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Sergio DellaPergola: The science of anti-Semitism

Sergio DellaPergola

Sergio DellaPergola is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a demographer and statistician with the Avraham Harmon Institute of Contemporary Jewry. The CJN caught up with him while he was in Toronto for a conference on anti-Semitism.

What was your anti-Semitism talk about?

Today, most Jews live in places with low levels of anti-Semitism. The U.S. and Canada are countries with substantial Jewish populations, but anti-Semitism is much lower in these countries than in other countries. Most Jews live in places with low levels of anti-Semitism and fewer Jews live in places with high anti-Semitism, which doesn’t make the thing less insidious. Today, something that happens in one place is immediately known and circulated everywhere, which didn’t exist in the past. Communication is instant now, so the perception today is of a global phenomenon. Anti-Semitism is no less insidious and dangerous, however, it affects the Jewish collective in a way that is different from what it was in the past.

What does anti-Semitism mean in terms of how Jews view themselves?

Anti-Semitism is one of those pieces – together with religion, community, knowledge, history and folklore – that is part of the various elements of Jewish identity. I’ve found that the people with the strongest connection to the Holocaust are also the people with the strongest connection to Israel. So there is this strong correlation between the Shoah and anti-Semitism on the one hand, and Israel. I find this both at the level of my perceptions of what it means to be a Jew for me, and for the thousands of respondents that give us the database.

What does anti-Semitism mean to non-Jews?

Anti-Semitism is a complex of ideas and behaviours, which are negative toward the Jews. They include, for example: “the Jews are racially different”; “the Jew holds too much economic power”; “the Jew is a foreigner and not reliable in our country.”

Then you have the “Jew exploits the Holocaust because the Holocaust never happened, or was a minor footnote of history” narrative.

Finally, you have the anti-Israeli mode of anti-Semitism. This includes opinions such as “Israel should never exist,” “Israelis are Nazis,” “Israel exploits the world” and so on.

These are different modes of anti-Semitism, which again we can distinguish by using quite sophisticated research methods based on data, in this case, data of perceptions of non-Jews. Again, we find the strongest correlation is between the Holocaust and Israel, whereas other aspects, such as the excessive economic power of the Jews, is somewhat less correlated with these two.

So I have reached the following conclusion: sometimes people say we can never criticize Israel because it makes you an anti-Semite. This is unfair. I maintain, because of the perceptive correlation between Israel and the Shoah, that attacking Israel, even about, say, the quality of a given restaurant, because of the strict correlation in people’s minds of the Shoah and Israel, a criticism of Israel becomes seen as an attack on the Jewish people as a whole.

Now, the attack on the poor meat in that restaurant is OK, but attacking the Shoah is not OK. And so, there is a kind of boomerang effect. You attack Israel, legitimately, but you unconsciously create an emotional reaction relating to the Shoah, and therefore the attack on Israel is perceived as harassment. This is what I’ve suggested as an attempt to understand why so many Jews do not tolerate critiques of Israel that otherwise would be perfectly OK. They are disturbed by everything that is said about Israel.

Now, we know very well that we have BDS and other things, and some of these are unimaginably perverse, some of these are simply wrong and some of these may have some factual basis. But because of the mechanism, I think I discovered, there is a little blurring of the internal boundaries in the average of thousands of Jewish respondents. And therefore, I repeat myself, in the perception of many, what was meant to be a normal, legitimate, neutral, fact-based critique of Israel is deeply disturbing and therefore is classified by those persons as illegitimate.

Have you seen many examples of that kind of boomerang effect?

I was exaggerating a bit (about the restaurant meat), but we can find some examples of critiques of the Israeli government that are perfectly OK because Israel has a democratic system based on 13 political parties in parliament. So there is no consensus there. There is an internal dialectic between the government and the opposition. I’m talking about the Jewish opposition, let alone the Arab opposition. And so, critiques of the Israeli government are well-developed within the democratic discourse of Israel. The problem is sometimes exactly the same thing said by some CNN journalist offends much more.


Is the correlation between Israel and the Shoah strong within Israel and within the Diaspora?

I translate my findings into maps, and the maps are all identical for the U.S., for Europe, for Latin America and for Israel. This is amazing, because some would expect that Jews would be affected in their perceptions by the environment, and therefore they would have somewhat different perceptions of these topics. Yet Jews who don’t know each other and live under different skies end up having very similar perceptions. So this says that there is objectively something that is real in these perceptions.

How do U.K. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and his party fit into the anti-Semitic frameworks you mentioned?

What it means in terms of the success of the party after the next elections, I don’t know. It might cause damage to the party, or they might win the election. That would certainly cause a stir within the Jewish community in the U.K.. This is to be seen. Of course, the reasons why the Labour Party may win or lose the election is not this. It is Brexit, it is the economy – the Jewish element is very marginal. But for the Jews, it is very important.

To me, as an external observer, Corbyn looks very bad. He’s a low-grade populist, he ignorant and biased, and he’s on record making declarations that are totally unacceptable.

The problem is we have similar politicians in other countries. This is part of a degeneration of politics in Western democracies. It’s occurring in several western European countries: Hungary, Italy, potentially France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Poland and, above all, the United States of America, which is the most worrying of all.

Of course, U.S. President Donald Trump and Corbyn are going in different directions. But their styles looks pretty similar. They say offensive things and this is the most worrying change, I think, in political discourse in contemporary democracies. We were used to political discourse that was balanced. Of course, winners and losers, government and opposition, always alternated, but it was done within a civilized framework. The framework is becoming less civilized and this is not good for the nations of the West, and this is certainly not good for the Jews.

Is left- or right-wing populism more dangerous for Jewish communities?

I have checked that empirically, so I can give you an answer based on the European survey. The European survey was done in 2012, so a few years have passed, but it’s not a different world. The answer, in Europe at least, is that it depends on the country. In certain countries where there is a lot of Muslim immigration, primarily France and Belgium and a few other places, the main negative influence comes from a combination of the left and Muslims. You take another country like Hungary, definitely the provocation comes from the right. There are very few Muslims there, and there are also extreme Catholic circles. So we cannot give one answer.

Anti-Jewish populism, sometimes through anti-Israeli and anti-Shoah populism, depends very much on the circumstances of international immigration, internal party dynamics and what happens in the different countries. I wish to underline that on the scale of anti-Semitism, Canada is among the lowest in the world. The U.S., Australia and New Zealand are pretty low, as is the U.K. France and many countries in eastern Europe are much higher.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity

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