Are Americans More Antisemitic Than They Were Four Decades Ago?
The ADL's annual audit of "antisemitic incidents," which counted a record number last year, is apt to be influenced by changes in methodology and reporting behavior.
At the end of 1980, under the headline "Survey Finds Sharp Rise in Anti-Semitic Incidents," The New York Times reported that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had counted "377 cases of assaults and vandalism…against properties" that year, plus "112 bodily assaults or harassments." By comparison, the ADL had reported "129 property incidents" in 1979. But Nathan Perlmutter, then the organization's director, "said that part of the 1980 increase might have reflected improved procedures introduced this year in collecting and evaluating information."
That sort of caveat is conspicuously missing from this year's ADL audit and from the Times story about it. "The number of antisemitic incidents in the United States last year was the highest since the Anti-Defamation League began keeping track in 1979," the Times reports. But there is a difference between "the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States" and the number counted by the ADL, whose annual tally relies on reporting by "victims, law enforcement, the media and partner organizations."
In addition to actual changes in antisemitic incidents, the ADL's numbers are apt to be affected by changes in reporting behavior and in the organization's efforts to collect information. Those factors don't mean the ADL's narrative of rising antisemitism in the United States, which is supported by recent survey data, should be dismissed out of hand. But they do complicate the picture in ways that the ADL and the Times fail to acknowledge, especially when it comes to the implicit claim that anti-Jewish bigotry is more prevalent today than it was four decades ago.
Per capita, the ADL counted more than five times as many antisemitic incidents in 2022 as it did in 1980. It does not follow that Americans are five times as likely to hate Jews as they were 43 years ago.
The ADL's survey data do not support that inference. In 2022, it reports, 20 percent of Americans at least "somewhat" believed "six or more anti-Jewish tropes," compared to 29 percent in 1964 and 20 percent in 1992. That number has gone up and down over the years, and it rose by 82 percent, from 11 percent to 20 percent, between 2019 and 2022.
During the same period, the number of ADL-reported antisemitic incidents rose by 75 percent, which is consistent with the premise that the organization's tallies reflect a real trend. But these two sets of numbers do not always track each other so neatly. Between 1992 and 1998, for example, the measure of antisemitic attitudes fell by 40 percent, while the number of incidents that the ADL counted fell by just 7 percent. Between 1998 and 2002, when survey-measured antisemitism rose by 42 percent, the number of reported incidents dropped by 3 percent.
The ADL counted 3,697 antisemitic incidents in 2022, up 36 percent from the year before. A large majority (62 percent) involved "harassment," which rose by 29 percent. Reports of vandalism, which accounted for 35 percent of the total, rose by 51 percent. Reported assaults, which represented 3 percent of all cases, were up by 26 percent.
The ADL emphasizes that its audit "is not a public opinion poll or an effort to catalog every expression of antisemitism." And while the "harassment" category includes "individuals or groups" who "were harassed online via antisemitic content in direct messages, on listservs or in social media settings," the audit "does not attempt to assess the total amount of antisemitism online."
The ADL says most of the incidents it tallied were reported by victims "via our online form, email or phone message." The ADL's researchers also "monitor media reports and other online spaces for credible reports of antisemitic incidents." In 2021, the ADL "began incorporating reports of antisemitic incidents from other Jewish organizations with whom ADL has established partnerships." Finally, "many law enforcement partners…share information about antisemitic incidents and criminal activity" with the ADL, and "many of those incidents are included in the Audit as well."
If you read the Times story, which is headlined "Antisemitic Incidents Reach New High in U.S., Anti-Defamation League Says," and follow the hyperlink to the ADL's audit, you will see a button inviting you to "report an incident." That illustrates one way in which alarming stories about antisemitism might help boost the ADL's numbers.
More generally, reporting is apt to be influenced by publicity, including the attention attracted by the ADL's audits and concerns about rising antisemitism. It is plausible that when antisemitic incidents receive a lot of attention, victims are more likely to report them, law enforcement agencies are more likely to take them seriously and keep track of them, and news organizations are more like to cover them. That reaction could create a feedback loop, generating more reports, which in turn generate more publicity.
The ADL's recent outreach to other Jewish organizations also presumably would have alerted it to incidents it might otherwise have overlooked. What about those "law enforcement partners"? The ADL does not say how many there are or whether the number has increased over time.
While the ADL presents evidence that antisemitic beliefs and conduct have risen in tandem since 2019, in other words, its tallies should not be accepted at face value. Some of the details in the ADL's report reinforce that point.
"Known white supremacist networks engaged in coordinated efforts to spread antisemitic propaganda, which accounted for 852 incidents in 2022, more than double the 422 incidents in 2021," the ADL says. "If white supremacist activity had remained the same in 2022 as in 2021, the Audit total would have been 3,267—an increase of 20%, rather than the actual increase of 36%."
The ADL says three groups—Patriot Front, Goyim Defense League, and White Lives Matter—"were responsible for 93 percent" of the antisemitic propaganda it identified in 2022. The fact that material distributed by a few nutball groups accounted for such a large share of the "harassment" incidents suggests how volatile these numbers can be.
In 2021, for what it's worth, the FBI counted 396 anti-Jewish crimes, including vandalism, intimidation, and assault. Unlike the 2,717 incidents reported by the ADL that year, all of those cases involved criminal violations. But the FBI's 2021 number is based on information from just 11,883 of 18,812 law enforcement agencies, down substantially from the years before it revamped its reporting system. Keeping that point in mind, the total for anti-Jewish crimes was 856 in 2016; 1,024 in 2017; 940 in 2018; 1,094 in 2019; and 959 in 2020.