Three years after the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, the wake-up call emanating from Pittsburgh is not ringing as loud now.
Only 15% of the general population and 16% of the Jewish population say that hatred of Jews is considered more seriously.
Younger Jews are more cynical than older Jews. More than half, 53%, of 18- to 35-year-olds think anti-Semitism is considered less serious, compared with 41% of 36-49-year-old Jews, 47% of 50-64 year-olds years and 39% of those aged 65 and over.
The outpouring of empathy from Americans of all faiths, ethnicities and ages following the murder of 11 Jewish worshipers at Tree of Life Congregation Shabbat services on October 27, 2018 was heartening. Many came the following Saturday morning to synagogues across the country to participate in solidarity, clearly declaring by their presence that American Jews are not alone. At the time, non-Jews clearly recognized that threats and attacks against Jews are a social problem that requires mobilizing all sectors of American society to combat it effectively.
But attention to Jewish concerns about unending anti-Semitism, even after additional fatal attacks in Poway, Monsey and Jersey City, turned out to be more fleeting than long-lasting. Complaints by African Americans about current and long-standing injustices came to the fore in media attention and in national conversations after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. Asian Americans became the target of unprecedented levels of violence and threats as the coronavirus spread.
Yet targeting Jews continues to top the FBI’s Annual Hate Crime Statistics Report, a list known to be an inadequate compilation as it relies on voluntary submissions from local law enforcement agencies across the country.
Although 66% said that law enforcement is effective in responding to the security needs of Jews, only 17% said it is very effective. That’s a significant recession from the findings in the AJC’s two previous annual surveys of anti-Semitism in the U.S. In 2020, 81%, and in 2019, 79%, said law enforcement was at least something effective. In 2019, 15% said they were not effective.
Younger American Jews are less likely than older cohorts to find effective law enforcement to respond to Jewish security needs. The 2021 AJC survey found that 58% of 18- to 39-year-olds, 65% of 36-49-year-olds, 75% 50-64-year-olds, and 68% of 65-year-olds or more consider that the response of law enforcement is very or somewhat effective.
Congress also receives a low vote of confidence. While 28% of American Jews approve, and only 3% strongly approve, the way Congress has been responding to anti-Semitism, 50% disapprove and 23% strongly disapprove.
The greatest concern for Jewish safety is illustrated in the 39% of American Jews who altered their behavior during the past 12 months out of concern for their safety. That includes people who have avoided publicly using articles that may help others identify them as Jewish, avoid going to certain places or attending certain events, or avoid posting content online that may reveal their views on Jewish issues.
The general American population continues to lag behind the Jewish community in recognizing the seriousness of anti-Semitism in America today. Only 60% think anti-Semitism is a problem today, and 44% think it has increased in the last five years.
It is disturbing that 34% of the general American population has never spearheaded the term “anti-Semitism” or heard it and did not know what it means. The fact that a year ago 46% were also unaware of the term may indicate progress. But it is concerning that only 66% of non-Jewish Americans say they know what anti-Semitism means.
It raises the question of whether a change in terminology is necessary to improve understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism. To that end, the 2021 survey asked Jewish respondents whether they preferred the term “hatred of Jews” or “anti-Semitism.” Almost three-quarters, 73%, chose “anti-Semitism”, while 14% chose “I hate Jews.”
That is just as good. In the general population survey, only 35% were familiar with the term I hate Jews and knew what it means, while 24% had heard it but were not sure what it meant, and 41% said they never he had heard of the term.
Clearly, much remains to be done to educate Americans, and especially elected officials and critical government institutions, on how to confront anti-Semitism without introducing a change in terminology. That 24% of American Jews reported in the AJC survey that they were the target of anti-Semitism in the past 12 months should concern everyone.
A vigorous renewal of the wake-up call to address anti-Semitism in the United States is imperative.
The writer is the director of media relations for the American Jewish Committee.