Antisemitism as an epidemic

The ADL 100 survey findings are discouraging. Taking my own country as a case example, we may need to do some counterintuitive things to reduce the prevalence of hardcore antisemitism and antisemitic leanings.

By and large, the results of ADL’s (nearly) global study on the prevalence of antisemitism are disturbing. 26% of the world’s population agree with most of a series of blatantly antisemitic statements. Fully a quarter of the world´s population readily believe several canards, stereotypes, and outright malicious about people just because they are Jews.

What is the right benchmark?

I am not sure what would be an “acceptable” rate. There is a certain, possibly fixed share of people, who are willing to believe the craziest things – my best guess is between 5% and 10%. My working hypothesis is that every liberal democracy should seek an antisemitism index below 10%.

The situation in my own country

In a global context. Norway is among the best: 15% of those surveyed harbor antisemitic attitudes. Within Europe, we are also above average, but among our Nordic neighbors things are not impressive. Sweden is among the best in the world at 4%, Denmark is 9%, Finland matches us with 15%. The UK is 8%, US 9%.

It is worth remembering, that the index is a composite score: you have to agree with the majority – and not just a few – of the antisemitic assertions to exceed the threshold. The 15% score for Norway – which is consistent with the results of a similar survey completed by the Norwegian Holocaust Center – hides some attitudes that are surprisingly common. For example:

  • 40% believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own countries
  • 31% believe that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust
  • 27% believe that Jews control too much of the US government
  • 23% believe that Jews are hated because of the way Jews behave – this in spite of the fact that only 8% claim to have any meaningful interaction with Jews

In other words, a much higher proportion than the 15% harbor one or more antisemitic attitudes. Two elements deserve particular attention. Norway may have a (relatively) small proportion who are hardcore antisemites, but a larger proportion, 30-40%, who have antisemitic leanings.

It is also worth noting that in a country like Norway, virtually nobody would ever admit to being antisemitic: their agreement with these statements because they are facts, not prejudice.

Hypotheses on the dynamics

Antisemitism is a disease of the collective and individual intellect, a symptom of bigotry and ignorance. It reflects lacking ability to think critically and fairly and lacking willingness to be reasonable. At first glance, there is a clear correlation between ADL’s antisemitism score and backwardness on a number of other dimensions.

In Norway, antisemitism is likely a function of three factors:

  • “Traditional” antisemitism – for example, 21% thought that Jews think they are better than other people
  • General antagonism against anything religious – the exact same share of people (14%) had “unfavorable” views of Jews as Christians in the survey (a whopping 44% were unfavorable toward Muslims)
  • Conflating anti-Israeli attitudes with antisemitic views – 37% have an unfavorable view of Israel, (27% had an unfavorable view of “Palestine.”), and fully a third said that Israel’s actions affected their views on Jews.

The conventional response to reports of antisemitism in Norway is to demand more education on the Holocaust, but for at least 31% of the respondents, this is counterproductive, and there is a good chance that the approach is running into diminishing returns among other segments as well.

To the extent that people perceive Holocaust education as a justification for things that cause an unfavorable impression of Israel, we may in fact be seeing a vicious cycle, and one that is perpetuated by the myth of the “Holocaust industry” as a pervasive force.

Possible countermeasures

My hypotheses should be tested in field research that I hope the Norwegian government will sponsor. But assuming that they are true, countering antisemitism in Norway should focus on:

  • Fighting demonization of Israel while encouraging constructive criticism. Like it or not, Norwegian academics, politicians, journalists, and other pundits would rather err on the side of demonization than idealization of Israel. The implicit question in anti-Israeli rhetoric is “what kind of people would defend this terrible country?” to which the answer inevitably is “the Jews.” To defend Israel by any means appears to cause polarization and entrenchment, but to attack unreasonable condemnation and naive narratives is to delegitimize the demonization, inch by inch.
  • Recast Holocaust education to focus on the contrasting roles of perpetrators, bystanders, and heroes rather than the usual emphasis on the victims.
  • Demystify what a Jewish identity means. Ideally, this shouldn’t be necessary – minorities are under no obligation to explain how or justify why they are different from the majority. But as a practical matter, everything Jewish is subject to misunderstandings that range from the disarmingly benign to the most vicious libel.


About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area
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