Takeaways from the ADL's Latest Anti-Semitism Audit
ADL PNW director Miri Cypers breaks down new and troubling data.
We need to break with the idea that only extremists carry out acts of anti-Semitism.
The ADL has been conducting deeply researched and vetted audits of anti-Semitic incidents nationwide for over 40 years. This year showed the highest rate yet. What’s going on? A conversation with ADL Pacific Northwest Regional Director Miri Cypers.
Once again, we have this report about very high levels of anti-Semitism, and I wanted to walk through this with you. To start, what are the biggest takeaways from this report, in your opinion?
We at the ADL have been doing this annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents since 1979. It's a really helpful tool in being able to reflect on the previous year and being able to, and from a sliver of the cases that are out there, see what the pulse is in local communities. We get a lot of the data from individual community members reporting to us from law enforcement, from news articles, and even from our own investigations at our center on extremism. We cull the information together from a number of sources and we vet it very carefully. It’s not necessarily a summary of everything that comes in. It’s only the incidents that we believe are credible and are directly anti-Semitic in nature.
I think one of the reasons why we feel like it’s really important is because the only real data we get from the federal government is around hate crimes. And the Jewish community is of course included in that, but a lot of times hate-related incidents and acts don’t rise to a level of a crime. You’re not really getting the fullest possible picture of what is going on in the community. So that’s a little bit about the rationale for why we do this year over year and how helpful it is in having data that we can compare and look into and understand trends.
But to answer your actual question, we are continuing to unfortunately see record high levels of anti-Semitism in the United States since we’ve first been doing our audit in the late 1970s. What we are seeing nationwide is, even in a pandemic, incidents rose to their highest levels that we’ve ever seen, at a little over 2,700, and we unfortunately saw nationwide increases in all of the different types of categories that we track. We track vandalism, assault, and harassment.
In the Pacific Northwest, specifically in Washington state, although the numbers are unacceptably high, we saw a continued flatness. There were 80 incidents total in the Pacific Northwest, pretty evenly broken down between Washington and Oregon.
What are we seeing, especially in Washington?
We’re not necessarily seeing the bulk of incidents come from K–12 situations, but we did deal with a couple of recent incidents related to middle and high school. We track incidents both online and on the ground. We’ve also seen kind of similar patterns of anti-Semitic vandalism, like swastikas, near important areas. We’ve also seen one unfortunate trend grow in terms of the harassment of Jewish institutions, which has been really sad to see.
We’ve seen Jewish institutions, like synagogues, for example, receive harassing voicemails and harassment on social media. In Oregon, we also saw a Jewish legislator who was being harassed and kind of called out for being Jewish with a lot of pamphlets in her local area.
I would like to stress that I don’t think the day-to-day kind of anti-Semitic incidents are perpetrated by extremists. I definitely want to correct that notion, but we do see a good chunk of anti-Semitic incidents in the audit perpetrated by extremists. So there’s definitely that connection between rising domestic extremism and how it’s impacting local Jewish communities from putting out physical propaganda pieces to putting graffiti on a synagogue in Spokane.
So you’re saying that most of these incidents are not coming from known extremists? That’s really an idea that we have, that there are extremists out there and we can kind of label them and put them away. But who is doing this?
As a general community, we have seen the rise of extremists and white supremacists in recent years, so we assume that acts of hate are primarily committed by extremists, but that actually is not the case. Primarily, acts of anti-Semitic extremism are committed by right-wing extremists, but that’s only a portion of the kind of anti-Semitism we see. And unfortunately, everyday acts of anti-Semitism are generally committed by everyday people.
Can you get into some specific examples of what’s happening?
Like, someone walking on the street who’s Jewish and being harassed with, like, a heil Hitler sign, that type of thing. It’s been interesting to see cases of harassment of Jewish individuals increase a lot. That kind of person-to-person act of hate or prejudice has been kind of interesting to witness, because I do feel like it’s growing. And again, I think it’s kind of hard to make a judgment call, because I don’t have a lot of data about the perpetrators in this case, their mental well-being and their mental health. I would assume that someone who is well and healthy wouldn’t do a thing like that. But I do think it’s a really interesting issue to think more about. Where is this actually coming from? Is it everyday people — in thinking about the escalation of everyday bias and hate going over that tipping point? Is it people who are unwell? Is it extremists? I think it’s probably committed by a number of different people in different circumstances. And it’s not really motivated by any single ideology.
I was interviewing Dara Horn a couple weeks ago, and she was saying that she’s gotten emails from people saying that they get pennies thrown at them for being Jewish.
I have not heard of that happening recently. I have heard recently of some things that have been happening that have shocked me, because they seem so historic in terms of anti-Semitism.
Right. I was like, Oh, you mean like in the 1950s. And she’s like, No, like yesterday.
That’s really shocking.
Do you see any kind of parallels to that?
I think we do see situations, unfortunately where there’s a lot of just blanket ignorance that’s unfolding where one would assume that that kind of ignorance was maybe more present decades ago. I’ve heard a few recent cases, but religious-based hatred in terms of, “Jews are bad” is not the norm. In some of the K–12 incidents that have been kind of surprising to me, there’s a lot of Holocaust trivialization and Hitler-related abuse of that kind of language of history. So overall I feel like it is kind of a smattering of a lot of different trends and types of activities that we see in a lot of different spaces and places.
Something that bothers me is that we have been countering anti-Semitism with education, but my perception after hearing about this is that maybe that’s not working. Do you struggle with that? How do you talk about that at the ADL? We keep throwing all this education at people, and yet we’re seeing this in the K–12 schools.
I do think a lot of the tactics and strategies that we at the ADL use are really effective for pushing hate back to the fringes. So, I think on the one hand, it can’t be only a Jewish community response to this issue. It needs to be an all-society approach. And I think we need more community leaders and elected officials and people with really big public platforms to be talking specifically about the problem of anti-Semitism, which I think is really often overlooked. But I also think when it does come to the education, it’s like this universal norm that our community believes that education is the antidote to hate, which I fully support, but I don’t think the kind of education that we are providing as a community is on the scale that it actually needs to be. So I think that’s a challenge that we’re really grappling with at the ADL: How do we reach not only a million students on the anti-bias education nationwide, but millions upon millions of students? That’s a huge central issue for us with our education right now. How do we have the growth and scale that’s really necessary to deal with the problem at hand?
What’s happening with sentiment around Zionism?
That is, I think, a huge driver of anti-Semitism in the United States today and a really concerning, growing area of growing anti-Semitism. What we saw after the conflict last year between Israel and Hamas versus the year prior in terms of the number of incidents, and also the severity — incidents rose dramatically because of the conflation of local domestic Jewish communities with the global. We’re absolutely seeing instances in Seattle where anti-Zionism is creeping into the anti-Semitism space. One example that’s pretty clear is what happened outside of Jewish Family Service after Rabbi Will [Berkovitz] wrote an op-ed talking about the rise of anti-Semitism and how it needs to be better addressed by our society at large. The building right outside was tagged with anti-Zionism-related graffiti. We worked hand in hand with JFS and the Jewish Federation to reach out to elected officials in our area to let them know about what transpired and we asked them to speak out. And we were really pleasantly surprised about how many people spoke out quickly and forcefully against that specific act.
Can you talk a little more about what’s going on in the K–12 schools?
There was a KIRO 7 reporter who did a focused article on anti-Semitism in K–12 schools as part of their DEI series. They had never focused on anti-Semitism before, but after the incident at JFS, he became interested in it.
Basically what happened, a student at Skyline High School founded a Jewish Student Union at her high school. It was the first of its kind and she and her friends put up a post on Instagram. I think it was basically advertising their meeting and inviting people to come. And a student wrote back through a direct message and said, “Great, now I know where Hitler can finish his business.”
I think it’s kind of the confluence of the presence of social media in the lives of everybody and especially young people, the trivialization of the Holocaust, and mockery. So I think it was a couple of issues at once. But it deeply obviously impacted this young woman. And she decided to think more about how she could make some long term change at her school and what kind of education that they need. She also was brave enough to speak out on camera about the situation. So I would not say we are contacted constantly by K–12 families or students, but we absolutely know that these kinds of incidents happen. And they’re really, really painful for the young people who have to experience them because of their age and how delicate social life can be. But we work with families a lot, and we generally find that administrators are fairly receptive to working with us to create more change at their school and create more inclusion for Jewish students.
Looking at the map of the incidents, I noticed the states with the most reported incidents are along the coast and sort of in some unusual places like Colorado and Minnesota. And then we saw a huge number in New York and Florida. So my first question was, is this just a population issue? There are more Jews in these places? Is there anything else going on here? Is there any rhyme or reason for why particular states are seeing higher levels of anti-Semitism?
I think it’s kind of an all-of-the-above situation. On the one hand, states with larger Jewish populations I think naturally probably see more acts of anti-Semitism happen, like California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, etcetera. I also think a lot of it is about self-reporting, and I think when there’s a culture and a particular community where people know a community organization or a law enforcement entity and feel comfortable to report to them and there’s trust, I think that’s absolutely a reason why numbers also go up as well.
One example is that Washington does have a problem with hate, and it also has a fairly good police department that tracks these kinds of hate incidents. So I think naturally Washington is always one of those states where reports are up, because there’s a strong law enforcement emphasis in the largest police department in the state on hate crimes.
A lot of it is about infrastructure and resources and community trust and support. And some of it is just people feeling comfortable reporting the everyday kind of things that are happening to them. And it can be hard to reach out, because it is a painful kind of thing where someone’s behaving in a way that’s hateful toward a piece of your identity. It’s not just a car theft or a piece of graffiti. It’s a different kind of crime that makes it more sensitive for people to report.
I was really intrigued how, when we talk about racism and anti-Semitism, I’ve heard people say, “Oh, don’t go into Idaho. That place is bad.” But we see there’s five incidents reported and 45 right next door in Washington.
I think maybe one thing to think about is that the populations are smaller. There is no infrastructure for Jewish life besides a couple of synagogues in the entire state. The communities are really, really small. What would be a better measure of how much anti-Semitism is in a certain place is maybe more of like an attitude, you know, something that measures the general attitude of people, their knowledge of the Jewish community stereotypes, as opposed to acts that are happening on the ground.
Right. I wanted also to ask about the New York situation. There’s some criticism of the media and how anti-Semitism is represented. A lot of those cases are against visible Jews, Hasidic Jews, and not committed by kind of the typical profile of a white supremacist. Do you track what’s going on in more visibly religious communities? And do you see how the media interprets anti-Semitism as any kind of challenge or problem?
I feel like the first answer is definitely yes. I feel like I can’t really speak to this as much because we haven’t seen outward attacks on visibly Jewish communities in Seattle, but one curiosity I have is, are random anti-Semites targeting random people because they know they’re Jewish, or not? How many cases are actually happening and how many cases are only reported to us because they’re a recipient of that kind of action as Jewish? I think it’s something to think about in Seattle, where I feel like for the most part, the Jewish community is not visibly Jewish, but a lot of people are reporting things that are happening because they’re Jewish.
It kind of also goes back to like, Oh, but he was a crazy guy. Even the guy who shot up the Federation, he wasn’t mentally sound. When we talk about people murdering or attacking Jews, often we start with, “Well, is he sane?” And it’s like, do only sane people attack you? I feel like there’s a little bit of a disingenuous argument here.
Yeah. I encountered this a lot, because before ADL, I worked in the gun violence prevention world, and the topic of mental health and perpetrators was really present. And it was a really controversial and bubbling topic of conversation. Obviously I think a lot of people in the gun lobby try to label everybody who commits an act of gun violence in really gross terms of mental imbalance. And there was this tendency to just attribute every act of hate or violence toward mental health issues. I certainly think it’s part of the conversation when it comes to anti-Semitism, but I do go back to that core belief that everyday acts of hate are committed by everyday people. And what happens in our theory of how hate escalates is that bias forms in very innocent seeming ways at the bottom of our pyramid. Our teaching tool is this pyramid that shows how bias can escalate from jokes and innocent seeming gestures and language and really become more serious over time.
I think what we’re seeing today is the normalization of certain kinds of prejudice escalating in a way where people feel a lot more comfortable voicing their stereotypical views of the Jewish people and how they’re, you know, controlling and demanding and wealthy. Certainly there there’s a conversation to be had about intersectional ways to address this problem.
I know we started with takeaways, but on a bigger society level, what is this saying?
I think overall one of the big takeaways for readers is that continuing to speak out and report and shine a light is super, super important. If we didn’t have all of these different incidents and stories and situations that unfolded in the past year, we wouldn’t really be able to analyze and understand the problem and think more about prevention. So even though it’s definitely a grim area of growth in terms of anti-Semitism and hate, that ability of people to report is really, really essential to us being able to understand the problem.
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