Sunday, May 30, 2021

Antisemitic incidents are on the rise, but don't fall for overblown numbers

  • A surge of antisemitic incidents have occured throughout the US, following the latest recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.
  • But the ADL's statistics, widely cited in the media, are inflated by the conflation of anti-Jewish violence with some legitimate political protests against Israel. 
  • There's no reason to stretch the truth about the scourge of antisemitism, because the truth is bad enough.  
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

You've probably heard that antisemitic incidents are on the rise over the past few weeks — including violent assaults, vandalism, and other forms of harassment

While hate crime data is notoriously unreliable, FBI statistics consistently show Jews as the most likely-targeted identity group, and there's ample evidence to suggest that following the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, there's been a spike of attacks against Jews in the US and elsewhere.

Targeting diaspora Jews for violence and harassment as a form of protest against Israel should be universally condemned, without equivocation. And it's important that the public be made aware of the scope of the threat.

At the same time, it's dangerous to hyper-inflate statistics to make it seem as if the surge in antisemitic incidents is much worse than it is. Disseminating inflammatory and misleading information not only fosters distrust in institutions, it inflames already existing tensions, and creates more opportunities for law enforcement overreach. 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been accused of doing that very thing.  

Legitimate political protest or hate speech? 

Journalists frequently rely on the ADL's stats when covering stories about extremist violence. And the group's stats have been cited as evidence of the recent uptick in antisemitic incidents in the US.

But what exactly meets the ADL's criteria for an "antisemitic incident" is murky, as is its source-gathering. News reports, police blotters, Twitter searches, and reports of antisemitism made directly to the ADL are all included in its overall number of "incidents." 

This results in news outlets promoting an overall number of "incidents" that would be significantly less if greater context was provided. 

Some critics have noted that the ADL also counts pro-Palestinian sentiments that attack the concept of Zionism and the state of Israel as "antisemitic." 

This is where it gets tricky, because the ADL says criticism of Israel is not inherently antisemitic, but that anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism when coupled with statements where "Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state and equal member of the global community."

Not everyone is going to agree with that statement, because Zionism is a political idea, and Israel is a political entity.

Writing for the the left-leaning site Jewish Currents, Mari Cohen asked of the ADL:

"Had the organization yet reviewed reports of the 193 'possible incidents' to determine their legitimacy? What kinds of incidents were they? Assault? Harassment? Vandalism? How did the organization decide when to add an incident to its 'tracker of antisemitic incidents?'"

An ADL spokesperson told me that the group's antisemitic incidents tracker is "not exhaustive" but is "rather a timely snapshot of incidents that have occurred in recent days" and that some cases "may be removed if they are determined not credible upon further investigation by ADL." 

Responding to Cohen's critique, the spokesperson said it's not true that the ADL counts "every anti-Israel or anti-Zionism protest as an antisemitic incident." 

But, they added: "Phrases such as 'Zionism is racism' or 'Zionism is Nazism,' are an implicit attack on the large percentage of American Jews who view a relationship with Israel to be an important part of their religious, cultural, or social identities. The phrase demonizes them in a manner which we know has led to intimidation of Jews and exclusion of many Jews from progressive spaces."

The line between strident, even offensive, political protest and a "hate crime" is often difficult to define.  

Extremism violence is bad enough, the threat doesn't need to be inflated 

A 2020 data investigation I produced along with several of my Insider colleagues found the ADL's top-line statistics — the ones most likely to be repeated by news outlets and politicians — are misleadingly inflated

For example, if two neo-Nazis engaged in a meth deal-turned bad and one killed the other, that's counted under the top-line statistic of "extremist violence." 

There are numerous examples of this kind of statistic-bloating. 

If a guy with sovereign citizen literature in his car kills his wife and kids, to the ADL that's "extremist violence."

If a would-be KKK member bails on their initiation and is killed by their would-be compatriots, that's "extremist violence," too. 

Our Insider investigation looked at 10 years of the ADL's data, and after investigating news reports, court records, and other sources, we re-assessed each incident as being either "extremist violence" or just violence committed by a possible extremist.  

We came to the conclusion that while the ADL is correct in its highly-publicized conclusion that right-wing extremists commit the vast majority of political and bigotry-motivated extremist violence, the ADL's top-line statistic for right-wing violence was inflated roughly by a factor of four.

extremist violence 09 18
Ruobing Su/Business Insider

The ADL freely admits it includes incidents with no inherent political or bigoted motivations in its H.E.A.T. map (an acronym for Hate, Extremism, Antisemitism, Terrorism). But the ADL says those incidents need to be included among hate crimes and political violence to demonstrate the threat posed by extremists' proclivity for violence.  

Arthur Jipson, an associate professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in extremism, told me in 2020 that he believes the ADL is acting in good faith when presenting its statistics, but he added:  

"What I would do is say, 'Here's the raw data, here's the raw total.' Now let's break it up into categories where we've had really clear evidence. I don't think [the ADL] is wrong for [using] the raw data, but I would also then say, 'Let's compare that against data where we have this absolutely clear empirical manifestation of that criminal intent.'"

Anti-semitism knows no borders, is not distinct to the political right or left, and long pre-dates Israel. 

And while virulent anti-Zionist speech isn't inherently antisemitic, there is no question that a disturbing amount of anti-Israel protest has crossed that line, especially in recent weeks. 

But to inflate the threat by using an overbroad definition of antisemitism, and questionable information-gathering techniques, is to sow terror and mistrust.

As I wrote in 2020: "Violent extremists are inspired by each other, and the scope of their violence is often used as a recruiting tool. Inflating the overall statistics could embolden extremists who want the public to be terrorized by the seeming scope and force of their violence."

We need institutions like the ADL to be as transparent as possible in their methodologies, and we need such advocacy groups to responsibly report the scale of the threat, without inflating the numbers.

Journalists also should be less instantly credulous of statistics that confirm the conventional wisdom that everything is unspeakably terrible. Reporters have a responsibility to look under the hood and not reflexively cite top-line statistics as evidence of a crisis.

If antisemitism is on the rise in the US (and I believe it is), there's no reason to stretch the truth to prove it, because the truth is bad enough.

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