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Antisemitism - we may be better off in the UK

The view from the data

November 24, 2016 23:20

Antisemitism is on the rise in Britain. We all know it. The latest incident counts from the CST make grim reading, a full inquiry into the issue has been undertaken by the Labour Party, the National Union of Students has been condemned as "toxic" and unsafe for Jews , and in the past couple of months alone, we've seen swastikas daubed on a playground in Stamford Hill, SS symbols painted on the doors of students' homes in Durham and a Jewish cemetery desecrated in Manchester. And that's without even mentioning the constant threat of Islamist terrorism, which has shattered so many lives across Europe, including those of Jewish victims in France, Belgium and Denmark.

Yet, in the midst of all this, there is one important empirical source that consistently indicates that things may not be quite so dire after all. The Pew Research Center in Washington DC has been running its "Global Attitudes Project" since it was established over a decade ago. As part of this work, it measures national populations' attitudes towards different minorities, most notably Muslims, Roma and Jews. It has used the same methodological approach consistently over time, asking one key and very simple question to a nationally representative sample of adults in various countries: is your opinion of each religious or ethnic group "very favourable; somewhat favourable; somewhat unfavourable; or very unfavourable?"

Part of the strength of the question is its neutrality. It doesn't assume that people are antipathetic towards any of these groups. On the contrary, it allows respondents as much of a chance to express a positive opinion as a negative one. Many other approaches to measuring antisemitism fail to do this, which can result in the generation of overly alarming statistics.

The other key strength of Pew's question is that it has been asked several times since 2004. This approach means that they are able to track change over time, and carefully assess whether antipathy towards these groups is growing, declining or stable.

So what have they found in the case of the British population's attitude towards Jews? First, the combined total for those expressing either "somewhat unfavourable" or "very unfavourable" attitudes towards Jews has constantly remained below 10 per cent. The highest recorded findings occurred in 2004 and 2008 when it hit nine per cent; the lowest occurred in 2006 and 2009 when it was 6 per cent. For the past three years, it has remained steady at seven per cent. And those in the "very unfavourable" category - that is people with the most antipathetic attitudes towards Jews - have consistently, year-on-year, been no more than two to three per cent of the adult British population.

On the other side of the fence, the proportions expressing positive views towards Jews have ranged from 73 per cent to 86 per cent between 2004 and 2016, with the most recent counts very much at the high end of that range. At the same time, in each survey, about 10 to 20 per cent of Brits have either refused to answer the question, or said that they do not have an opinion.

Analysed in their global context, these results position the United Kingdom as one of the least antisemitic societies in the world, a finding that is backed up by many other sources that measure antisemitism in other ways. For example, the proportion in Hungary holding unfavourable views towards Jews is currently 29 per cent; in Spain and Italy it is about 20 per cent. The findings also demonstrate that antipathy towards other minorities is considerably stronger in the UK: 14 to 28 per cent of UK adults have expressed unfavourable attitudes towards Muslims since 2004; antipathy towards Roma is similar at between 22 per cent and 30 per cent.

What should we make of this? None of it removes any of the hurt or upset caused by mindless thugs who vandalise Jewish buildings or harass Jews on the street. None of it alters the deep offence caused by insensitive comments by Labour Party members, who seem to apply one rule for Jews and another for other ethnic or religious minorities. And none of it affects the ever-present reality that the Jewish community here could be targeted by Islamist extremists bent on bringing their murderous brand of hatred to the UK.

But it should, perhaps, give us some pause for thought. Yes, there are threats. Yes, we need to remain vigilant. And, yes, we need to understand what is going on in much more detail. But, according to this key source at least, the vast majority of Brits actually view Jews in an overwhelmingly favourable light.

Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

November 24, 2016 23:20

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