Antisemitism data no reason to cry ‘gevalt!’

An orthodox Jew and a boy pass two police officers in Antwerp, Belgium, on Sunday, May 25, 2014.   (AP Photo/Yves Logghe via Jewish news )
An orthodox Jew and a boy pass two police officers in Antwerp, Belgium, on Sunday, May 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe via Jewish news )

There’s no getting away from the grim findings of the latest European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) survey of Jewish people’s experiences and perceptions of antisemitism. Levels of concern have risen more or less everywhere in Europe since the last study in this series in 2012, driven particularly, it seems, by Islamist terrorism against Jewish targets and the discourse many European Jews are encountering in the media, politics and particularly online.

Some will argue, as they often do after these types of surveys, that we knew all this already. Why waste so much time and money – the FRA invested well over half a million euros in this study – to tell us what we already know?

Well first, not everyone knows it. And it’s critical data like these exist, based on the views of more than 16,000 Jews across Europe, to inform policy aimed at combating antisemitism at both the national and the European levels.

Importantly, other data don’t always pass muster. In too many cases, well-meaning research efforts are largely ignored at a policy level because they were conducted or commissioned by campaign organisations. “They would find that,” say the critics. But it’s much harder to dismiss the findings of a survey commissioned by an independent expert agency of the European Union drawing on the knowledge and proficiency of many of the leading specialists in the field.

Second, the equivalent data from the 2012 survey did play a key role in shaping policy. The data were used extensively to inform the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, as well as to establish a senior position within the European Commission dedicated to understanding the concerns of Europe’s Jewish communities and tackling antisemitism across the continent.

The findings have been regularly referenced in high level government papers dealing with this topic, and the data from the new survey are likely to be used even more widely.

Certainly, my team at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, having now completed the process of conducting the survey for the FRA, will continue to carefully analyse the data and publish more specific and detailed findings over the coming year or two to give maximal exposure to the results.

And third, that work will help us to determine, empirically and specifically, where the problems of contemporary antisemitism actually lie.

In many instances, the response to new research in this area is to throw up our arms and cry “gevalt!” But as cathartic as that may sometimes be, it’s not terribly helpful from a policy perspective. What is needed is careful and often painstaking analysis of the data to provide clear evidence of what the challenges are, where policy interventions have shown signs of success, and therefore what steps need to be taken to shift the needle a little further in the direction we need it to go.

The FRA research, examined alongside other credible data, demonstrates that there have been some improvements over the years.

Contrary to many people’s assumptions, societal attitudes towards Jews are more favourable than they were a generation ago, levels of discrimination against Jews are low and declining, and antisemitic violence is rare.

But the FRA data also reveal that Jews are encountering considerable antisemitic harassment, especially online, that we are increasingly agitated by antisemitism we encounter in the media and politics, and that our perceptions and experiences of antisemitism affect our levels of engagement in Jewish communal life.

Clearly, that needs to change. But to achieve that, we need a combination of hard evidence, cool heads, and the right relationships.

The FRA survey represents an important step in the right direction.

  • Dr Jonathan Boyd, Executive Director, Institute for Jewish Policy Research
About the Author
Dr Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of JPR - The Institute for Jewish Policy Research
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