What the Data Really Says About European anti-Semitism

A recent poll challenges claims of a surge in anti-Jewish sentiment on the continent, but the numbers aren't the only story.

Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at a rally against anti-Semitism in Berlin in September 2014.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at a rally against anti-Semitism in Berlin in September 2014.Credit: AP
Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano

MILAN, Italy — Everything you’ve heard about mounting anti-Semitism in Europe might be wrong, at least according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. The study, published on June 2 by the Washington, D.C.-based organization on the strength of a poll of adults in six major European countries, suggests that anti-Jewish sentiment is marginal in Western Europe and slightly in decline.

Only 7 percent of French and British respondents reported an unfavorable opinion of Jews, compared to 9 percent in Germany. The figures were much higher in Poland, (28%) Italy (21%) and Spain, at 28 percent, 21 percent and 17 percent, respectively. A similar Pew study from 2014 found slightly higher levels of anti-Semitism in some of these countries, with 9 percent of French respondents and 24 percent of Italians expressing a negative opinion of Jews.

These figures seem to contradict other reports pointing to widespread, increasing anti-Semitism in Europe. In February, Pew itself reported a rise in 2013, to 77 of the 198 countries surveyed, in the number of countries in which Jews faced harassment, either by governments or social groups. That number was the highest in seven years. It found that Jews were harassed in 34 of Europe’s 45 states. A 2013 poll conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights of Jewish residents in eight EU member states found that 46 percent overall reported feeling threatened by anti-Semitism and 33 percent said they had personally experienced some form of harassment in the past five years.

In France the numbers were much higher, with 70 percent and 35 percent of respondents, respectively, reporting feeling threatened by and personally experiencing anti-Semitism.

What accounts for the seeming discrepancy between the relatively low levels of self-reported anti-Jewish sentiment in key European states and the high levels of perceived anti-Semitism reported by Jews in Europe as a whole? And how to explain the fact that France scored the lowest in anti-Jewish opinions but it is where Jews reported feeling the most threatened?

There are many possible answers. To begin with, anti-Semitism can be a serious issue even if the number of actual anti-Semites is low, especially if their views are particularly vehement and they are keen to act on them.

“It is possible to think that anti-Semitism is a serious problem, and to feel threatened by it, even if only a relatively small percentage of a country’s population expresses negative views about Jews. It is certainly possible that some among the minority of people who express negative views could pose a threat. And people may feel especially threatened if there have recently been anti-Semitic acts of violence in a country,” the director of global attitudes research at Pew, Richard Wike, told Haaretz by email.

January’s killing of four men in an attack on the Hyper Cacher Market in Paris was not the only recent incident of its kind. In March 2012 a gunman killed four people, including two children, at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, while in January 2009 four customers were shot at a different kosher grocery store in Paris. But these acts by Muslim extremists may not reflect a broader anti-Jewish prejudice in the French population.

“The main source of anti-Jewish threats in France today ... comes from the marginalized Muslim immigrant community. These threats are real, but they radiate out from the Middle East, rather than being a reflection of longstanding social conflict within Europe,” Justin Smith, a philosophy professor at Paris Diderot University, told Haaretz.

David Hirsch, a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London who has studied anti-Semitic trends in Europe, concurs. “In Western Europe, anti-Semitism is significant, but only in particular milieus; it is not mainstream and it is not rife in popular culture. It is found most commonly amongst well educated people who consider themselves to be politically radical and it is overrepresented amongst Muslim people,” he said in an interview by email.

‘Social desirability bias’ may be a factor

Others, however, question the reliability of surveys such as the one recently published by Pew in assessing the actual level of anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe.

One possible problem is that they are based on self-reporting. Even people who do hold anti-Jewish views may be reluctant to admit them to pollsters. In the social sciences, this is known as “social desirability bias”: Survey respondents sometimes answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favorably by others and thus tend to underreport undesirable behaviors or opinions

“After the Holocaust, it is somewhat forbidden to speak out against the Jews, especially in Germany and also in France,” says Matthias Küntzel, a political scientist who teaches at a technical college in Hamburg, Germany. “But the anti-Semitic mindset is still there,” he adds.

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