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Researching antisemitism

Researching antisemitism

There is little question that many Jews in the UK feel rattled by murders at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Paris. If anyone was in any doubt about the threat posed by Islamist extremism in Europe, the realities were laid bare by the attacks, and it is perhaps inevitable that Jews across Europe will feel less secure in their aftermath.

The fact that the attacks came just a few months after a significant spike in the number of antisemitic incidents was observed in the UK and across Europe in the context of the summer war in Gaza only adds to that sense of insecurity. Certainly, the temperature of debate has risen significantly in Jewish circles in recent months, and the future of European Jewry is being discussed in a way that was not the case before the summer.

The additional fact that a new organisation, the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), exists in the British Jewish community, and has been particularly active in recent months, should be seen in this context. Its very existence, and the passion with which it has undertaken its work, reflect British Jewish communal discourse. By all accounts, in the organisation’s short life, it has successfully run rallies against antisemitism and gained access to the highest echelons of the British political establishment. Jews want opportunities to voice their concerns, and the CAA is providing an outlet.

However, unfortunately, the organisation’s survey about antisemitism is littered with flaws, and in the context of a clear need for accurate data on this topic, its work may even be rather irresponsible.

Its report is based on two surveys – one of Jews living in the UK, exploring their perceptions and experiences of antisemitism, and one of the general population of the UK, exploring its attitudes towards Jews.

In the first one, the data about Jewish attitudes are based on an open web survey that had very limited capacity to assess whether respondents were in any way representative of the British Jewish population. So the percentages quoted are of survey respondents, not of Jews in the UK. The findings might be representative of the Jewish community in some way, but it is at least equally likely that they are not. Unfortunately, due to quite basic methodological flaws and weaknesses, there is absolutely no way the researchers or any readers of the report can really know.

Because of this, the claim in the report, for example, that “more than half of all British Jews feel that antisemitism now echoes the 1930s” verges into irresponsible territory – it is an incendiary finding, and there is simply no way to ascertain whether or not it is accurate. Moreover, the very inclusion of such a question in the survey, which most credible scholars of the Holocaust utterly refute, was a dubious decision in and of itself, and raises issues about the organisers’ pre-existing hypotheses and assumptions. Professional social researchers build credible surveys and analyse the data with an open mind; the CAA survey falls short both in terms of its methodology and its analysis.

The second survey, conducted by YouGov, is much better – the results are certainly broadly representative of the UK population. The findings would have benefited significantly from greater contextualisation, both in terms of attitudes towards other minorities, and the inclusion of some positive statements about Jews rather than just negative ones, which would have helped to provide some balance and nuance. But the research makes a valuable contribution to knowledge. The inclusion of some context might also have altered the way in which the results were presented in the CAA report and press release, which included the rather sensationalist claim that almost half of British adults harbour some kind of antisemitic view.

A far more accurate and honest read of the YouGov data would highlight the fact that between 75% and 90% of people in Britain either do not hold antisemitic views or have no particular view of Jews either way, and only about 4% to 5% of people can be characterised as clearly antisemitic when looking at individual measures of antisemitism. This figure is similar to Pew data gathered in 2009 and 2014 which estimated the level of antisemitic attitudes at somewhere between 2% and 7%, and Anti-Defamation League data gathered in 2014 which, while also flawed, put it at 8%, and, more robustly, identified the UK as among the least antisemitic countries in the world. It is possible that the proportion has risen in light of the summer’s events in Gaza (and those interested should look out for the next results from the Pew Global Attitudes Survey), but the notion that it has risen to such a significant degree seems to be highly implausible.

Recent events, over the summer and in Paris, demand that we carefully and accurately monitor exactly what is going on in the UK and elsewhere. But to do so, we need to ensure that the work is undertaken by suitably qualified researchers, and analysed in a way that reflects the findings in their entirety and inevitable complexity. There should be no question whatsoever today that a threat to the Jewish community exists, but if we want the community or the government to assess it accurately and develop appropriate policy accordingly, we have to ensure that the data they have are as accurate as possible.

Antisemitism is a serious topic, and the claims that it is rising need to be taken seriously. Government officials need accurate data about it to inform policy. Legal authorities need accurate data about it to assess levels of discrimination. The police and security services need accurate data about it to minimise the chances of harassment, assault or murder. Jewish community leaders need accurate data about it to provide sound advice to community members. And British Jews in general need accurate data to make sound judgements about their future and the future of their families. If the CAA's work achieves anything, let it be this: that there will be a new-found commitment to start researching and analysing this issue in a methodologically serious and analytically intelligent way, with a clear eye on the shaping of policy at all levels.

Fore recent JPR articles on this topic see below -

Huffington Post - Could It Happen in the UK?

Jerusalem Post - Analysis: British Jewry and a feeling of insecurity

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