Hate acts against Jews rose substantially in California last year. Actually, they dropped significantly. Or, they stayed at the same level.
Confused? It depends largely on which survey you read and what definitions you use.
The Anti-Defamation League’s audit on national and regional anti-Semitic incidents reported Tuesday an increase of 22 percent in 2009, or 275 incidents, compared to 226 in the preceding year, in the country’s largest state.
A week earlier, state Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. released his report, showing that hate crimes against Jews had gone down 13 percent, from 184 in 2008 to 160 last year.
Populous Los Angeles drives most of the statistics and the latest study by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, covering 2008, indicates that the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes were nearly identical to the 2007 figures.
As each such survey is released, the media tend to dutifully report the statistics, without comment or independent investigation.
But to experts, the apparent contradictions come as no surprise.
“I would take any of these figures with a grain of salt,” said Michael J. Gennaco, who as a former top federal civil rights attorney prosecuted some of the highest profile anti-Jewish crimes. He now serves as head of the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review.
A major problem lies in the fact that all hate crime statistics depend ultimately on law enforcement agencies reports, which are voluntary and often spotty, haphazard and protective of local reputations, Gennaco said.
David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates, Inc., headed ADL’s Pacific Southwest regional office for 27 years, and helped compile the annual ADL audits during his tenure. (Lehrer also blogs for The Journal.)
“It’s impossible to nail these statistics down,” he said. “If Mrs. Goldberg gets a call from her Irish landlord and the conversation becomes heated, do you count that as an anti-Semitic hate incident?”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center praised the work of ADL and law enforcement agencies, but noted a major weakness of all surveys in omitting the proliferating hate messages in cyberspace, and particularly on social networks like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.
“Ten years ago, a kid would post an anti-Jewish or anti-black flier in the gym locker room, and the only one concerned might be the school principal,” Cooper said. “Today, the same message can go viral and reach millions within seconds.”
Amanda Susskind, regional director of the ADL office in Los Angeles for the past eight years, agrees with Cooper’s observation, but notes that it is just about impossible to keep track of thousands of usually anonymous websites and bloggers.
Susskind acknowledged that compiling the annual audits “is not a science,” but that the statistics are useful in spotting overall trends, and she cited three conclusions from the 2009 statistics.
First, anti-Jewish and racists epithets are increasingly pervading mainstream society.
“Ten or 20 years ago, you might hear such epithets on the playground when two kids were fighting, and a teacher or other adult would break it up,” she said. “Today, such expressions, including Nazi and Holocaust slurs, have mainstreamed and are largely acceptable.”
Second is the proliferating hate on the Internet. “It used to be that if some newspaper reader sent an obviously racist letter to the paper, the editor would spike it. But on the Internet, the filter is gone, and at the intersection of cyberspace and the world of hate, hate has become hip,” Susskind said.
Thirdly, a confluence of events have energized the hate mongers and extremists, including the economic recession, events in the Middle East and the election of the first African-American president.
Even those who put little faith in the accuracy of various survey statistics believe they serve a useful function.
“While the civil rights situation is certainly better than it was 40 years ago in this country, the surveys show that there are still individuals and groups who strike out against their fellow countrymen,” Gennaco said.
“These days, that hatred is fueled by the bad economy, fear of terrorism and anti-immigrant fervor. Even one case is one too many,” he added.
While the interest of the Jewish community focuses on anti-Semitic acts, these are only a small part of the overall picture depicting American prejudices.
In all the surveys, the majority of hate crimes are based on race or ethnicity, with anti-black attacks predominating. About one-quarter of hate acts are directed against gays and lesbians, and about one-fifth on the basis of the victim’s religion.
In the latter category, anti-Jewish acts represent between 65-75 percent of reported incidents, distantly trailed by anti-scientology and anti-Muslim acts.
Different scopes and definitions play a large part in understanding the large discrepancies between the state and ADL surveys.
The Brown audit deals only with hate crimes, which have to meet certain legal standards, while the much broader ADL report includes hate incidents.
The latter category includes a large number of what might be relatively minor instances of real or perceived harassment, phoned in to ADL offices. In the past year, ADL has tightened its standard in defining and counting hate incidents.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep an eye on even non-criminal anti-Semitic incidents, Susskind said, which are often “prequels to more serious acts later on.”
Some cynical outside analysts of the statistical discrepancies, especially between the ADL and attorney-general’s surveys, have unkindly suggested that their respective conclusions serve their own self-interests.
For the state report, a decline in hate crimes shows that the state justice department and law enforcement agencies are on the ball in catching or scaring off would-be hate crime perpetrators, the argument goes.
On the other side, by reporting a rise in hate incidents, ADL could prove how vital its work remains in protecting the Jewish community and educating the American public.
Susskind didn’t buy these propositions.
“If we really wanted to inflate figures and scare everybody, we could have included every incident of swastika daubing and every fax recieved about the virulently anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church as an anti-Jewish incident, which we didn’t,” she said.
At he same time, she said, ADL could actually benefit by a drop in its statistics by arguing that the decline was due to the organization’s excellent job of public education and cooperation with law enforcement agencies.