertook two simultaneously administered surveys of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans between February 1 and February 6, 2022, close enough to the Colleyville events for them to remain “fresh” in people’s memory and far enough away to allow for reflection and internalization of the ramifications of the experience.
Our data, on the whole, suggest the following:
- While Jewish Americans, as well as Americans in general, still see right-wing ideology as primarily responsible for the hate-related activity of white supremacist groups, there appears to be increased concern over Islamic extremist activity as well as a trend of increased attribution of anti-Jewish and other hate-based activity to what can be identified as progressive or “woke” sources.
- Jewish Americans differ from “general” Americans in attributing greater responsibility for hate-based incidents against Jews to left-wing ideology and in perceiving a greater threat from white supremacists and Islamic extremists. They also showed higher levels of feeling that the Democratic Party tolerates Islamic extremist activity.
- Anti-Semitism is seen as primarily based on verbal or offensive language or threats and very little on physical violence against Jews. Moreover, the subjective intensity of anti-Semitism in the daily lives of Jewish Americans may be less than it appears to be based on media reports and not very different from the hate-based activity against other groups.
- Both Americans in general and Jewish Americans in our survey essentially offer support for Israel, but feel that Jewish Americans should maintain political and ideological independence and distance themselves from policies and behavior they disagree with.
- Both our “general” American and Jewish American samples are overwhelmingly unaware of any specific efforts to “combat” anti-Semitism by any Jewish organization.
- The threat to Jews from hate-based or extremist activity is perceived to be similar, but generally midway between the perceived threat to Christian (less threatened) and Muslim (more threatened) communities.
- Both the Jewish American and “general” American samples hold Donald Trump’s administration and supporters as responsible for increased anti-Semitism, but both, especially our Jewish American sample, attribute substantial responsibility to progressive “woke” ideology.
- Some consideration should be given to the data—especially among a significant minority in the Jewish American sample—showing a cognitive differentiation between “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Israel” behavior, as well as the notion that such differentiation and the rejection of a distinct Jewish national identity may enable anti-Semitic activity masked as “anti-Zionism.”
The underlying trend in our data appears to show, in contrast to conventional wisdom and our previous research, an increased recognition that the ideology of left-leaning sources—specifically “woke” ideology, and especially in the Jewish American sample—bears some responsibility for anti-Semitism in the United States. What makes these data more convincing is that this behavior is not a “shift” away from blaming right-wing ideology and especially Trump-associated sources, but rather an expression of additional responsibility.
This would be consistent with a recent study we conducted on U.S. campuses: Israeli campus professionals assessed that liberal and progressive groups represent the most significant source of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment on campuses, rather than more conservative groups, who are viewed as generally supportive.
The relationship between Israel and the Jewish American community remains somewhat vague. While expressing general “support for Israel,” Jewish Americans still wish to exercise choice in distancing themselves when they disagree with Israeli policy or behavior. That alone may seem reasonable, but when combined with our data showing that most also see support for Israel as a reason for anti-Semitism, and a sizable minority (20%) do not equate anti-Israel behavior with anti-Semitic behavior—a claim made by many anti-Israel organizations and individuals—what “support” actually means is unclear.
This finding is consistent with the conflict some see between support for Jewish nationalism in Israel, namely Zionism, and aversion to the concept of seeing Jews as a whole as a national identity, or as noted by James Loeffler, “the obvious presence of Jewish nationalism in America coupled with the putative absence of a Jewish nation.”
Gol Kalev touches on how anti-Jewish behavior is expressed today in his conceptualization of “Judaism 3.0,” where he posits the transformation of Judaism from a more religious element to a more national one (as in Zionism). As societies have evolved, so has the expression of anti-Jewish behavior. As Judaism has moved more into the national realm with the establishment of Israel, so has anti-Jewish behavior. Our data show that a sizable portion of people, including Jews, see a separation between anti-Jewish and anti-Israel behavior, even though a much lower amount calls for an unconditional separation from actual support for Israel.
So, it is possible to claim no apparent or stated objection to the Jewish “religion” while expressing anti-Jewish attitudes through objection to the Jewish national entity, namely Israel. By denying a Jewish connection to nationhood, one can declare immunity from charges of anti-Semitism. Both secular and religious Jewish and non-Jewish “anti-Zionists” have made and debated that claim. By institutionalizing the separation between religious and national definitions of Judaism, “national”-based anti-Jewish behavior is given a free pass and can claim not to be anti-Semitic, as we see in statements made by the BDS movement.
All this only amplifies the striking finding in our data regarding the widespread lack of awareness among Americans, including Jewish Americans, of any specific programs or efforts targeting anti-Semitism. This is despite the stated concern regarding anti-Semitism from Jewish organizations. While many Jewish and Israeli advocacy organizations claim to undertake these efforts, the impact on public consciousness remains low. We cannot offer a definitive explanation for why this is so, but one possibility that needs to be considered is that if such programs exist, they are not effectively applied in practice or carried out as efficiently as they should be.
As noted earlier, the interpretation of data is variable, but the data themselves are not. Our respondents were anonymous, which may account for the open expression of sentiment that is not always acceptable in some social circles—for example, among those who may self-identify as “liberal.” Anonymity can sometimes create the opposite problem in survey research; for example, if group sentiment is present to intentionally mislead, as claimed in the case of Israeli elections. Our samples had no such motivation, and the consistency of their responses would lead one to conclude that they are, in fact, both valid and reliable. As such, this research is agnostic towards the data and ultimately apolitical, representing neither a “right-wing” nor “left-wing” orientation or analysis.
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in political psychology.
This is an edited version of an article originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.