A new study by Sergio Della Pergola: Antisemitism, the perception of the victims

By Daniela Gross

While a first-of-its-kind index recently released by the European Jewish Association unveils the prevalence of antisemitic sentiment in 12 European countries, a new paper by the Italian-Israeli demographer and statistician Sergio Della Pergola, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, deals with a less expected facet of the phenomenon, which is the actual people perception, advocating to award them a more serious stake in the decision about how to define antisemitism.
Titled “How best to define antisemitism: A structural approach?”, the study starts from the definitions published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – IHRA in 2016 and the Jerusalem declaration on antisemitism published in 2021 stressing alternative definition criteria.
What the two have in common, writes Della Pergola, who in middle August will be the guest of honor at Redazione Aperta, the yearly journalistic laboratory organized by Pagine Ebraiche newsroom, “was that the empirical social sciences were remarkably left out, which constituted a significant drawback to these efforts’ completeness and even relevance. The voices and perspectives of the object and victims of antisemitic hostility were significantly minimized or even ignored”.
Both definitions focus essentially on three major areas of concern, Jewish-related, Holocaust/Shoah-related, and Israel/related, whereas Della Personal suggests “considering a different mode of proceeding in order to reach a more appropriate assessment and definition of antisemitism—bottom-up rather than top-down. This requires empirically considering the perceptions and experiences of antisemitism by real-world Jews—those people who are directly and personally affected and offended by antisemitism”.
To this aim, the author re-analyzes a survey of experiences and perceptions of antisemitism undertaken in 2018 by the European Union’s FRA—Fundamental Rights Agency among Jews in 12 European Union countries. Conducted online, the study covered 16,395 self-identified Jewish respondents in 12 EU countries including all the largest Jewish communities. Overall, 1.6% of the total Jewish population of that area (estimated at 1,041.200) took part in it, and the results, according to professor Della Pergola, suggest a different approach to the main patterns of antisemitism diffusion and perception.
Although in that survey each country displayed a different ranking of the issues, the greatest concern overall appeared to be antisemitism, closely followed by racism, and then by crime level, unemployment, immigration, intolerance of Muslims, and government corruption.
Notably, in Belgium, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, the most acute perception concerned antisemitism; in Austria, Poland, Sweden, and the UK it was racism; in Spain and Hungary, government corruption; in Italy, unemployment; in Denmark, intolerance to Muslims.
However, when further analyzed, these perceptions tell something more. As Della Pergola explains, in this as in other studies of antisemitism, cognitive and behavioral aspects are taken into consideration whereas the affective and emotional are generally neglected. Thus, we come to know about opinions, phenomena and acts but “what a person sensorially feels about the given idea, act or phenomenon, for example anger or fear, passivity or aggressivity, loneliness or solidarity with others and the like” is mostly left out of most standard sociological research. And that even though “in the real life of contemporary Jews these emotions are perhaps the most tangible effect of antisemitism”.
To realize that, points out the author, it must be considered that in the FRA survey the same statement attracts different percentages in the cognitive and experiential. “For example, ‘Jews have too much power in a given country’ was considered antisemitic by 92% of Jews in Europe, but 43% actually heard it. ‘The Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated” was considered antisemitic by 95%, but was actually heard by 24%’”. Also, “the statement with the highest incidence in the experiential domain was ‘Israelis behave ‘like Nazis’ towards the Palestinians’, with 51% having actually heard it, while 85% deemed it antisemitic from a cognitive point of view”.
Therefore, a remarkable separation between cognitive and experiential modes emerges, which indicates that “European Jews latently perceived that a notion of antisemitism and its actual experience are two conceptually separate domains”. The structure of these perceptions denotes an acute awareness of the channels diffusing antisemitism, their articulation, and committers.
Essentially, antisemitism is perceived as three main forms of denial of Jewish individuals, of Holocaust Jewish memory, and of the State of Israel. Hostile messages are known to spread with different accents in streets and stadiums, politics and media, academy and culture, different political area, and religious extreme fringes. As for the correlation between perpetrators and antisemitic manifestations, the left-wing area is generally associated with negative affirmations towards Israel; right-wing and to a lesser extent the Christian world with negative expressions against Jews and against the memory of the Shoah, and Muslim extremism with acts of violence. It must be noticed that 82% of European Jews consider antisemitic boycotting Israel. And at the center of all perceptions stands the web with its omnipresent influence.
“European Jews as a collective – stress out Della Pergola – held clearly patterned perceptions of the articulations of contemporary antisemitism, of its channels of diffusion, and of the characteristics of the perpetrators”. Is thus essential that all possible perceptional modes be explored, including the affective and emotional one that causes Jews mental stress and pain.
Finally, reads the paper, “the strong identificational relevance and perceptional interconnection that emerged among contemporary Jews between Holocaust/Shoah-related, Israel-related, and Jewish peoplehood-related themes, rendered the attempt to ex-corporate Israel from the standard definitions of antisemitism empirically out of touch with the prevailing feelings among the Jewish population”. “Israel can of course be the object of legitimate criticism, as manifestly shown in the Jewish perceptions”, concludes professor Della Pergola, but it remains crucial in the Jewish imaginary.