The Anti-Defamation League is reporting a “surge” of anti-Semitism swept the U.S. in 2017, based on their finding that anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent last year. But a closer look at the facts doesn’t quite bear out the headlines its generating.
“This is what happens when the President of the United States embraces white supremacists and does not decry racists,” Soledad O’Brien tweeted about the study.
“While the tragedy in Charlottesville highlighted this trend, it was not an aberration,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement on the study. “Every single day, white supremacists target members of the Jewish community — holding rallies in public, recruiting on college campuses, attacking journalists on social media, and even targeting young children.”
The available data are certainly far from comforting, but not so easy to interpret as the ADL and others would suggest. For instance, even though the number of incidents the ADL found did rise sharply, the total number of incidents could still be considered small — 1,986 in 2017. In another example, a vast majority of more than a hundred bomb threats were perpetrated by one Jewish man. While instances of anti-Semitism do appear to be on the rise, but the reality isn’t so bad as ADL suggests.
The ADL provides a selected list of 1,215 examples of the incidents on the report’s website. This chart is composed of police reports, media reports and individual reports to the ADL directly. The ADL also watches social media and interviews individuals who report anti-Semitic events on the various platforms, although it is unclear how well these reports are vetted. When sorted, roughly 73 percent of the incidents involved a form of vandalism, with about 60 percent of the incidents involving swastikas. The remaining examples are a wide range of Nazi and anti-Semitic graffiti, anti-Semitic fliers, stickers or literature and various harassment to Jewish organizations including emails, phone calls and social media posts.
Greenblatt addressed the report’s finding of a 94 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools. “Certainly, when it comes to kids, they repeat what they hear,” he said in an interview with NPR. “So as we see a decrease in civility and an increase in intolerance, no one should be surprised that that is infecting the environment where our children learn.”
The study states, “Although the largest number of incidents typically occur in public areas, in 2017 K-12 schools surpassed public areas as the locations with the most anti-Semitic incidents, at 457 incidents being reported in K-12 schools …”
About 20 percent of total incidents provided indicated a form of verbal harassment, with a little over half described as “bullying.” Several examples even describe teachers experiencing anti-Semitic attacks from students. About 50 examples describe Holocaust jokes and attacks, with nearly a dozen involving the Nazi salute by students. A half-dozen claim students threw coins or money at a Jewish peer. One Pro-Trump Jewish student was called a “Nazi” by fellow students.
Of the incidents beyond the schoolyard, the majority are anecdotal reports. There are instances of random drivers yelling at Jewish passersby with all manner of anti-Semitic insults. There are assorted crazy people shouting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories outside courthouses or harassing rabbis. A few standing outside holding signs or shouting anti-Semitic things at no one in particular. Multiple examples claim that various individuals in the customer service industry, from cashiers to airplane attendants to taxi drivers attacked Jewish customers with slurs or insults. Many overheard what they considered anti-Semitic conversation, or heard individuals use phrases or comments they felt were offensive but were not directed towards them.
Many examples are as vague as “Jewish woman harassed online” or “Anti-Semitic comment on YouTube” and the ADL reported they received a single rude phone call. One remarkable example states: “A Jewish lawyer was asked by a judge if he had horns under his kippah. The judge also made other anti-Semitic remarks.”
Swastikas have a deeply disturbing impact on Jewish people and therefore whenever one is discovered it sends ripples of panic, outrage and fear throughout Jewish communities. The difficulty is that the symbol is provocative, regardless of whether it’s malicious, a prank or a false report.
An op-ed in a Canada paper cited swastika graffiti as the most common hate crime in Ontario, but quoted the head of the local hate crime unit saying most of them likely weren’t motivated by anti-semitism. “The majority of the 20 swastikas investigated by Hamilton police last year were probably made by young people who drew them because they were easy and provocative rather than because the culprits are anti-Semitic,” the piece reads, attributing the sentiment to Det. Paul Corrigan.
In College Park Maryland in 2017, an African-American man was charged with spray-painting a swastika inside a resident hall at the University of Maryland. Also in 2017, in Upstate New York, a Jewish man was charged after painting the symbol on his own home and reporting it as a hate crime. Another student at Beloit College in Wisconsin was arrested after causing a panic involving the police due to multiple religious and racial slurs painted himself on his own dorm room door.
The ADL found that the majority of the incidents happened in states with large Jewish populations, with the biggest numbers in New York followed by California, Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and on America’s most liberal college campuses, including Princeton University, Berkley, Georgetown University, and Rutgers University. The Daily Beast reported a shocking level of anti-Semitic hate at Berkley in 2015. Alongside swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti, they report, “…during the conflict in Gaza this summer, he also came across sidewalk graffiti on campus that exhorted “Death to Israel” and “Kill all the Jews.”
AMCHA, a Jewish organization stated that their 2015 study “…provided for the first time a quantitative account of the prevalence of antisemitic activity at schools most popular with Jewish students… [and] the presence of anti-Zionist student groups, faculty boycotters and anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) activity are each strong predictors of anti-Jewish hostility.” In the first half of 2016, “287 incidents involving either Targeting of Jewish Students for Harm, Antisemitic Expression, BDS Activity, or some combination of these… 64 (57%) of these schools had incidents involving one or more kinds of these activities.” The study also confirmed that anti-Semitic incidents were more common when faculty members engaged in anti-Israel boycotting.
In terms of the “rise of anti-Semitism” on college campuses, unfortunately the ADL only seems concerned with White Supremacy rather than the more common and academically condoned anti-Semitism from the Left.
The most popular schools for Jewish students also happen to coincide with the above mentioned states and schools with the largest number of anti-Semitic incidents. The BDS movement, the Anti-Zionist movement and pro-Palestinian activity are almost exclusively Left-leaning or Islamic driven efforts on college campuses as well. The co-founder of the Women’s March, Tamika D. Mallory attended a remarkably anti-Semitic event by Louis Farrakhan and praised him on social media. Linda Sarsour, another leader in the Women’s movement, openly embraces the above anti-Israel sentiment and has expressed anti-Semitic stereotypes on “Jews in the media.” Often the rhetoric from a White Nationalist or Pro-Palestinian advocate are indistinguishable. The ADL has addressed many anti-Semitic and anti-Israel positions taken by Black Lives Matter leaders and supporters and listed the Nation of Islam and multiple Imams perpetuating anti-Jewish hatred in their study.
The ADL report cites 163 bomb threats to Jewish organizations. Of these threats, 150 were perpetrated by a single Jewish man. An additional eight came from a known copy-cat with a history of violent and unpredictable behavior. The ADL justified including these examples, saying, “ADL included the bomb threats in the total count because, regardless of the motivation of any specific perpetrator, Jewish communities were repeatedly traumatized by these assaults on their institutions and threats to their safety. … These crimes meet the textbook definition of hate crimes: Jewish community institutions were intentionally-selected and targeted — and the bomb threats sparked widespread fear at these institutions, causing evacuations, significant service disruptions, program cancellations, and deep community anxiety.”
There were several disturbing incidents across the country of Jewish cemeteries being desecrated or tombstones knocked over. These appear to be of legitimate malicious intent or done as a cruel prank. Muslim and Christian groups came together with Jewish organizations to rebuild them, and Vice President Mike Pence’s visited the desecrated Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, in February.
Assaults decreased from 36 incidents in 2016 to 19 in 2017. Often these occurred to random Jewish citizens who were verbally and then physically attacked by strangers. People threw rocks at synagogue windows and a Jewish-themed children’s school bus was set on fire. A legally blind, 62-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman was attacked in Brooklyn, New York, by an unknown assailant who shouted obscenities to her and violently pulled off her wig.
There certainly seems to have been a rise in White Nationalism and racist worldviews. Paul Nehlen, a Republican running against House Speaker Paul Ryan, posted a hate list of Jews he accused of publicly attacking him (of which I was included). Nehlen has been a vocally anti-Semitic voice, gathering a disturbingly large following on social media, although he was recently banned from Twitter permanently. But pretending the issue is exclusively in this domain denies a great deal of evidence as to how anti-Jewish bigotry impacts our country.
While the efforts to collect reports of attacks are important, it is equally important that these examples represent real concerns. There is no doubt that in a country of 350 million people there will be crazy, violent, bigoted and irrational individuals. Jews seem particularly easy to target whenever social tensions rise across the country and anti-Semitism has taken on an edgy appeal to those wishing to simply rebel and shock society. The problem however, is when the leading voice in reporting these threats include petty, trivial, absurd and even false or misrepresented claims alongside real instances of hate, it destroys the credibility of all who report.
There are plenty of anti-Semitic experiences throughout the country, from both the Right and the Left, to provide us a clear understanding of the issue without padding the numbers. It is vital that when reporting on student bullying or harassment of Jewish citizens, we dedicate time to understanding and detailing the attacks rather than taking them at face value.
There are important questions to ask.
Are any individuals who report discovering anti-Semitic graffiti vetted before included in the report? Anyone working at any business in the country found to be harassing Jews or using anti-Semitic language is likely to be fired immediately, so where are these instances occurring? How is anti-Semitism occurring at such high levels in public schools without intervention or media reporting? Why are reports of significant events like cemetery desecration held in equal concern with abusive online comments?
Just as anti-Semitic graffiti, literature, posts or fliers can represent a real threat, a prank, or a self-imposed hoax for attention, so too can incidents of harassment or discrimination. But we need real numbers of substantiated events without political bias or selective inclusion of offenders to fully understand the problem. The ADL has a responsibility to give us a true and accurate portrayal of what’s going on. But unfortunately, they appear to only be more interested in perpetuating a political narrative.