What’s wrong with the ADL survey and how it could be improved

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Jackie Mason

Jackie Mason

There has been a lot of criticism of the ADL’s worldwide survey of anti-Semitism, and many of the obvious flaws in the study already have been discussed (or linked to) here. At the outset, the organization that commissioned the study is hardly a disinterested, unbiased observer. An ADL study on anti-Semitism should be greeted with the same skepticism as a tobacco industry study on the effects of second-hand smoke.

The ADL has multiple interests in exaggerating and even promoting the threat of anti-Semitism. First, ADL perpetually has its hand out for donations, and what better way to motivate donors than a screaming headline that there are one billion anti-Semitic adults on the planet? In fact it wasted no time in doing that here, as ADL’s home page trumpets the frightening results and offers visitors an easy way to “Help ADL Change the World” with a single click. Just have your VISA card ready. It is difficult to imagine that the survey was not planned, at least in part, as a fundraiser, with foreknowledge of a direct relationship between the quantification of the danger and the anticipated revenues.

Second, the ADL enhances its own prestige and even justifies its existence with the looming threat of anti-Semitism. This point was scathingly made a few years ago by an unlikely source, the comedian Jackie Mason, a steadfast pro-Israel voice who has been known to dabble unapologetically in anti-Palestinian racism.  Mason, for reasons of his own,  passionately defended Mel Gibson following his drunken anti-Semitic tirade. Gibson’s detractors were motivated, said Mason, by

jealousy and hate and contempt for a guy who’s doing too good. Also with this guy Abe Foxman, this head of the ADL. Another fake from top to bottom. I don’t talk about people, it’s not my nature, but he’s a total fake. Let’s be honest about it. Anybody who makes a life out of fighting racism in effect has to blow-up racism in order to justify himself and the job he has, otherwise he’d have to go to work. Otherwise he’d have to get up in the morning and get a real job.

Finally, the ADL makes no secret of its own pro-Israel agenda. Israel, like the ADL itself, feeds off the perception of worldwide anti-Semitism, which serves to portray the country as a necessary refuge for Jews from the threat of persecution.

The ADL’s motivation to exaggerate the incidence of anti-Semitism clearly influenced its design of the survey. It used as its cutoff the arbitrary rule that agreement with 6 out of 11 statements regarding Jews makes on an anti-Semite. Several of the statements arguably have little or nothing to do with anti-Semitism, or at least a respondent could easily agree with them without harboring an actual bias against Jews. Take “Jews think they are better than other people.” Is it unreasonable to assume that Jewish doctrinal belief of being chosen by God is equivalent to a feeling of superiority? But even more basically, some might have agreed with that question because they believe that almost every group thinks they are better than other people. Don’t Americans generally feel superior to other people? Certainly most Sean Hannity listeners do. Don’t many people think the French think they are better than other people? What if someone concludes that all groups of people, including Jews, think they’re special? There is plenty of evidence of this universal tendency of self-promotion. Is that anti-Semitic?

Then there is “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.” The use of the word “still” strongly implies that at some time in the past, Jews did talk too much about the Holocaust, and the question simply asks if they are continuing to do so.  Such wording is both suggestive and downright weird.  And what about philo-Semitic people who think that Jews should focus more on their glorious present and boundless future, rather than dwell on the catastrophes of the past? Why should they be suspected of anti-Semitism for such views?

At least two of the statements are so similar as to be almost duplicative – “Jews have too much power in the business world.” and “Jews have too much power in international financial markets” – with the expected result that almost every respondent who agreed with one would agree with the other as well.

Perhaps most problematical is the statement “People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.” Since a large number of respondents reported never having met a Jew, and no doubt many others have had very limited interactions with Jews, it stands to reason that many respondents based their views of Jews on Israeli behavior. Wouldn’t most people’s views of the Russian, Japanese, and Peruvian people depend to a large extent on their views of the behavior of Russia, Japan and Peru? Yet the ADL’s inclusion of this statement as a barometer of anti-Semitism clearly presumes that hostility toward Jews must be unrelated to Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians, and it is irrationally anti-Semitic to believe otherwise. What about a Filipino or Bolivian who identifies Jewish people with Israel, as Israel itself does (!), and blames “Jews” for the acts committed by Israel? In fact, even one who is generally pro-Israel but believes that other people unfairly hate Jews because of Israel’s behavior would agree with the statement as crafted by the ADL! That is not even anti-Israel, much less anti-Jewish.

Most if not all of the ADL’s eleven supposedly anti-Semitic statements are vulnerable to similar criticism. But even if the ADL had the best of intentions to arrive at objectively accurate results, which was certainly not the case, its methodology is suspect. The use of the word “Jews,” without clarifying if it was meant to include all, most, or some Jews, no doubt would have been interpreted very differently by different people. Indeed, there is no general consensus of who is a Jew. I consider myself to be Jewish, though I am an atheist; many Israeli Jews are atheists as well. Yet some might quite reasonably require some actual religious belief to qualify as a Jew. I have no doubt that some religious Jews would scoff at the notion that I am a Jew.

Keep in mind that the ADL did not conduct a single poll with 53,000 respondents, but 101 independent polls in separate countries. Only three – China, India and the US – had a sample size of 1000 respondents, and the remainder had between 500 and 600 respondents. Can the ADL even pretend that it employed rigorous scientific polling methods in each of these countries? The various polling methods employed in different countries yielded head-scratching results. For example, Laos weighed in with a ridiculously low figure of 0.2% anti-Semitism, while nearby Thailand recorded 13% (still low but 65 times Laos’s figure) and Malaysia a whopping 61%. Is there really such a pronounced Laotian affinity for Jews? South Korea weighs in 53% and Japan at 23%; Tanzania at 12 and Kenya at 35. Belgium has a 27% rating, while the Netherlands next door is only 5%.
To make matters worse, the ADL commissioned a similar, though not identical, survey of European countries in 2009. At that time, France had a modest score of 20% while neighboring Spain was more than double at 48%. In the new survey, Spain dropped to 29% while France now exceeds it at 37%. What happened over the last five years to cause these two countries to shift so dramatically in opposite directions?

These improbable discrepancies indicate a large degree of sloppiness, and ADL’s self-serving claim of being accurate within +/- 4.4% is absurd. Yet the ADL extrapolates from these unreliable results of 53,000 respondents that there are 1.09 billion adult anti-Semites in the world, as if that number has the slightest credence.

It’s not that I think that anti-Semitism is a bogus phenomenon unworthy of investigation and analysis. It’s just that the ADL went to great lengths to construct a complicated survey with rather arbitrary rules governing who is and is not an anti-Semite, and the results are wholly unpersuasive. So let me offer a much better and simpler way to quantify the scope of worldwide hatred of Jews. Instead of crafting 11 statements that are vulnerable to different interpretations, many of which are consistent with perfectly innocent rather than truly anti-Semitic views, the ADL could have just gone with one single question:

Do you believe that Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of every country in the world, including yours, should be guaranteed fully equal rights under the law?

Such a poll might not delve into the gray areas the ADL believes may constitute a more subtle form of anti-Semitism, but it would accurately gauge public opinion on the single most important and practical question: Are Jews equal to everyone else?

There are reasons the ADL did not opt for this simple solution. For one, the percentage of anti-Semitism in every polled country (with the exception of Laos – how low could they possibly go?) would decrease if that were the question posed, thereby undermining the ADL’s hope to achieve maximum results.

Much worse would be the results if that question were posed to Israelis as well as the rest of the world. There is no doubt that in Israel, where equality is seen as tantamount to “destruction” and “delegitimization” of the Jewish State, and denial of the Jewish people’s so-called “right to self-determination,” the percentage of “no” votes probably would be the highest in the world. How ironic!

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