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Measurement as a Policy Weapon in a New Age of Antisemitism


American Jews may now be experiencing something they have not faced in the century since the wave of nativism that swept the US after World War I: politically purposed antisemitism. Along with this resurgence has come a wave of incidents, both minor and all too deadly. There is the possibility of a fundamental shift in the relationship with larger US society that since 1945 has stood as a high-water mark in world Diaspora history. The portents from Europe are not promising. European Jews appear to be more than two decades into an experience that has seen them becoming increasingly marginalized as communities and as individuals. Will American Jews come to feel as embattled and besieged as them?

Unfortunately, it is hard to know.

Of course, the U.S. has a culture and political history distinctly different from even Western Europe let alone the post-Communist East. But beyond the complexities of these social dynamics, there is a further problem: we cannot really compare trends accurately, especially in the realm of beliefs, sentiments, and memes. Social media and other factors have changed the speed for both the propagation and evolution of antisemitic tropes in a manner unimaginable only a few decades ago. This makes the job harder — but our need to know even more imperative.

If antisemitism has become a serious problem, it is time to respond to it seriously.

This seems a paradoxical statement. There are organizations already working to record, deter and prepare for antisemitic acts and speech. Some efforts are local, while others have a wider geographic spread.[i] Their reports, studies and education and outreach programs are often of excellent quality. They represent most of what we know of current antisemitism. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Current efforts should continue, but they should be strengthened as well. Jews in the U.S. spent several years wondering if the forces unleashed during the 2016 election would lead to fundamental change. Since the synagogue attacks in Poway and Pittsburgh, they have wondered what these incidents mean for the longer term. They and their leaders need tools for better tracking, understanding and acting in the face of the newer forms of an ancient danger.

Measuring to inform community action

The challenge is not lack of effort, but the absence of a unifying framework for assessing what we know–and what we don’t.[ii] We lack consistent terminology and methods — it is often hard not only to compare across countries but even in the same country. If the main information source is police records, differences in criminal and civil codes make comparison difficult; that which is a crime in one country (e.g., hate speech) may not be in another (and willingness to report to the authorities varies as well) while community agencies, even those of long standing, may change methods causing discontinuities in their own records. But we need to go even further and adopt not a policing but a policy orientation to clarify what we still need to learn, enhance effective participation by all communities potentially under threat, and erect a means to unify, organize and disseminate work across organizations and communities.

As a result, our current assessment of antisemitism is a patchwork even within single countries. We lack causal explanations and foresightful analyses. Fragmented and inconsistent data impede attempts at systematic comparative analysis.

Times and the nature of antisemitism have changed. Moving forward requires widespread involvement in mutually supportive efforts to leverage knowledge. Surely, the globalization of antisemitic discourse and incitement itself is reason enough to deepen collaboration. Whereas domestic acts of antisemitism have traditionally been the focus of the major community security agencies, and general antisemitic phenomena the province of academic scholarship, those same local efforts would be enhanced by achieving a wider shared perspective both in geographic scope and informed understanding of modern and future trends. The need is not to centralize measurement activity. Rather, it is to amplify, unify and disseminate work by diverse contributors with a common goal: a better understanding of (and means to resist) contemporary antisemitism.

We should be clear about the gaps in our understanding. The familiar image of the drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is captures the tendency to measure that which is easiest. A better framing would be to begin from a policy perspective: what we need to know to both monitor and act. Proceeding from fundamental Jewish community interests (physical security of individuals and well-being of communities; the ability to exercise rights such as freedom of movement, political engagement, and economic activity; establish and maintain Jewish communal institutions, engage in Jewish religious rites and practices, and support Jewish national sovereignty as expressed through the State of Israel,) we can frame four categories for measurement — building on the JPPI approach. The first two include measures of antisemitic attitudes and actions, currently the most common focus for measurement. To this we add direct effects on Jewish individuals and communities as well as effects on Jews’ attitudes, behaviors, and sense of well-being.

Enhance mutual support, respond vigorously, build coalitions

A collaborative effort to measure antisemitism with unprecedented sophistication, speed, and scope should proceed along several lines. The work can be shared among agencies and groups, mixed disciplines and skills, and both experts and community leaders.

Frame Concepts: How do definitions of antisemitic attitudes, events, and impacts differ across countries, international organizations, and in key institutions such as universities, media, etc? Creating a common taxonomy is not easy but would make cross-country and multi-year comparisons feasible.

Framing around an excessively narrow perspective may turn a blind eye to some of antisemitism’s consequences. What do we need to understand about “antisemitism without Jews” in East Asia–the most dynamic economic region in the world? What are the implications of recrudescent antisemitism for non-Jews? These questions provide a more comprehensive lens and broaden the base for coalition building.

Relationships between categories are not static and insulated—they have dynamics and are interconnected. What antisemitic attitudes are precursors of antisemitic acts and political transitions? Thinking in terms of dynamics, transitions, and lines of mutual influence prepares the way for policy thinking.

Design Measurement framework to guide contributions to and use of antisemitism data. This may combine the best aspects of top-down and bottom-up design by first identifying the questions we wish to answer and actions we wish to inform. Then, frame standards for the design and administration of instruments such as surveys and focus groups, incident data, timing and other measurement challenges.

Collate Data and Design Database infrastructure needs: repositories, data-sharing tools, and standards for database design. For example, data collectors and analysts should have common identifiers for geographic units, formats for dates and times, file formats, and protocols for data warehousing.

Acquire, Characterize, and Analyze New Data to improve mutual awareness and make interactions between research and data collection efforts visible. Greater visibility could bring new researchers and organizations into the field, itself an enhancement of shared value. The visibility and credibility generated by interdisciplinary and international coordination might also enhance support for specific projects.

Build a Global Community of Practice by engaging local communities. Only a handful of countries monitor and collect data at a national level—and some that collect data do not publish it. It should be a goal to expand the scope of measurement in places where there are existing efforts—like the US, France and UK—and improve practice in places like Germany, Hungary and Ukraine where monitoring is more intermittent. It will take skill and forethought to build and sustain these community efforts.

Moving from vision to implementation

Okay, but how do we get there?

The vision is for an on-line, interactive antisemitism measurement tool and database designed to provide a meaningful, expansive, dynamic base of knowledge and expertise. Building from the ground up enhances relevance for community leadership, national and international organizations, as well as researchers– but most importantly for building a widening and increasingly rich collaborative effort to track and combat antisemitism.

To realize the vision, several tasks lay before us. They are not necessarily consecutive so may be pursued simultaneously. A single task may contribute to several of the main areas we have outlined.  As a practical matter, tasks may initially target one or more test countries and topical areas before applying lessons learned to a wider domain. This will also ensure quality and relevance—grounding the effort in the realities and needs of those combatting antisemitism today.

Task 1: Consultative process for defining first set of measures.  The projects of Framing and Conceptualization as well as Measurement Design involves active circulation of drafts to interested parties, as well as publication, workshops and briefings to collect diverse feedback at an early stage. This will also involve one or more working conferences to be bolstered by ongoing on-line dialogue to arrive at an initial agreed structure. As the basis for all that follows, this initial structure would be designed for elaboration, modification, and expansion.

Task 2: Design and create data archive. This task covers data management and curation efforts including design of a database architecture; characterizing and assessing existing data to align with the first phase pilot ‘matrix’; and creation of new data on a selective basis by extracting initial data on violent events (hate crimes) through advanced technology.

Task 3: Computational infrastructure, models, and methods. This includes the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data mining methodologies for scanning and capturing data and then categorizing and placing information within the database structure. This task will also cover user interface design and tools for visualizing data.

Task 4: Select indicators and recommend applications. This is the policy-relevant tool-building task. One major effort will be to select from many potential measures a few designated “indicators”—that is, data that may convey key trends and emerging risks. Creating a dashboard would bridge the gap between analysis and direct community and global applications.

Task 5: Outreach, dissemination, and engagement. While performing the other tasks, lay the groundwork for demonstrating prototype tools and capabilities. There is need to enhance ‘ownership’ and ‘buy in’ by preparing a constituency of prospective users, data providers, and audiences. Nothing else matters unless tangible value is received by community leaders, antisemitism researchers, and those engaged in the front lines of battle.

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Israel’s new Nation-State Law obliges it “to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people…in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.”[iii] This establishes a role in the protection and well-being of Jews outside its national borders. The project we have outlined has to be the work of many hands. But Israel could play an important convening role in jump starting the tasks that must be put in motion.

It should do so soon: The need is now, and time is short.

[i] Leading organizations within the Jewish world include the Anti-Defamation League in the U.S., Community Security Trust in the UK, and the Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive in France. Examples of non-Jewish community-based organizations include the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and the U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center, among others.

[ii] This article derives from SW Popper, D Shalmon, CA Small, M Tabory, and T Wolfson, “Evaluating Contemporary Antisemitism: A Framework for Collaborative Conceptualization, Measurement and Assessment”, presented as a panel session organized by the Institute for Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy at the 6th Global Forum For Combating Antisemitism, Jerusalem, March 2018.

[iii] Knesset News, 19 July 2018, https://main.knesset.gov.il/en/News/PressReleases/Pages/Pr13978_pg.aspx ; Last accessed 20 September 2020.