Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has said, in reference to the past 12 months: "It was probably the worst year for global anti-Semitism in my tenure with the ADL." With this in mind, what should we make of anti-Semitism nationally? The numbers do offer a sobering picture, and yet it's far from all gloom and doom.
Recently issued data gathered by the FBI indicates that hate crimes directed against Jews are at their highest level since 2001. The number of anti-Semitic crimes went up from 969 in 2007 to 1,013 in 2008. Such episodes represent 66 percent of all religiously motivated bias crimes, and some 12 percent of all hate crimes. These are unsettling numbers when we consider that Jews constitute approximately 2 percent of the general population.
In contrast, ADL's "Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents" for 2008 recorded a slight decline locally and a 7 percent decline nationally. There were 1,352 incidents of vandalism, harassment and physical assault against Jewish individuals, property and community institutions nationally. Incidents in Eastern Pennsylvania numbered 96, compared to 99 the year before.
These incidents underscore that Jews continue to be the No. 1 religious group targeted for hate. During this past year, the fiscal crisis has fed hate groups and anti-Semites, and the explosive expansion of the Internet and social networking sites has made made them new frontiers for the expression of anti-Semitism.
But how do we explain what appears to be a discrepancy — that the number of hate crimes against Jews is up and the number of anti-Semitic incidents down? Comparing FBI and ADL data is a complicated matter. First, the FBI only records crimes. ADL reports crimes and non-criminal acts directed against Jews, which together the organization classifies as incidents. Secondly, the two institutions use different methodologies, and track incidents and crimes independently of each other.
If anything, the FBI's and ADL's numbers tend to underrepresent reality since many incidents and crimes go unreported. And, of course, there is more to any issue than numbers alone.
A separate 2009 survey of anti-Semitic attitudes commissioned by ADL shows that 30 million Americans, or 12 percent, hold anti-Semitic views. However, on specific questions, some anti-Semitic sentiments persist at even higher levels. For example, 30 percent of those polled believe that U.S. Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States, and 29 percent believe that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus.
These findings have occurred in the context of growing distrust and anger directed at our government, much of it fueled by paranoia and conspiracy theories. Rumors of government gun confiscation, angry protests over tax policies — replete with Nazi comparisons, a resurgence of the militia movement and discontent expressed by some over the election of a president deemed to be illegitimate — have contributed to "a toxic atmosphere of rage in America," according to another recent ADL report, "Rage Grows in America." Certainly, such an atmosphere is neither good for Jews nor for America.
Yet not all is bleak. Jews are not alone. They are blessed with allies and a responsive government. Anti-Semitism remains largely a feature that resides on the fringes of society, even though it occasionally insinuates itself into the mainstream, especially on talk radio shows.
While hate crimes against Jews have reached their highest levels since 2001, more law-enforcement agencies have been participating in data collection, and federal and state responses to hate violence have been generally swift and effective. In addition, in October, President Barack Obama signed into law the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which provides for an expanded federal role in investigating and prosecuting such violence.
In addition, Jewish organizations have responded by heightening security and partnering with law-enforcement agencies in an attempt to continue to mitigate such threats.
Truth be told, 30 million Americans hating Jews is an uncomfortably large number. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic beliefs are at their lowest level in all the time that ADL has taken the pulse of attitudes toward Jews living in the United States. Some 12 percent of Americans polled in 2009 held anti-Semitic views, contrasted with 15 percent in 2007, and 29 percent in 1964.
So what does all this say about domestic anti-Semitism?
First, anti-Semitism in this country does not approach the severity that has been demonstrated in many other parts of the world today.
Second, despite unsettling aspects, Jewish life here is marked by freedom, opportunity and accomplishment.
We can continue to ensure these positive conditions by holding our institutions and leaders accountable, by fostering education and by helping others to respect religious and ethnic differences. In these ways, we create and sustain a brighter future for all people — in 2010 and beyond.
Barry Morrison is regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.