Donna Swarthout

How the Media Distorts Public Perceptions of anti-Semitism

Demonstration #unteilbar, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, October 2018

Whether reading the news reports in English or German, the headlines were all the same: “One in four Germans holds anti-Semitic views.” These attention-grabbing openers were followed by articles about the World Jewish Congress’ October 2019 Assessment of Anti-Semitism in Germany. Diving in for the details, I was eager to learn what the latest survey could tell me about the German public’s views. But the media’s coverage of the survey findings left me feeling perplexed, with lingering questions and a gnawing sense of skepticism.

Anti-Semitism is a grave problem that must be taken seriously wherever it occurs. That’s why it’s so important to have accurate reporting and frame the problem in the context of other social ills. After reading four or five news reports lacking adequate depth and detail for my tastes, I decided to read through the entire World Jewish Congress survey. I was left with the impression that the media had presented selected results designed to give the worst possible interpretation of the German public’s views.

Consider the following survey findings. 64% of respondents had a favorable view of Jews. This was comparable to the percentage having a favorable view of Christians (67%) and LGBT people (61%), and slightly higher than the percentage having a favorable view of Angela Merkel (49%). In contrast, a much smaller percentage of respondents had favorable views of Muslims (30%), Immigrants (34%), and Roma (21%). 16% reported having an unfavorable view of Jews while 53% reported having an unfavorable view of Muslims. These comparative findings were not highlighted, which seems irresponsible and unfair, giving the public a partial and distorted picture about prejudice in German society.

News reports also featured the finding that 41% of Germans agreed with the statement that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust. Yet the media chose not to mention that 86% of respondents agreed that the Holocaust happened, and that the number of Jews who died in it have been fairly described by history. There was also no mention that 72% agreed that commemorating the Holocaust helps to ensure that such atrocities will never happen again. This selective presentation of the public’s Holocaust-related views obscures the extent to which German society has come to terms with the Holocaust. If anti-Semitism is “prejudice and bias against Jews,” as defined in the survey, how does the opinion that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust indicate that someone is anti-Semitic?

Further obscuring the picture of anti-Semitism were the widespread reports that 41% of the German population believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than Germany. I’m baffled as to why the survey included this question and how it relates to anti-Semitism. Again, the media failed to mention that 66% of respondents agreed that Israel has a right to exist. This finding is more relevant for gaining an understanding of the degree of anti-Semitism than the question about loyalty to Israel. Regardless of one’s opinion about the Israeli government and its policies, Jews living in Germany have valid reasons to have divided loyalties. So do the many holders of dual passports in Germany, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

Deutsche Welle and Süddeutsche Zeitung (and most other media) highlighted the finding that more than 20% of respondents agreed that Jews have too much power over finance and business affairs across the world. This viewpoint is considered a classic indicator of anti-Semitic beliefs. Both sources also omitted the finding that 13%, a much lower figure, felt Jewish people have too much influence over financial and business affairs in Germany.

The media reports did not omit all of the more encouraging news from the survey. At the end of its report, Deutsche Welle cited survey findings that the readiness to combat anti-Semitism is also growing in Germany. However, the media devoted insufficient attention to findings that cast the German public in a more positive light. In addition to finding 78% support for the government’s role in combating anti-Semitism, 75% also agreed that “all Germans must come together – putting aside political, ideological, socioeconomic, or religious differences – to combat anti-Semitism head on,” and 71% agreed that “Federal and State lawmakers should enshrine a zero tolerance policy on anti- Semitism into law.”

The public deserves more balanced and accurate reporting on anti-Semitism and other forms of bias and prejudice in Germany. The World Jewish Congress survey reveals that some Germans hold biased attitudes that should concern us. But it also shows a strong foundation of public understanding and awareness of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, with 74% agreeing that “we must all remain vigilant in monitoring and speaking out against all forms of anti-Semitism.” This foundation of public opinion is a solid basis for moving forward to build a more tolerant society.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout has been writing about Jewish life in Germany and the legacy of the Holocaust since moving from the U.S. to Berlin in 2010. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (Berlinica 2019).
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