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Anti-Semitism tops American Jewish concerns in latest survey

Rabbi Hershey Novack walks by vandalized tombstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on Feb. 21, 2017, in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

(RNS) — A first-of-its-kind survey from the American Jewish Committee finds that 88% of American Jews say anti-Semitism is a problem in the U.S. today and nearly a third report they avoid publicly wearing, carrying or displaying objects or symbols that might help people identify them as Jewish.

The Jewish advocacy organization released the survey Wednesday (Oct. 23) ahead of the anniversary Sunday of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, in which a gunman spewing anti-Semitic invectives stormed into the building carrying three handguns and an AR-15 and shooting indiscriminately. Eleven Jews were killed.

Conducted Sept. 11 to Oct. 6 among a nationally representative sample of 1,283 Jewish respondents, the survey offers a snapshot of a jittery but not quite panicked American community.

“What stood out is how deep and widespread  the concern is, and how it cuts across different segments of the Jewish community,” said David Harris, CEO of the AJC. 

It also found that 72% of American Jews disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of the threat of anti-Semitism and assign greater responsibility to the Republican Party than the Democratic Party for the current level of anti-Semitism in the U.S. 

“How much of a problem, if at all, do you think antisemitism is in the United States today?” Graphic courtesy of AJC

This is the first time the AJC has undertaken a survey devoted exclusively to anti-Semitism, so it’s difficult to compare the results. 

But Dov Waxman, a political scientist at Northeastern University who has studied annual AJC surveys of American Jewish attitudes, which sometimes feature a question on anti-Semitism, said there’s a significant increase in the number of Jews who consider anti-Semitism to be a problem. In a 2016 AJC survey, only 73% judged it a problem, he said.

“This concern has rocketed to the top of the American Jewish agenda,” said Waxman, a professor of Jewish historical and cultural studies. “It’s becoming the biggest concern for American Jews today.”

The survey found that 31% of Jews avoided wearing symbols or objects identifying them as Jews — presumably yarmulkes and jewelry with the Star of David. Another 25% said they “always,” “frequently” or “sometimes” avoided certain places, events or situations out of concern for their safety — behavior that is typically more common among European Jews than American Jews.

But relatively few Jews have been personally affected by anti-Semitism. Only 2% of respondents reported being the target of a physical anti-Semitic attack; 23% reported they were a target of a verbal anti-Semitic attack; and 20% said they experienced anti-Semitism on social media.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said the Jewish institutions they know have either hired security guards, posted police officers outside or trained members on how to respond to an attack.

“Over the past five years, do you think antisemitism in the United States has … ” Graphic courtesy of AJC

American Jews blamed extreme right-wing activists (89%) and Islamic extremists (85%) for the rise in anti-Semitism (though only 27% rated Islamic extremists a “very serious” threat, whereas 49% rated right-wing extremists as a “very serious” threat). By contrast, 64% blamed extreme left-wing political actors.

Waxman noted that while many Jewish institutional establishments have stressed the dual nature of right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism, American Jews overwhelmingly see the threat coming from right-wing extremists.

This week the Anti-Defamation League reported that at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested on allegations of plotting, threatening or carrying out anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. since the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue nearly one year ago.

American Jews also appeared to diverge from the message of institutional Jewish leaders on the issue of  the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement —  the campaign to end international support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. While 35% of American Jews said the BDS movement was “mostly anti-Semitic,” nearly half (47%) said only that it had “some anti-Semitic supporters.”

“That’s surprisingly low, compared to the consensus among American Jewish organizations,” said Peter Beinart, a columnist at The Atlantic and a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.

Harris said the AJC planned to give the results of the study to each of the candidates for the 2020 presidential election and ask that they develop policy positions in response.

He said the fact that nearly a third of American Jews have changed their behavior as a result of anti-Semitic fear was perhaps the most striking finding from the survey.

“I’d say that’s a pretty serious wake-up call,” Harris said. “That’s not the America in which a lot of us grew up.”

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

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