No drama, no evasions - our report on antisemitism is just pure, hard empiricism

Antisemitism should be measured and analysed seriously — by professionals, with objectivity, precision and circumspection. And that's precisely what we have tried to do

September 12, 2017 15:07

There are two things that irritate me about the general discourse on antisemitism. The first is sensationalism – a tendency among some to present almost every piece of data with alarm, and to exaggerate the scale of the problem.

The second is complacency – a tendency among others to ignore certain measures of antisemitism, and to minimise the scale of the problem.

Neither serves the community well, and neither helps inform sensible policy to address existing reality.

If we can agree that antisemitism ought to be taken seriously, we should also be able to agree that it should be measured and analysed seriously — by professionals, with objectivity, precision and circumspection. That’s precisely what we have tried to do in the new JPR survey. No drama, no evasion. Just pure, hard empiricism focused on the issues that matter most.

The first key point we make is that antisemitism is an attitude, and like all attitudes, it exists at different levels of intensity in society. Some people — 2.4% of the population of Great Britain it turns out – are hard-core antisemites. They hold multiple antisemitic attitudes simultaneously; presented with several antisemitic tropes, they agree with most, if not all.

But at the same time, 28 per cent of people in Great Britain agree with at least one antisemitic trope, even as they disagree with, or are neutral on, many others. Describing most of these people as antisemitic would not only be absurd but politically foolish — they are not, even though they may express a view on occasion that makes us feel uncomfortable or offended, often unintentionally. And, of course, there are many shades in between these figures.

Which brings me to my second point. Most research about antisemitism highlights a single figure as the measure of antisemitism. That’s great for a headline, but it’s analytically indefensible. There is no clean cut-off point between those who are antisemitic and those who are not, in the same way as there is no clear cut-off point between those who are liberal-minded or not. If we want to get serious about understanding antisemitism, we need to measure it, at its varying levels of intensity, systematically, over time.

But that’s also insufficient. Because to derive any meaning from any figures, we need context. We need to draw comparisons, not just over time, but also across society. For example, we should note that levels of intense misogyny in Great Britain exist at a level of about 3-4 per cent, but the proportion of people in Great Britain who hold at least one attitude that, if expressed, might make some women feel uncomfortable or offended, is 31 per cent. Those figures are remarkably similar to the ones for Jews. The more such comparisons we draw, the more we can contextualise, and make sense of the levels of antisemitism we observe.

And we need to know more than that. Holding an attitude does not necessarily equate to acting violently on the basis of it. The proportions of people who feel that violence is either often or sometimes justified against Jews, Israelis or Zionists is 3-4 per cent, lower than the equivalent proportions for those justifying violence against banks, big business, British military personnel, immigrants or Muslims. That doesn’t mean there is no cause for concern. But it does provide a bit of perspective.

Deployed carefully, we can also use statistics to assess whether anti-Israelism is antisemitism, albeit not at an individual level, but at a societal one. The answer, explored empirically for the first time in JPR’s report, is obvious really — sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But by quantifying it and establishing a benchmark, we can monitor whether the two phenomena are becoming increasingly intermingled, or increasingly distinct over time.

That won’t tell us whether Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite or not, but it will help us to determine the extent to which levels of hostility towards Israel represent a threat to the British Jewish community.

Read the report. It offers, I believe, a measured and sober assessment of contemporary reality. And that’s its key purpose. No drama, no evasion. Just pure, hard empiricism. Hopefully, that’s how antisemitism will continue to be assessed going forward.

Dr Jonathan Boyd is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

September 12, 2017 15:07

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