Last week, the American Jewish Committee released only half of its annual survey of American Jewish opinion. It was mostly about American politics, Trump vs. Biden and Israel. Today, the second half was published — the one that deals with anti-Semitism. A similar survey was taken last year, from which we earned that Jews in America are worried. Today we learn that they are still worried. 88% of those surveyed believe anti-Semitism in America is a problem (37% say it is a serious problem). 82% of them believe this problem is trending up. 43% of them believe that they are less safe today than they were last year.
One cannot look at such numbers without concern. One cannot argue with how people feel. And yet, one ought to wonder about what these numbers truly mean. Many feel unsafe, and still, 97% of respondents say that they were never physically attacked. Many Jews feel that anti-Semitism is growing, and still, 75% did not have to cope with an anti-Semitic comment. Not even on the web (77%). And most of those who did encounter such comments did not bother reporting the incident (76%).
Surveys can teach us something about anti-Semitism. They can tell us what people feel and what they experience. They can show us — as in this case — that feelings and experiences aren’t always compatible. They can also reveal puzzling discrepancies. For example, AJC surveyed both Jews and non-Jews. Among the non-Jews, AJC found a significant number of people (46%) who aren’t sure what anti-Semitism is. It also found a significant number of non-Jews (63%) who believe that anti-Semitism is a problem in the United States today.
Where’s the problem? Here it is: according to this survey, there is a not-insignificant share of Americans who 1) Don’t know what anti-Semitism is, and 2) Still think that anti-Semitism is a serious problem in America today. Think about it this way: Do you know what global warming is? “No.” Do you think global warming is a serious problem? “yes.” You get the paradox.
The AJC survey also raises the question about expectations: should everyone know what anti-Semitism means? The AJC press release calls the ignorance of almost half of all non-Jewish Americans “concerning.” I could easily see a reverse argument that this fact is calming. If many Americans do not even know what it is — maybe that’s at least half-proof that anti-Semitism isn’t such a big problem.
So Why do Jews and non-Jews see anti-Semitism as a growing problem? Maybe it is because they are expected to see it as a problem. Maybe it is because there is more talk about it being a problem. Maybe it is still the effect of the murderous Pittsburgh attack exactly two years ago. And of course, there’s the general atmosphere of partisanship and bad feelings. But the survey’s question, “do you think the Democratic/Republican Party holds antisemitic views,” feels awkward. What are they asking: that the platform is anti-Semitic, the leaders of the party, the voters? Regardless of the question’s vagueness, most Jews had an answer. About half of all Americans believe that two main parties hold anti-Semitic views (42% Democratic party, 52% Republican party). Among Jews, the distribution of blame is somewhat more one-sided. About a third believe that the Democratic party is somewhat anti-Semitic (37%), more than two-thirds (69%) see such a problem with the Republican party.
Jews are much more worried about right-wing extremism than about left-wing extremism, even though AJC tries to obfuscate this fact by mixing the responses for “very serious threat,” “serious threat,” and “somewhat of a threat.” In so doing, the AJC presents 88% for the level of threat from the right and 61% for the left. That is different, but not as stark as the result you get if you stick with just “very serious” and “serious.” In such case, it is 75% for the radical right and 32% for the radical left.
What do we learn from all this? When we measure anti-Semitic levels, there are three important layers to consider: what is the actual situation of attacks and discrimination, what non-Jews are feeling towards Jews, and what Jews are feeling. The AJC survey gives us a clear answer on the third component. Jews feel less safe; they feel threatened. About a quarter of them even change their behavior because of it. They will avoid wearing Jewishly-themed jewelry or posting Jewishly-themed content on social media (24%).
As for the first and second layers — what is the actual situation, and how non-Jews feel towards Jews, we get only partial answers. Most Jews were not attacked in any way. Most Jews do not know anyone that was attacked. Most Jews say their institutions were never attacked (59%). Not even with graffiti or a threat. If they are worried, it is maybe because of discrepancies between what they see as anti-Semitism and what other Americans see as anti-Semitism. A clear majority of Jews see a comment such as “the U.S. government only supports Israel because of Jewish money” as anti-Semitic (84%). Many non-Jewish Americans (close to half) do not feel the same.
More from shmuel Rosner about anti-Semitism in the US:
Podcast: Shmuel Rosner and Yaacov Lozowick, an Israeli historian, discuss the history of antisemitism and the possibility of its return to the United States.