The CAA poll debate: These figures are not to be trusted

November 24, 2016 23:23

Assessing UK antisemitism is not a suitable subject for propaganda games. Last week a new Jewish pressure group called Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) rushed out a deeply flawed report following the outrages in Paris. This presumably was to take advantage of the prevailing panic to gain publicity for unfounded statements about a “tsunami” of Jew-hatred in Britain. If headline-grabbing was the aim, it certainly succeeded.

The community’s leading research body, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) has justifiably condemned CAA’s publication as “incendiary” and “irresponsible”. The JC has published considerably less alarming findings from its own, more reliable research.

In order to reach a judgement about the extent of antisemitism in the UK, we need to look both at the number and seriousness of recorded cases and at professionally administered polling data about attitudes.

The number of antisemitic incidents reported to the Community Security Trust suggests the situation is considerably less grave than the fevered publicity has implied. There was a record spike in reported incidents at the time of the conflict in Gaza in July 2014. After the Israeli withdrawal, the numbers declined, though they remained higher than in the similar months in 2013.

But the position is different regarding physical assault or “extreme violence” (defined as involving a threat to life or grievous bodily harm). In the peak month of July 2014, there was not a single case involving extreme violence, nor had there been any such case since the first half of 2012. During the first six months of 2014, the number of recorded incidents involving assault was the lowest for any similar period since 2001.

These statistics do not diminish the all-too real terrorist threat against Jewish institutions and premises. But they should give a warning against overblown reporting about the extent of what Eylon Aslan-Levy has called “everyday anti-Semitism” among the British population at large.

So what explains CAA’s finding that “more than half of all British Jews feel that antisemitism now echoes the 1930s”? The answer lies in what the JPR has condemned as basic flaws in the methodology of CAA’s so-called “antisemitism barometer”.

It was completely predicable that its questionnaire would produce the conclusion that one in four British Jews had considered leaving the UK and 45 per cent were concerned that Jews had no long-term future here. This was because the questions were so slanted and tendentious and because anyone who wished could complete the questionnaire (possibly several times using different computers).

Whenever there is an openly available online questionnaire, those answering tend to be people with especially strong and thus unrepresentative opinions. In this case, there were only 2,230 responses from “targeted advertising” on the internet aimed at Britain’s Jewish community.

A key feature of opinion research is that the less reliable the methodology, the more likely it is to produce spectacular results. And the more striking the findings, the more likely they are to win headlines. Because of the perverse incentive for shoddy survey methodology, professional pollsters operate according to a collective code of conduct. Not only did CAA incorrectly characterise its amateur questionnaire of Jewish opinion as a “poll” (thereby suggesting a statistically valid sample), it then used overblown language in reporting its results.

It is not surprising that CAA’s figures were far more alarming than the JC’s own research. Nor is it surprising that the JC study was less cited even though it deserves to be taken more seriously since it is based on a scientific sample of British Jewry.

There is a further point which may appear technical but which, in fact, is vital as far as the interpretation of a second study by CAA is concerned. This was the poll of attitudes to Jews among the general population commissioned by CAA from YouGov. Here, the professionalism of the sample survey is not in question but CAA has misinterpreted the results to claim wrongly that they show antisemitic attitudes among nearly half of the population. They do not.

As an academic who has been involved in survey research connected with election studies and who was polling advisor to one of the main political parties, I was struck by the large number of “don’t knows” in reply to questions about Jews (such as whether they like money more than other people). The scholarly literature on public opinion shows that when a poll reveals a relatively high proportion of “don’t knows”, we are dealing with what are called “non-attitudes”. In these cases, some respondents are also likely to give a “yes” or “no” response simply to oblige the pollster. This is especially the case when they are given the option of replying “probably” as well as “definitely”. Thus, a considerable number of those who answered “probably yes”
when asked about various antisemitic propositions really meant that they had no view at all. (The YouGov survey did not isolate Muslim attitudes to Jews.)

We need to investigate the complex phenomenon of anti-Jewish prejudice in an academically robust manner. Until we know much more, we should reject attempts by some leading Israeli politicians or their supporters within Anglo-Jewry to scare Jews into making aliyah.

On a personal note, CAA’s report comes in the month of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and of the Budapest ghetto. This was the last of four ghettos and camps in which I was immured in Hungary. My background as a survivor leaves two commitments: to combat antisemitism and other forms of racism and to avoid trivialising it by misleading allegations.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky is a political scientist and a former member of the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights

November 24, 2016 23:23

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