How many anti-Semites?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 9 2002 3:35 PM

How the ADL Counts Anti-Semites

An "anti-Semitism index" that's less than scientific.

The Anti-Defamation League last month released a survey stating that fully 17 percent of the U.S. population holds beliefs that are "strongly anti-Semitic." The report also said that 35 percent of Latinos and 35 percent of African-Americans were "strongly anti-Semitic." Wow, I thought, that's a lot of Jew-haters! On closer inspection, though, the ADL's methodology seems pretty shaky.

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How does the ADL measure anti-Semitism? With an "anti-Semitism index," of course. Respondents are asked to comment on 11 supposedly inflammatory statements about Jews. Those who agree with anywhere from two to five of the statements are "middle" anti-Semites—"not completely prejudice-free in their attitudes toward Jews, but not an audience to be deeply worried about." Those who agree with six or more of the statements are "most" (i.e., "strongly") anti-Semitic. Here are the 11 statements:

1) Jews stick together more than other Americans.
2) Jews always like to be at the head of things.
3) Jews are more loyal to Israel than America.
4) Jews have too much power in the U.S. today.
5) Jews have too much control and influence on Wall Street.
6) Jews have too much power in the business world.
7) Jews have a lot of irritating faults.
8) Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want.
9) Jewish businesspeople are so shrewd that others don't have a fair chance at competition.
10) Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind.
11) Jews are not just as honest as other businesspeople.

Even the ADL concedes that "at least one or two" of the above statements are "arguably ambiguous." (They're included only because they've been part of the group's methodology since 1964.) In reality, about half the above statements can be described as (varyingly cartoonish) descriptions of cultural traits widely ascribed to Jews that are either neutral or flattering. Statements such as "Jewish business people are so shrewd that others don't have a fair chance at competition" and "Jews always like to be at the head of things" are really just ham-handed ways of saying that Jews tend to be smart, a generalization that in other contexts Jews might agree with. Even a genuinely offensive statement such as "Jews have too much power" might conceivably win endorsement not because the respondent hates Jews but because the respondent hates power. When you rephrase it as a multiple-choice question ("Which group has too much power?"), significantly fewer people choose "Jews."

In the survey, the 11 "anti-Semitic" statements are camouflaged by other "positive and neutral" statements about Jews, responses that the ADL ignores when compiling its anti-Semitism index. Among the philo-Semitic ones are statements that Jews have a special commitment to social justice and that Jews have contributed much to America's cultural life. (Interestingly, the ADL finds that "an overwhelming majority of Americans accept virtually all the positive statements about Jews.") But the camouflage works all too well: The "positive and neutral" statements are often indistinguishable from the "anti-Semitic" ones. It is stated, for instance, that Jews place a strong emphasis on the importance of family life. Why should this be regarded as less offensive than "Jews stick together more than other Americans"? The latter may be an anti-Semitic trope, but it's circulated with pride at your average Shabbat afternoon lecture of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. It also inspires admiration in other ethnic groups. Tellingly, the ADL report claims there are much higher rates of anti-Semitism in foreign-born Latinos than those who were born in America—44 percent versus 20 percent. But perhaps what that number really shows is that recent immigrants value sticking together and remaining loyal to the mother country.

In some instances, the ADL's methodology may be drastically underestimating the extent of anti-Semitism. For example, the survey states a gratifyingly low (three percent) rate of anti-Semitism on campus. From this it concludes that anti-Semitism is more common among less-educated people. But is that really so? After all, college students are well-schooled in the "correct" answers to the ADL quiz. If, as many Jewish groups assert, anti-Semitism is piggybacking anti-Israel sentiment on campuses, it's not on statements like "Jews are shrewd in business." It's on statements like this one attributed to Nicholas DeGenova, a professor of Latino studies at Columbia University, in the April 18 edition of the ColumbiaSpectator: "The heritage of the victims of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The state of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust." The ADL poll has no way of gauging agreement with that idea. But since it was volunteered publicly by a person who influences thought and opinion, it seems much likelier than any of the anti-Semitism index's statements to reflect genuine hostility toward Jews.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.