Israeli Researchers Take Conservative Approach to Defining anti-Semitism

Tel Aviv University researchers, who record 30 % rise in anti-Semitism after 2-year decline, take into consideration cultural context when classifying incidents as 'anti-Semitic.'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

How should we distinguish between an anti-Semitic incident and a criminal act? How should we avoid classifying every harsh statement about Israel as anti-Semitism?

Every year on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center Database on Antisemitism and Racism publishes a report on anti-Semitism worldwide. According to the paper for 2012, the number of anti-Semitic incidents jumped 30 percent last year after two years of declines.

“We don’t just count the incidents. We also take a deep look at the culture that gave birth to anti-Semitism,” says Dina Porat, the head of the database.

She notes that "if you say ‘dirty Jew’ in Kiev, nobody will report that as an anti-Semitic incident. It’s in the culture; it’s an expression that has been used for centuries. But if you say ‘dirty Jew’ in Paris, that’s bad.”

According to Dr. Haim Fireberg, a statistics expert for the annual report, “The bottom line is that we’ll err on the side of caution. If we’re not sure if an incident is anti-Semitic, we won’t count it as an incident.

“We could add a few more incidents to the 686 that occurred this year. If 10 apartments were burglarized the same night on a street with a high concentration of Jews, we still count that as a single incident, unlike the police report, which will count each burglary as a separate event.”

Fireberg notes an incident in which a Jewish man was walking back from synagogue with his children in Britain. “A van sped up, went up on the sidewalk, drove toward them and at the last second swerved back onto the road,” Fireberg says.

“On the one hand, one might say this was a one-time incident where someone lost control of the steering wheel – that anti-Semitism wasn’t involved. On the other hand, we see that this type of incident repeats over and over.” He files that case in the “threats” category.

According to Porat, “An incident must focus on a Jewish person or Jewish property to be considered anti-Semitic. If someone in Russia draws a swastika and writes ‘dirty Jew’ on street signs, we don’t necessarily consider that an anti-Semitic incident. But we'll take it into account in analyzing the anti-Semitic atmosphere in the country.”

Since 1989, when tabulations began, only 2009 produced a greater number of incidents than 2012. The first two and a half weeks of 2009 were marked by Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. “Our graph shows a link between current events and an increase in anti-Semitism, such as with Operation Cast Lead,” Fireberg says.

But Porat notes that there isn't always such a link; for example, Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last November. "It hardly raised the graph at all. Anti-Semitism isn’t a function of what Israel does or what happens in the Middle East. That’s a superficial and unprofessional way of looking at the subject,” she says.

“Economic, social, political and local factors are what matter. If there’s a financial crisis in a certain country, the new groups that arise are usually ones on the radical right that slip into anti-Semitism.”

There is no shortage of examples from the past year. The increasing preoccupation with circumcision of boys in Germany, attempts to ban ritual slaughter in the Netherlands or the wearing of skullcaps in France - should these be considered manifestations of anti-Semitism? Porat agrees that the situation is complex. "The real focus here is not the Jews, but Muslims, who are perceived as not integrating into society. But dealing with them leads to a renewed discussion on Jewish customs", she says.

The team also highlights the difference between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism. “This year, we noticed that it had nothing to do with the Middle East — these were truly expressions of anti-Semitism," Porat says.

"Let it be clear — the anti-Semites think we killed Jesus, that we control the global economy, that we’re responsible for the financial crisis, and that we brought in the immigrants who are … taking away their pensions. It’s directed against Jews as Jews and against Israel as a Jewish state. The match may be in Tel Aviv, but the kindling is located in Europe, among the extreme right."”

According to the report, France saw a big jump in anti-Semitic incidents. “A normal person would think that after the massacre in Toulouse, in which Mohammed Merah murdered three pupils and a teacher, the Muslim community would do some soul-searching, but the opposite is true,” Fireberg says. “The terrorist became a model for emulation.”

Q. Still, aren’t you biased? As a center that’s part of an Israeli and Jewish university and receives funding from Jews, can you be objective when it comes to counting incidents of anti-Semitism? You could easily be accused of being biased.

“Indeed, we are an Israeli and Jewish university, and that’s why this report could be suspected of bias a priori. We are supposed to be suspicious, and we definitely are suspicious, so we make efforts that go above and beyond,” says Porat.

“Sometimes we see reports from Jewish communities that inflate the numbers or use a method of counting that differs from ours. But we worked hard to arrive at the criteria we use,” she adds.

“We work according to academic criteria in every way, with constant supervision by professors. Every report is sent back for another round of critique, reservations and supervision. The report is published according to the same standards as an academic essay — it is published only after it receives comments, critiques, responses, queries and editing,” says Fireberg.

“Even if a particular community reported finding 12 swastikas in its area, since we insist on checking, we might sometimes find that only one was found there. We don’t take any number at face value. We check again and again until the report is published.”

Archive: A man removing a spray-painted swastika from the gate of a Jewish cemetery.Credit: AP
Anti-Semitic incidents per country, according to 2012 data.Credit: Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center Database on Antisemitism and Racism

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