The state of anti-Semitism in America 2020: An interview with American Jewish Committee

December 11, 2020

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One year ago, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) released a groundbreaking piece of research—the first-ever survey of American Jews on anti-Semitism in America. Released on the first anniversary of the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history, the findings revealed grave cause for concern about rising anti-Semitism and deep concern that it is getting worse.

This year, AJC carried out two surveys in parallel: the first, conducted among American Jews, closely mirrored last year’s survey, and the second, conducted among the general public, asked some of the same questions asked of Jewish respondents while supplementing them with questions that seek to reveal how Americans perceive and experience anti-Semitism. The AJC State of Antisemitism in America Report is the first survey of its kind, exposing the very different ways American Jews and the general public, understand anti-Semitism.

The AJC Report enables us to identify key challenges and more effectively target education and advocacy efforts as the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Combating Hate Task Force seeks to eradicate this most ancient form of hatred. Our goal with the JCRC Combating Hate Task Force is to educate about the history and danger of anti-Semitism and to mobilize the Jewish and broader community to combat anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, and hate in all forms.

We interviewed Alan Ronkin, AJC’s Washington D.C. director, to learn more.

Wendy Auerbach and Gail Flax: What did we learn from the Report about American Jews’ concern about rising anti-Semitism in American?
Alan Ronkin: American Jews continue to experience and be deeply concerned about rising anti-Semitism in our country. 85% believe it’s a problem and 82% feel like it has risen in the last 5 years—43% saying that it has risen significantly. The concern is shared across all demographics regardless of age, political leanings, or religious affiliation. Notably younger respondents, ages 18-49 were more likely to have been targeted. 41% vs. 31% for those over 50.

WA and GF: One of the areas of focus we would like the JCRC Combating Hate Task Force to concentrate on is the rise in anti-Semitism on social media platforms. What can you tell us about American Jews’ experience on social media?
AR: About 22% of American Jews report being targeted with anti-Semitism on social media platforms. Our study surveyed people above 18 and a clear majority of those who reported harassment on social media experienced it on Facebook (62%), Twitter and Instagram were also significant (33% and 12%). However, among teens, Tik Tok has become extremely problematic, as well.

Slightly more than half of respondents (53%) said the social media company took action in response to their complaint. 46% said that it did not.

WA and GF: We understand there is widespread recognition among American Jews that hostility toward Israel and hatred of Jews are closely intertwined. Can you elaborate?
AR: Anti-Zionism is often, but not always, rooted in anti-Semitism. Simply put, if someone believes that the Jews, unlike all other peoples of the world, do not deserve a state of their own in their ancient homeland, that is anti-Semitism. According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, a definition agreed to by over 30 countries, universities and the U.S. State Department, denying Jews the right to self-determination is a racist endeavor. Also holding “Jews” accountable for the actions of the State of Israel is also deemed to be anti-Semitic.

WA and GF: How aware and concerned are Jewish Americans and the general public concerning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel?
AR: American Jews are very concerned about BDS. 80% say that it is either anti-Semitic or has anti-Semitic supporters in its ranks. The general public is mostly not aware of the BDS movement. Only 5% are very familiar with the movement and of those, 68% agree with the Jewish community regarding its anti-Semitism.
WA and GF: How familiar is the general public with the term “anti-Semitism?” And does the general public see anti-Semitism as a problem in America?

AR: Surprisingly, only 53% of the general public knows the word anti-Semitism and what it means. However, when prompted, the concept of Jew hatred is not foreign. There is a strong link between level of education and knowledge of the term—79% of college graduates know it, compared to 27% of those who did not complete high school or only have a high school diploma. There is no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue.

63% of the general public believes that anti-Semitism is a problem in the United States compared to 88% of Jews who believe that. Even more striking, whereas 82% of American Jews believe that anti-Semitism is rising, only 43% agree. 14% say that it is decreasing. Education levels played a significant role in general perceptions of anti-Semitism: whereas 72% of college graduates said anti-Semitism is a problem in America and 51% said it has gotten worse over the past five years, those numbers plummeted to 53% and 36% among those with a high school education or less.

There were differences, too, across party affiliations: 71% of Democrats believe anti-Semitism to be a problem in America, compared to 58% of independents and 57% of Republicans. 52% of Democrats say anti-Semitism has gotten worse over the past five years; 39% of independents and 34% of Republicans say so.

The more Americans know about anti-Semitism, the more likely they are to believe it has increased in recent years, with a majority (52%) of those who reported the most familiarity with anti-Semitism saying it is on the rise, compared to only 31% of those who said they were less familiar with it.

WA and GF: What is the general public view on anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism?
AR: Like American Jews, the general public overwhelmingly views anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism. 74% of Americans believe that the statement “Israel has no right to exist” is anti-Semitic, compared to 85% of Jews. This belief is shared across age, education, and political leaning.

WA and GF: We both serve on the Holocaust Commission and believe the Holocaust should be taught in all schools. What are American Jews’ and the general public’s views on the necessity for teaching the history of the Holocaust and lessons learned in schools?
AR: 99% of Jews believe that the history of the Holocaust and its lessons should be taught in middle and high schools. 90% of the general public agree. Notably, while 75% of Jews say they know a great deal about the Holocaust, only 37% of the general public says that.

WA and GF: Based on what we know from the report findings, what can be done to combat anti-Semitism?
AR: There are many things that one can do to combat anti-Semitism. Through education, activism, and advocacy we can make a difference. The data bears out that the more knowledgeable the general public becomes about anti-Semitism, the more likely they are to view it as American Jews do. However, anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem—it is a societal problem. Like racism, it is not the Jewish community’s responsibility alone to fight anti-Semitism. Friends and allies must be willing to stand up, speak out and push anti-Semites to the fringes of our society. Free speech is a cornerstone of American democracy. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences to promoting anti-Semitism or any form of racism. We must delegitimize those who express those views and address their bigotry head on. This is not a time to put our heads down and “wish anti-Semitism away.” It is a time for Jews and our allies to stand up and make our voices heard proudly.

Find the complete State of Antisemitism in America Report at AJC.org/AntisemitismReport2020.
To learn more about AJC, go to AJC.org and to learn more about the JCRC’s Combating Hate Task Force, contact Batya Glazer, United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Jewish Community Relations Council director, at bglazer@ujft.org.

- Wendy Auerbach and Gail Flax

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