Yes, the ADL survey has value and validity

These are some of the headlines of articles critical to the ADL’s global survey on antisemitism:

The first article does a reasonable job of illustrating the very point it is trying to refute, but the two latter -by Noah Feldman and Jesse Singal -present valid objections, though these fall far short of substantiating their headlines.

All the objections apply – to a greater or lesser extent – to all opinion polls, and particularly those that try to measure attitudes. This is also acknowledged explicitly by Abe Foxman and implicitly in the ADL’s presentation of its survey method.

There appears to be an underlying suspicion that the ADL has a conflict of interest in conducting this survey: because it is an organization that is dedicated to combatting (among other things) antisemitism, it has an interest in overstating the prevalence of antisemitism.

This is analogous to denouncing breast cancer awareness campaigns because they are promoted by organizations dedicated to fighting breast cancer: breast cancer is a real-life problem, and so is antisemitism. Organizations that try to solve these problems do not only have the right, but the moral obligation to understand their epidemiology.

This seems to be part of a baffling syndrome in the debate on antisemitism, namely that there appears to be a greater fear of overstating antisemitism than understating it. This may explain why the survey set a high threshold for categorizing a respondent as having antisemitic attitudes: he/she would have to agree to more than half of the statements to qualify.

History fails to provide a single example of unwarranted fears of antisemitism, and you would in any event think that Jews should be forgiven for being sensitive on the subject.

The survey is valuable, not because it is perfect or definitive, but because it gives us a better idea what to look for, and where if we want to understand antisemitism – and the ills that accompany it – better.

Among such important questions are:

  • What are levels of social acceptability for antisemitism in different countries and different circles? This will have undoubtedly have biased the ADL answers (e.g., Sweden may have had a low score simply because there is greater awareness of antisemitic canards there), but it also helps us understand the social drives of bigotry in these countries and circles.
  • What are the nuances and qualifiers of the attitudes? What is the origin of the views, are there others, and what reinforces them?
  • What are attitudes among Jews toward themselves, antisemitism, and the world around them? How does this vary by country, by religious observance, community membership, etc.? How do Jewish reactions to antisemitic attitudes reinforce, weaken, or otherwise modify these views?

These are much more difficult questions to answer, and the ADL only has the capacity to deal with a few of them, and in a limited fashion.

The real value of the ADL survey should be its call to action for countries that want to reduce antisemitism. The ideal scenario is a strengthening of international coordination to research this and other forms of bigotry (including prejudice against Muslims, LGBT, Roma, indigenous minorities, etc.)

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