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Anti-Semitism and the Jewish future in Europe

An oft-quoted new survey seems to suggest that many Jews in Europe are not living with the peace of mind and sense of security that every ethnic and religious group ought to enjoy. This survey, however, has several limitations.

Historically, the relationship of Jewry to Europe has been ambiguous. On the one hand, Europe has been the homeland for generations of Jews since antiquity. This is reflected in the names of two of the main ethnic categories of Jews in the world: Sephardi (‘Spanish’) and Ashkenazi (‘German’). In modern times, Europe has incubated Jewish movements as diverse as Hasidism and the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), Zionism, and Bundism. On the other hand, it also gave birth to anti-Semitism, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust: the mass murder of millions of Jews across the continent and the wholesale destruction of Jewish life in eastern Europe. For this reason, Europe is sometimes seen as the Jewish graveyard rather than the Jewish homeland.

At first sight, a recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), “Discrimination and hate crime against Jews in EU Member States: experiences and perceptions of antisemitism” (November 2013), might appear to lend support to the latter view and cast doubt on whether there is a long-term future for Jews in Europe. A headline in the Jewish Daily Forward asks, “Could Spreading European Anti-Semitism Drive Jews From Homelands?” Shimon Ohayon, Likud Yisrael Beitenu MK and chair of the Knesset Lobby for the Struggle against Antisemitism, remarked: “There are now places on the continent where Jews can no longer live and many others where no outward expressions of Jewishness are tolerated.” The “rise in hate,” he said, “is creating an untenable situation for the Jews of Europe.”

The FRA report presents the results of an open online survey of 5,847 people in eight European Union (EU) countries where about 90 percent of the estimated Jewish population in the EU live: Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (UK). (Romania was included initially but the number of responses was so low that the data were not included in the main body of the report.) The survey, which was conducted about a year ago by a consortium of the UK-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) and Ipsos MORI, was open to individuals 16 years or older who live in the selected countries and who identify as Jewish. For the most part, the questionnaire was quantitative, though at the end respondents could add comments in their own words.

The picture that emerges from this survey is certainly troubling: “Two thirds of the respondents (66 percent) consider anti-Semitism to be ‘a very big’ or ‘a fairly big problem’ in the country where they live” (p. 15). Some 76 percent “consider that antisemitism has worsened over the past five years in the country where they live” (p. 16). Overall, 75 percent “consider antisemitism online as a problem today in the country where they live” (p. 19), while 73 percent “perceive that antisemitism online has increased over the last five years” (p. 20). Some 59 percent “feel that antisemitism in the media is ‘a very big’ or ‘a fairly big problem’, while 54 percent say the same about expressions of hostility towards Jews in the street and other public places” (p. 19). Moreover, 46 percent “worry about becoming a victim of an antisemitic verbal insult or harassment in the next 12 months, while one third (33 percent) worry about being physically attacked in that same period” (p. 32). In addition, 29 percent “have considered emigrating in the past five years because they did not feel safe there as Jews” (p. 37).

The picture that emerges is troubling because it shows that many Jews in Europe are not living with the peace of mind and sense of security that every ethnic and religious group ought to enjoy. It is troubling also because there is bound to be some basis in reality for this state of affairs. Nor is this news: no one with a sense of history can doubt that the well of anti-Semitism runs deep in Europe and anyone following current events will know that the well has not run dry. However, the statistics I have quoted from the report are about what the survey respondents ‘consider’, ‘perceive’, ‘feel’ and ‘worry about’. It is not possible on this basis alone to infer the extent to which anti-Semitism exists in the EU, nor is it possible to determine the degree to which it has – or has not – changed for the worse.

Nonetheless, the liberal-left UK daily the Guardian covered the report under the headline “Antisemitism on the rise, says European survey.” Similarly, Aljazeera ran the headline “Anti-Semitism on rise in Europe.” (The subhead said that the FRA survey “shows an anti-Semitism increase across Europe over the past five years.”) Both headlines appear to jump to conclusions. Compare the more accurate BBC headline: “Anti-Semitism ‘on the rise’ say Europe’s Jews.”

In a press release, the European Jewish Congress made the more specific claim that the survey shows “a substantial rise in the number of Jews who have been subjected to anti-Semitic attacks.” It is difficult to see how this interpretation can be justified. Chapter 2 of the report includes data on anti-Semitic incidents, classified either as ‘verbal insult’ or ‘harassment’ or ‘physical attack’. One in five respondents experienced at least one such incident in the previous 12 months (of which 2 percent were physical attacks), but no indication is given as to whether this represents a rise or fall (or neither) over previous years (p. 29). Chapter 3, which homes in on specific types of harassment and violence, distinguishes between a shorter and longer term (but without a year-by-year breakdown). Some 7 percent of respondents experienced an incident of anti-Semitic violence (or threat of violence) in the past 5 years and 4 percent in the previous 12 months. (p. 42). Some 33 percent of respondents experienced anti-Semitic harassment at least once in the past 5 years and 26 percent in the past 12 months (p. 43). These figures do not indicate that such incidents have increased.

Furthermore, the report comments that due to “a relatively low number of incidents – both as regards physical attacks/threats and harassment – no country breakdowns are presented here” (p. 47). In a similar vein, it says: “The few cases of antisemitic vandalism in the past five years (5 percent of all respondents, n=264), and physical violence or threat of physical violence over the same time period (7 percent of all respondents, n=403) pose an obstacle for a more detailed analysis of the incidents” (p. 50). It is hard to see how this adds up to “a substantial rise in the number of Jews who have been subjected to anti-Semitic attacks.”

This is not to deny the seriousness of the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe; it is only to say that the FRA survey is not designed to answer questions about whether anti-Semitism is or is not on the rise or whether anti-Semitic incidents, including physical attacks, have or have not increased. It is a mistake even to try to extract conclusions of this kind from the report, a mistake that implies a failure to understand where the value of this report lies. It lies chiefly (as the section “Why is this survey needed?” explains) in providing “comparable data on the perceived extent and nature of anti-Semitism among Jews in the EU” (p. 7, emphasis added). This is a useful contribution to our knowledge, but the value of this contribution is inherently limited.

The survey is limited in at least three other respects. First, there is its reliance on an open online questionnaire. The report explains the advantages but frankly admits that this method is “unable to deliver a random probability sample fulfilling the statistical criteria for representativeness” (p. 7). Moreover, as the annex on survey methodology comments, “the chosen survey mode is likely to have excluded some eligible members of the target population” (p. 70). In particular, it can be ‘assumed’ that unaffiliated Jews (Jews who are not members of a synagogue or some other Jewish community organisation) “are underrepresented in the current sample” (p. 74). Whether and to what extent this affects the findings is a matter of speculation.

Second, the focus on perception introduces a large element of subjectivity. What, for example, counts as an anti-Semitic view or comment? Question B15b gives a list of eight potentially offensive statements. It includes the statement “Israelis behave ‘like Nazis’ towards the Palestinians.”[1]  In the opinion of 81 percent of respondents, a non-Jew who says this is anti-Semitic (p. 23). Question B17 gives a list of six possible views or actions by non-Jews. It includes “Supports boycotts of Israeli goods/products” and “Criticises Israel.” These were considered anti-Semitic by 72 percent and 34 percent of respondents, respectively (p. 27).[2] These opinions about what constitutes anti-Semitism are all debatable. Given the way the survey is constructed, it is impossible to assess the extent to which they affect overall estimates of anti-Semitism.

Third, the survey does not allow comparisons to be made that would help put the data on European Jewish perceptions of anti-Semitism into perspective. It would be useful to make a comparison with perceptions in other regions. (In the AJC 2013 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, 81 percent of respondents consider anti-Semitism to be a problem in the United States. Compare this with 66 percent of respondents in the FRA survey who consider anti-Semitism to be a problem in their countries (p. 15).) It would also be useful to be able to compare Jewish perception of anti-Semitism with, say, Muslim perception of Islamophobia or migrants’ perception of xenophobia, or the perception by any other group of the racism that targets that group. On the strength of this report, it is not possible to say whether the Jewish case is exceptional or, on the contrary, representative of minority ethnic or religious groups in Europe.

The questionnaire does, however, include two questions that allow a comparison to be made between Jewish perceptions of anti-Semitism and Jewish perceptions of racism. Question B03 asks respondents to say whether they think that anti-Semitism and racism have increased or decreased or stayed the same over the past five years. Some 76 percent think that anti-Semitism has gotten worse (p. 16), but, unless I have missed a trick, the report does not give the data on perceptions of racism. This is tantalizing, especially in view of the answers to the previous question (B02), which asks respondents to rate nine issues in terms of the magnitude of the problem in the country in which they live. On average, respondents put racism (along with unemployment and the state of the economy) ahead of anti-Semitism (p. 15). In other words, respondents, on average, think that racism is a greater problem than anti-Semitism.

All surveys have limitations. A limitation is not a defect, but it is necessary to keep the limitations of a survey in mind in order to assess its findings. The FRA report holds up a mirror to the EU Jewish population, giving us a glimpse of how European Jews perceive and experience anti-Semitism today. In this way, it contributes to our understanding. It does what it does, no more, no less. It does not license sweeping statements about the rise of anti-Semitism, nor does it warrant gloomy prognostications about Jews leaving Europe in droves.

There is one finding from the survey that JPR (which conducted the research) emphasizes in a separate publication: “The vast majority of Jews in the sample feel a strong sense of belonging to the country in which they reside, and are highly integrated into mainstream society.” It is a pity that this finding did not make it into the FRA report. Arguably, it has a bearing on the question of the Jewish future in Europe.[3]

This piece originally appeared on December 10, 2013 in the Reviews and Critical Commentary pages of the Council for European Studies.

 [1] The survey questionnaire is included as annex 1 in the Technical Report accompanying the FRA survey.

 [2] In all three cases, the percentage scores combine two affirmative responses: “Yes, definitely” and “Yes, probably.”

 [3] www.thejc.com/news/world-news/113213/eu-survey-shows-high-anxiety-threat-level-remains-hidden

 

About the author

Brian Klug is a senior research fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, University of Oxford. His most recent book is Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life, Vallentine Mitchell, 2011


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