Antisemitism study probes trends in South, nationally, in both parties

By Richard Friedman

The American Jewish Committee’s recently-released report “The State of Antisemitism in America 2020” finds “anxiety among American Jews and a disturbing lack of awareness among the general public of the severity of antisemitism in the U.S.”

Yet the study contains positive indicators when it comes to the American people seeing attacks on Jewish support for Israel as antisemitic and believing that Holocaust education is important.

The AJC study marks the first time this influential educational and advocacy organization has surveyed Americans at large in addition to the Jewish community.

There are some disparities between the views of the two groups. Jews, naturally, display greater understanding of antisemitism and sensitivity to its presence. Yet there also is an awareness among the population at-large — deeper than one might expect but not as deep as one might hope.

AJC found 88 percent of American Jews think antisemitism in the U.S. is very serious or somewhat of a problem today; 62 percent of Americans agree.

Those who have analyzed the recent rise of antisemitism in the U.S. and Europe generally concur it is coming from three sources — the far right, far left and extremist Muslims. AJC found 89 percent of the Jews surveyed believe the extreme right poses a threat to American Jews; 61 percent saw the extreme left as a threat, and 85 percent identified radical Islam as a threat.

The AJC report was released on Oct. 26. The organization’s research, conducted during this heated election season, found that a noteworthy number of Jews and Americans in general believe there is antisemitism in both political parties.

“More than two-thirds of American Jews (69 percent) and over half of U.S. adults (52 percent) say the Republican Party holds at least some antisemitic views,” according to AJC. “This is compared to 37 percent of American Jews and 42 percent of the general public who say the same about the Democratic Party.”

Jews are influential in both political parties, though in Presidential elections over the last 40 years they have tended to support the Democratic nominee over the Republican candidate by a relatively consistent margin of 70 percent to 30 percent.

Frustrated Republicans point to the GOP’s strong support for Israel but fail to take into account other issues, such as abortion and the Supreme Court, where Jews see the Democratic party as more friendly to their views. Though studies show that many Jews who vote Democratic care about Israel, these and other issues, such as immigration and assistance to the poor, often take precedence in national elections.

The difference in Jewish perceptions about the level of antisemitism in the Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party — 69 percent vs. 37 percent — may be another reason that Jews affiliate with the Democrats.

The Deep South

The AJC survey also broke down responses by region of the country, using the geographic categories of the U.S. Census Bureau. The Southern region covers a broad swath of states from Florida to Missouri and Maryland. The responses from the South generally parallel the national results with one notable exception.

According to AJC, 75 percent of Jews in the broadly-defined South see the Republican Party as antisemitic versus 69 percent nationally. This is a noteworthy statistic given that many of these states are Republican-dominated.

AJC’s Atlanta-based director Dov Wilker offered some observations regarding what the study reflects about antisemitism in the South, particularly in the Deep South — states such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The data from the overall South is consistent with national findings, though based on his experience heading AJC’s Atlanta/Southeast office, Wilker has some additional perspectives.

Regarding the perception of antisemitism in the Republican Party being higher among Southern Jews, Wilker noted that during this election there have been several incidents in the region involving GOP candidates which have been interpreted as having antisemitic overtones. This, he suggested, could have driven the survey response to a higher level.

In general, Wilker contends there are two types of antisemitism — “malicious and ignorant.” He believes that in the Deep South, where there are relatively few Jews other than in Atlanta, you find more of the ignorant kind of antisemitism — people saying things and holding on to beliefs because they just don’t know better or never have been educated.

He also said that the Deep South’s large number of Evangelical Christians, many of whom historically have not had positive attitudes toward Judaism, may over the decades have created additional anxieties among Jews. Though today, as a result of an evolution that has taken place over the last 20 years, many Evangelicals have become ardent supporters of Israel and, more recently, have become increasingly concerned about antisemitism.

“I am not sure there is a region of the country where support for Israel is stronger than in the South,” says Wilker, adding, “I believe that today because of the rise of antisemitism in the U.S., we are seeing a greater interest from the Evangelical community in understanding and helping to combat antisemitism.”

Overall, there were heartening findings as well, especially when it comes to Israel and Holocaust education, noted Alyssa Weiner, AJC’s Associate Director for Combating Antisemitism. “A majority of the American people view attacks against Israel and support by American Jews for the Jewish state as antisemitic. They also believe that Holocaust education is important,” said Weiner.

“Three-quarters of US adults report they know a lot or something about the Holocaust, while 24 percent say they don’t know much or anything at all. Ninety percent of U.S. adults say it is important to teach middle and high school students the history of the Holocaust,” reports AJC. This last figure is highly significant and gives propulsion to ongoing efforts by the Jewish community and others to seek government funding and initiate strategies to educate the American people, particularly younger Americans, about the Holocaust.

Antisemitism and Israel

Respondents in the general public category were presented statements about Israel and asked if they believed the statements were antisemitic.

Seventy-four percent felt “Israel has no right to exist” is antisemitic. Fifty-five percent said the statement “the government only supports Israel because of Jewish money” is antisemitic. An even half said “American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America” is antisemitic.

Other findings AJC deemed important include the growth of antisemitism on the Internet, the growing number of actual incidents and the spreading of conspiracy theories that paint Jews as malicious and untrustworthy. The Internet continues to be a perplexing new arena for those striving to combat antisemitism and other forms of hatred and because of the widespread, omnipresent nature of social media the problem is growing and becoming more complex.

Other troublesome conclusions such as this one are found throughout the report: “The number of American Jews who say they have avoided certain places or events out of concern for their safety as Jews increased to one in three (31 percent) from one in four (25 percent) in the 2019 AJC survey.”

One question asked was, “If a Jewish person or organization considered a statement or idea to be antisemitic, would that make you (more likely) to consider it antisemitic, (less likely), or would it make no difference to you?” AJC leaders were concerned that a significant number of Americans (65 percent) said it would make no difference. Weiner sees this as a contrast with people seeming to be more willing to acknowledge other forms of prejudice based on the views of the victims, such as racism, for example.

Weiner also is frustrated that many Americans don’t know what the word antisemitism means. It once could have been explained as hostility and hatred toward Jews, but, she believes, the growth of antisemitic conspiracy theories and anti-Zionism masking as antisemitism has made explanations more complex. In cases where respondents were unfamiliar with the term, it was explained to them to enable them to answer the questions.

Ten years ago, many American Jewish organizations saw antisemitism as a diminishing concern despite occasional incidents. Today, this has changed. Not only is antisemitism a growing concern nationally, local Jewish communities have taken steps to beef up their security. AJC and other national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and Secure Community Network are playing important roles.

How the presidential election and its aftermath shakes out remains to be seen. Jewish thought-leaders are preparing for an array of possibilities, running from traditional post-election analysis of what the implications might be for Israel and the Jewish community to more pointed strategies, such as how to prepare for and respond to any spikes in antisemitism. AJC is among the national Jewish organizations that will play a role in charting the post-election course for the American Jewish community.

Said Weiner, one of the AJC national officials assigned to help combat antisemitism, “All of this data is important for our advocacy so that AJC can use the study to speak to Members of Congress, our interfaith partners and other groups, and point to data that can undergird strategies and initiatives.”