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Holly Huffnagle: Ignorance about anti-Semitism creates dangerous breeding ground for hatred of Jews

American Jews, already anxious about rising anti-Semitism in the United States, now have further cause for alarm. Nearly half of all Americans say they have either never heard the term “anti-Semitism” (21%) or are familiar with the word but not sure what it means (25%), according to an American Jewish Committee (AJC) report issued Monday.

Further, 72% of Americans say that if a Jewish person or organization considers a statement or idea to be anti-Semitic, it would either not make a difference to them (65%) or even make them less likely (7%), to consider it anti-Semitic.

Parallel surveys of American Jews and the general public form the basis of the first-ever AJC report on the state of anti-Semitism in America.

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The state, simply put, is poor. To the traditional sources of anti-Semitism — the far right, hard left, and extremists in the name of Islam — we can now add a fourth: ignorance.

The lack of awareness and refusal to enable Jews to define hatred against them create a dangerous breeding ground for anti-Jewish hostility.

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More than a third (37%) of American Jews say they have been verbally or physically assaulted over the past five years simply because they are Jewish. Within this group, nearly a quarter have received anti-Semitic remarks in person, by mail, or by phone; a fifth have been targeted by anti-Semitic vitriol online; and 3% have been physically attacked.

Some 62% of American Jews have been the targets of anti-Semitic remarks on Facebook and about a third experienced anti-Semitism on Twitter. Nearly half (46%) of those American Jews who reported online anti-Semitism to a social media platform said no steps were taken to address the incident.

No wonder nearly a quarter of the Jews surveyed avoid identifying themselves as Jewish in public or posting content that would reveal their Jewishness online.

It underlies why nearly nine in 10 Jewish Americans (88%) view anti-Semitism in the U.S. as a problem today. Yet only three in five U.S. adults (63%) share that concern.

The discrepancies between the general and Jewish responses are unnerving.

While 82% of American Jews say anti-Semitism has increased in the past five years, only 43% of U.S. adults agree. In fact, 39% of U.S. adults believe anti-Semitism levels have stayed the same in the U.S., compared to the 14% of American Jews who say the hate is static.

Additionally, far fewer non-Jewish Americans know about the Holocaust. Nearly a quarter do not know much or anything at all about the most well-documented genocide in history. In contrast, 84% of American Jews know a lot about the Holocaust, and 15% know at least something.

The disconnect between what the American Jewish community is facing and the lack of knowledge among wider American society is deeply problematic, especially because effectively countering anti-Semitism requires the partnership of non-Jews.

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Anti-Semitism fundamentally is not only a Jewish problem; it is a societal one. It is a reflection on the declining health of our society. If Americans are less likely to identify the patterns that point to its precipitous rise in the U.S., progress in combating anti-Semitism will be hindered.

What can be done to correct the disturbing trends revealed in the AJC report?

 First, we must define anti-Semitism in all its forms. Nations, states, and municipalities should adopt the comprehensive Working Definition of Anti-Semitism passed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016.  Although the U.S. State Department, under Democratic and Republican administrations, has been using it to monitor anti-Semitism around the world, the U.S. is not one of the 30 countries to date that has formally adopted the definition.

Second, education is imperative. Notably, in the AJC survey more than a third of adults who have a high school education or less (36%) said they have never heard the word anti-Semitism. The more Americans know about anti-Semitism and its dark history, the better prepared they will be to counter it.

Third, robust coalitions — across government agencies, civil society organizations, and religious and ethnic groups — must be built to combat anti-Semitism. How hatred and persecution against one group of people is an affront to all Americans must be explained and absorbed.

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Together, Jews and others can encourage our elected representatives to support the NO HATE Act, to encourage more accurate reporting of hate crimes. Together we can report online anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial, on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to make their algorithms smarter and demand policy enforcement and transparency.

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Finally, an integrated approach is essential.  When fighting anti-Semitism, we help protect liberal democracy and democratic values from the bigotry of White supremacy, anarchy and violence; help fight against the polarization and radicalization of the political and religious spectrums; and help stop the spread of conspiracy theories and promote media literacy.

This is a battle for all of us. We all must be part of the solution.

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