The first comprehensive survey of European Jews on their exposure and reactions to anti-Semitism has prompted dire headlines. Of the nearly 6,000 Jews surveyed recently in eight countries, over three-quarters said European anti-Semitism had risen in the last five years. Twenty-nine percent said they were considering emigrating out of concern for their safety; among Hungary's Jews, that figure was 48 percent, among French Jews, 46 percent, and among Belgian Jews, 40 percent. Furthermore, 22 percent of respondents said they were afraid to identify as Jews in public or visit Jewish events and centers, while a quarter said they had experienced anti-Semitic threats or harassment over the last year.
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However, those attention-getting figures may well be misleading. These data are not backed up by clear figures of a major rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents throughout Europe - partly due to the lack of such data in most European countries (with the notable exception of Britain), and the lack of European Jews' eagerness to report such incidents; 75 percent of respondents said they have not reported their perceived brushes with anti-Semitism.
Moreover, there is the deeper problem of defining an anti-Semitic incident. The survey, commissioned by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), is based on the respondents feelings, not on any objective definition of anti-Semitism. In none of the eight countries participating in the survey (France, Britain, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Latvia) did more than 10 percent report they had experienced actual physical violence or threatening behavior over the last five years, and in some countries it was as low as three percent. On the other hand, over 75 percent said they consider anti-Semitism on the Internet a significant problem, but since millions of people can be exposed on the Web to what one person wrote, it is impossible to say whether online anti-Semitism is on the increase, or rather that the sensitivity to racism is so high that isolated cases get widely circulated.
The survey included 5,847 respondents, and its findings were presented on Friday after part of them were published by Haaretz last month.
Catastrophe or renaissance, take your pick
The study's most striking finding was that over three-quarters of respondents said anti-Semitism had risen over the last five years. Yet it is difficult to determine if this perception was caused by a rise in actual expressions of Jew-hatred, when in Hungary, for example, there was a rise in nationalism accompanied by the electoral success of the far-right Jobbik party; when in France, many Jews attribute a rise in anti-Semitism to the growth of the local Muslim community; and when in other Western European countries, many Jews feel it’s left-wing animosity toward Israel that is fueling hatred of Jews in general.
One figure that contrasted sharply with the high proportion of French and Hungarian Jews who said they were considering emigration (which is not borne out by numbers of actual immigrants) was the measure of the respondents' sense of belonging to their countries, and their sense of comfort with both their national and Jewish identities. Over 70 percent of Hungarian Jews reported feeling a strong sense of belonging, while in France the figure topped 80 percent.
Dr. Jonathan Boyd, executive director of London's Institute for Jewish Policy Research, who was one of a group of associates working with the FRA on the survey, said: “We have to acknowledge that people feel quite comfortable where they are, and that’s quite an important counter-balance. This survey is very important, but the problem is that since it’s the first of its kind, we don’t have any data to compare it to. Neither can we say what is an acceptable level of anti-Semitic exposure; one in five is too high. It’s also difficult to define what is an anti-Semitic incident. The fact that a lot of people are talking about something and it’s in the media and online doesn’t tell us how wide it us; it makes it much harder to pin it down.”
According to Boyd, "There's no way of saying whether European Jews are facing impending catastrophe or an imminent renaissance. This is just one piece of data and there’s evidence to point either way.”