Almost all U.S. Jews say antisemitism is a problem. Half of Americans don’t know what it means.
By Ben Sales
(JTA) – Nearly half of Americans don’t know what the phrase “antisemitism” means.
That’s one takeaway from two surveys published Monday by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The surveys asked Jews and the general American public about antisemitism in the United States.
The Jewish survey found that a large majority of Jews consider antisemitism a problem, and that most see it as a problem on the right and in the Republican Party. Those findings were in line with what the AJC, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, found when it surveyed American Jews last year.
The new surveys found that, in a year when 88 per cent of American Jews say antisemitism remains a problem in the United States, 21 per cent of Americans overall – more than one in five – say they’ve never even heard of the term. An additional 25 per cent of Americans overall have heard the term but are unsure of what it means.
But nearly half of Americans overall say they have seen antagonism against Jews either online or in person during the past five years, suggesting that respondents may be familiar with the reality of anti-Jewish bigotry but unfamiliar with the term “antisemitism.”
Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. director for combating antisemitism, said she believes using the term antisemitism is important because it covers a broad historical spectrum of how anti-Jewish discrimination manifests – from conspiracy theories to stereotypes to slurs.
“I think this is an opportunity for education on what antisemitism is,” she said. “If someone would have said ‘Jew-hatred, do you know what that is,’ or some other term, I think we would have seen that number a little bit less, but we need the term antisemitism to be understood.”
The surveys were taken in September and early October and included 1,010 Americans overall and 1,334 Jews. The margin of error for the general America sample was 3.7 per cent and 4.2 per cent for the Jewish sample.
The poll of Jews found that 82 per cent say antisemitism in the United States has increased during the past five years. The survey numbers for Jews are statistically equivalent to those from an AJC survey taken last year, which found that 88 per cent of Jews saw antisemitism as a problem in the U.S. and 84 per cent said it had increased during the past five years.
In this year’s survey, 43 per cent of Jews said the status of Jews in the United States is less secure than it was a year ago, while 52 per cent say it’s about the same and four per cent say it’s more secure. Those numbers are also essentially the same as last year’s.
A quarter of Jews say they have been targeted with an antisemitic attack in person over the past five years. During the same period, 22 per cent have experienced antisemitism online and three per cent have been victim to an antisemitic physical attack. The poll found that about a quarter of Jews avoid publicly wearing things that identify them as Jewish and that the same percentage avoid identifying as Jews online.
A majority of Jews say that Jewish institutions they’re affiliated with have increased security in the two years since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Almost 40 per cent say their Jewish institutions have been subject to antisemitic graffiti, threats or attacks since the shooting, which occurred in October 2018. Ten per cent of Jewish respondents said they’ve avoided visiting Jewish institutions since the shooting.
“What American Jews and the general public are saying in these surveys, for us, is a clarion call for a stepped-up, multi-pronged response to rising antisemitism in the United States,” said AJC CEO David Harris in a statement.
A majority of Americans overall, 62 per cent, consider antisemitism a problem in the United States, though while 37 per cent of Jews consider it a very serious problem, only 19 per cent of Americans overall agree. And while the vast majority of Jews believe antisemitism has gotten worse over the past five years, only 43 per cent of Americans overall agree.
Most Americans overall also said the opinions of Jewish people and organizations make no difference to them when considering whether a statement or idea is antisemitic. A quarter of Americans overall said that Jews considering something antisemitic would make them more likely to consider it antisemitic, seven per cent said it would make them less likely to consider it antisemitic and 62 per cent of people said it would make no difference.
“It comes down to this whole idea of who defines antisemitism,” Huffnagle said. “Is it the Jewish community? Who is the arbiter of what is antisemitism? Ideally it should be the Jewish community. Every other minority group gets to define the discrimination against them.”
Majorities of Jews and of Americans overall believe that the Republican Party holds antisemitic views, while 42 per cent of Americans overall and 37 per cent of Jews say the same about the Democrats.
In addition, nearly half of Jews (49 per cent) feel the extreme political right poses a very serious antisemitic threat. An additional 26 per cent say it poses a moderately serious antisemitic threat. By contrast, 16 per cent of Jews say that the extreme left poses a very serious antisemitic threat while the same percentage say it poses a moderately serious threat.
In terms of extremism in the name of Islam, 27 per cent of Jews say it poses a very serious threat while 26 per cent say it poses a moderately serious threat. This set of questions was not asked of Americans overall.
In terms of which political camp poses the greatest threat, Orthodox Jews as well as Republican Jews were split from the rest of Jewish respondents. Both Orthodox respondents as well as Republican respondents were much less likely to say the Republican Party holds antisemitic views or to say that the extreme right poses a very serious antisemitic threat. Those groups see that threat on the left and among Democrats instead.
Among Orthodox respondents, 66 per cent say the extreme left poses a very or moderately serious antisemitic threat, and the same percentage says the Democratic Party holds antisemitic views. Among Republican Jewish respondents, 71 per cent say the extreme left poses a very or moderately serious antisemitic threat, while 79 per cent say the Democratic Party holds antisemitic views.
Huffnagle said that the data shows AJC “need[s] to increase our efforts as an organization to fight the far right.”
The survey also found that a majority of Jews are at least somewhat familiar with the BDS movement, which encourages boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and that 37 per cent consider it antisemitic. An additional 43 per cent say it has some antisemitic supporters. Fifteen percent say the movement is not antisemitic.
More than three-quarters of Jews also agree it’s antisemitic to say “Israel has no right to exist,” “The U.S. government only supports Israel because of Jewish money,” and “American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America.”
While 74 per cent of Americans overall believe that saying “Israel has no right to exist” is antisemitic, 55 per cent believe it’s antisemitic to say “The U.S. government only supports Israel because of Jewish money,” and half say the statement “American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America” is antisemitic.
Photo: Thousands of New Yorkers of all backgrounds convened at the “No Hate. No Fear” solidarity march against antisemitism in January 2020. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)