The ADL’s Flawed Anti-Semitism Survey

Yesterday the Anti-Defamation League released the ADL Global 100, a worldwide study of anti-Semitic attitudes.

It’s a big, comprehensive report, and it includes some fascinating results — Iran, for instance, has less anti-Semitism than anywhere else in the Middle East or North Africa. And 35 percent of the world’s population has never even heard of the Holocaust, which is horrifying.

But the way the organization decided to measure hatred of Jewish people is a little bit odd and potentially misleading, and it highlights how tricky it is to track this sort of thing across different cultures.

The ADL presented respondents with 11 statements and asked them whether each was “probably true” or “probably false” — things like “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [this country/the countries they live in]” or “People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.” If someone said that six or more of the statements were “probably true,” they were counted as harboring anti-Semitic attitudes — five or fewer, and they weren’t.

According to Ryan D. Enos, a political scientist at Harvard who studies inter-group relations, this sort of binary system is problematic. It “creates strange claims, such as a person that expresses these attitudes on five questions about Jewish stereotypes is okay, but a person that answers six affirmatively is an anti-Semite, same as a person that answers affirmatively on 11,” he wrote in an email. “Most people would think that is [a] strange way to label the people holding those attitudes.” Moreover, he argued, “researchers don’t tend to believe that people can usefully be split into people that simply either do or do not have prejudice against another group.” Prejudice “operates on a continuum, not [as] a yes or no.”

Jeni Kubota, an NYU researcher who studies stereotypes and prejudice (and who praised the report for the impressively large swath of the world it covered), pointed out that researchers generally allow for a range of responses on these sorts of questions so as to build a more nuanced view of respondents’ beliefs. “[A]n individual might STRONGLY support two of these statements,” she said in an email. “Would a score of 2 out of 11 mean that the individual was not anti-Semitic? I would argue no.” That makes it hard to interpret some of the results of the ADL study, she argued.    

There’s also a problem with grading every country on the same rubric, since “stereotypes about Jewish individuals may vary from country to country,” Kubota wrote. For example, what does it mean that someone from Laos, which rated insanely low on anti-Semitism with just 0.2 percent of respondents meeting the criteria, doesn’t believe that Jews “think they are better than other people”? There aren’t really any Jewish people in Laos, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect Laotians to hold this sort of personal animosity toward them.

Kubota did say that the binary, straightforward approach probably made it easy to adapt this survey to a lot of settings and cultures. In a statement it sent to Science of Us, the ADL echoed Kubota’s point, and also noted: “Part of it has to do with our credibility. People often accuse us of hyping anti-Semitism. So we want to be extra cautious. [The methodology] serves our credibility and still gives a strong picture of the persistence of anti-Semitism globally.”

Sure. Consistency and cautiousness are good. But discriminatory beliefs are pretty complicated, and something just doesn’t sit right about a scoring system in which one person is labeled an anti-Semite and another isn’t based on a one-question difference in their responses to a survey.