November 4, 2021 — Jerusalem, Israel
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
Last week, The Forward published a piece challenging the American Jewish Committee’s newly-released 2021 State of Antisemitism in America report — the largest and most comprehensive surveys of American Jews and the general public ever conducted on the subject, carried out by one of America’s leading opinion research firms — and accusing AJC of intentionally misrepresenting its findings to promote a sinister agenda.
But the piece is itself rife with misrepresentations, cherrypicked quotes, and other curiosities, all seemingly intended to undermine an invaluable piece of research and support a deeply flawed thesis.
The piece first takes issue with the fact that 3% of respondents had reported being the victims of antisemitic physical attacks over the past year. Calling the figure “impossible to fathom,” the article tells us that “the 3% statistic should set off alarm bells for anyone familiar with data science not only because it suggests a staggering number of violent incidents that somehow escaped the attention of journalists, politicians and Jewish organizations.”
But we didn’t claim that 3% of all American Jews have been the victims of physical attacks. As is clear from the context — which the piece omits — the figure refers to 3% of respondents, not of all 5.8 million American Jewish adults. To be more precise, 2.6% of 1,433 respondents (which we round to the closest whole number, as is our practice throughout the survey) — 37 individuals in total — reported having been the victims of antisemitic physical attacks over the past year.
Had the writer taken a closer look, she would have learned that Jews in certain parts of the country are overrepresented and that the figure in other parts of the country is closer to 1%. Because the 3% figure is comparatively low, within the margin of error (3.9%), we have taken care not to make too much of it, noting it only when necessary and when its omission would have represented a distortion of reality. To ignore it entirely, however, would be to negate the lived experiences of dozens of American Jews who said they had been the victims of antisemitic physical attacks, half of whom said they hadn’t reported the attacks to the police.
We don’t know the exact number of antisemitic physical attacks in America; no one does, not least because hate crimes of all types are notoriously underreported. But we do know that dozens of respondents — again, 37 out of a representative sample of 1,433, or 2.6% — said they had been the victims of such attacks, and it is our duty to convey their experiences, carefully and responsibly.
The piece then accuses AJC of employing a “rhetorical sleight” to misrepresent American Jewish concerns about the various different sources of antisemitism. “The way that the AJC’s promotional materials frame American Jews as equally concerned about — and targeted by — left and right wing extremists is misleading,” we are told. But the only evidence presented is the title of a USA Today op-ed — which, as the writer surely knows, was chosen by the publication’s editors, not by AJC. In point of fact, we have stated in numerous places that the data indicates American Jews view the far right as posing a graver threat than the far left. On our website, on social media, and even in the op-ed in question, we have been clear: American Jews are more concerned about the far right (and extremism in the name of Islam) than they are about the far left.
At the same time, the numbers don’t lie: while only 61% of respondents identified the extreme political left as an antisemitic threat in last year’s survey, that figure jumped by ten points to 71% this year, a significant increase that suggests American Jews are growing more concerned about antisemitism on the far left, even as they remain more concerned about the far right (at almost the exact same level as previous years). To ignore this trend would do our community a disservice and would obscure the very real fears of American Jews.
Finally, over 500 words — more than a third of the overall text — are dedicated to demolishing a straw man of the writer’s own making. After a declaration about the importance of “free speech and civil discourse,” the piece rails at length against “attempts to silence others,” which, we are told, “should make us all uncomfortable.”
Who are the “others,” one might ask? Why, anti-Zionists, of course.
The context here is the fact that more than 80% of both Jewish and non-Jewish respondents identified the statement “Israel has no right to exist” as antisemitic. This statement is the ideological core of contemporary anti-Zionism, indicating that the overwhelming majority of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans consider anti-Zionism, as represented by that statement, to be a form of antisemitism. This finding, I had told the writer, would prove valuable in our conversations with various interlocutors about the need for stronger measures against antisemitism and other forms of hate and bigotry.
Here it is important to say a word about journalistic norms. It is common practice for publications to note when an article has been changed, so as to ensure readers are aware of any differences between the version they are reading and any previous versions. In this case, however, a key sentence was removed without any appropriate notation.
“I asked him if lobbying social-media companies to take down or flag anti-Zionist posts would be one such manifestation of this,” the piece reads, referring to me. “His answer was yes.”
But my answer was not yes.
What I said to the writer, and what I reiterate now, is that we believe social media companies should treat anti-Zionist hate speech — that is, abusive or threatening speech that targets Zionists, Jews, and/or Israelis for their national identity or right to national self-determination — in the same manner as they do antisemitic hate speech, and that whatever policies apply to the latter should be applied to the former, as well. I am not an expert on social media content guidelines and I do not presume to know what those policies ought to be, but I do know that no social media platform has a blanket policy mandating the removal of everything commonly regarded as hate speech. I certainly never said that social media companies should flag or take down anti-Zionist posts or that anti-Zionists’ free speech should be in any way curtailed.
Following an email exchange in which I protested that words had been put in my mouth, the sentence vanished (though it can still be seen in this archived version).
But the removal of that sentence makes the piece’s entire thesis fall apart. AJC did not call for any of the measures to which the writer objects so vigorously and we never suggested silencing anyone. Whether the writer’s overall point has any validity can certainly be debated, but it has no basis in anything we said or any position we have taken.
Journalists play an essential role in fostering conversations on the issues that matter and uncovering uncomfortable truths. No one should insist that any organization or official’s word — including our, and my, own — be taken at face value and we welcome serious engagement on everything we put on the public record. But an unfortunate piece like the one in question contributes little to the conversation, serving instead to cast doubt on invaluable data about an urgent national problem and — no doubt unintentionally — potentially hampering efforts to address it.
Now is the time for resolute action and robust discussions on antisemitism in America and the best ways to combat it — not for half-baked takedown pieces targeting those at the forefront of this critical battle.
Avi Mayer is the Managing Director of Public Affairs and Senior Spokesperson at the American Jewish Committee (AJC).