So, I'm sitting at the breakfast table this morning trying to jolly along my eight year old to finish her breakfast so we can start the school run and in the background, as usual, is Radio 4. It's news time and one of the top 3 items is a story on anti-semitism that claims that nearly 50% of the British population has at least some anti-semitic views and that 50% of British Jews now believe they have no long term future in Britain. This is reported in a pretty matter of fact way, with no comment and no attribution (that I can recall) .
To me these numbers seem completely unbelievable, but maybe I just live in a liberal-lefty bubble in which I only ever meet like minded people who just confirm my rosy view of the world. Luckily I do have some horse sense and at least a dim awareness of the informational biases that we are all subject to.
I have no difficulty in believing that there exists in Britain a number of people with an unhealthy interest in uniforms, armbands and shiny black boots. Some of them may even have a suspicious interest in sepia tinted photographs of a man with a very odd mustache. Their grasp of the contours of modern European history may also, in some respects, be a bit shaky. A lot of them have, and if asked will express, obnoxious views about Jews, Muslims, Irishmen, homosexuals, Asians, Africans, socialists, liberals and just about any other minority group you can name. Let's face it, the nutters are always with us, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less.
But 50% of the British population is in some sense anti-semitic? If that's true then I really am living in Cloud Cuckoo Land and I should be paying more attention. With that thought in mind I decided to track down the sources. First stop after reaching work is to sit down with a coffee and pick up the Guardian. Nothing in the print version. I do better with the Times and discover one column on an inside page. This gives me the information that YouGov are responsible for some of the data the claims are based on.
So over to my office and onto the internet. First stop YouGov's website. No information there. OK, time for a general Google trawl. Eureka! Most of the British qualities and a few of the tabloids have a report in their online versions. It turns out that the data claims are based on a report put out by a group called Campaign Against Antisemitism. OK, now we are in business. CAA are a lobby and advocacy group. That's fine, nothing wrong with advocacy research as long as everyone is clear about what it is.
It's easy to find out who is fronting CAA though not where its funds come from. It was set up in August 2014 around the time the last Israel-Gaza conflict kicked off and was involved in the campaign to get the Tricycle Theatre to accept the London Israeli Embassy's sponsorship of the UK Jewish Film Festival. Just to get the facts straight the Tricycle, which had hosted the UKJFF for a number of years, wished to carry on doing so, but did not wish to accept sponsorship by the Israeli Embassy and offered to make up the shortfall from its own funds. This was regarded by some as evidence of anti-semitism on the part of the Tricycle. Jonathan Sacerdoti, CAA's Director of Communications is a well known lobbyist who appears to have a certain amount of form including some pretty crude attempts to cover up his tracks and present himself as a disinterested commentator on Middle-Eastern affairs.
So to sum up the story so far, the BBC were reporting the "findings" of an advocacy group closely linked to Britain's pro Israel lobby. Just to be clear, I'm not taking a view one way or other as to the rights or wrongs of this: people are free to push whatever they think they can sell to the media. I would have appreciated being told what the source was though so that I could take a more informed view as to whether I should believe it.
Now on to the "facts" about anti-semitism in Britain.
The evidence comes from a YouGov internet survey carried out on behalf of CAA. You can find the report here. Let's skip over all the generalized scepticism about internet surveys, weighting, non-response and the rest and cut to the chase. The respondents were asked to rate whether seven statements about Jews were definitely true, probably true and presumably some other categories that we're not told about, which were taken to be indicators of anti-semitic views. Let's also gloss over the validity of the statements and simply take them at face value.
Here are the statements followed by the percentage saying they thought it definitely or probably true and in brackets the percentage thinking it untrue:
Jews think they are better than other people. 17% (83%)
In business, Jews are not as honest as most people. 11% (89%)
I would be unhappy if a family member married a Jew. 10% (90%)
Jews have too much power in the media. 17% (83%)
Jews chase money more than other British people. 25% (75%)
Jews' loyalty to Israel makes them less loyal to Britain than other British people. 20% (80%)
Jews talk about the Holocaust too much in order to get sympathy. 13% (87%)
So in fact, in all but one case 4 out of 5 Brits do not believe these statements to be true and 9 out of 10 would be happy for a family member to marry a Jew. Suddenly the British anti-semites seem quite a bit thinner on the ground.
The headline "almost half (45%) of British adults believe at least one of the antisemitic statements shown to them" while no doubt literally true of those surveyed is not a sensible measure of the propensity towards anti-semitism in the British population. It has been produced by a kind of "Texan sharpshooter" procedure in which the target is made progressively larger until you include the required proportion of the population you are aiming at.
If you are going to proceed in this way you need to know something about the base rate propensity for people to affirm nonsensical statements or statements about things about which they have no knowledge whatsoever. In other words a fair proportion of the 45% that affirmed at least one of these statements could quite plausibly be counted an anti-semite purely as a result of a "tremblingly-hand" process. One might also wonder what the rate of affirmation would be to some of these statements if we substituted for "Jews" descriptors like "Christians", "Moslems" "Methodists" "Cockneys". Is someone who has a low opinion of everyone ipso facto an anti-semite?
Turning to the CAA survey of British Jews, this is again an internet survey carried out over 20 days between 23rd December and 11th January. I think we can concede that this is a difficult population to survey while still holding that the representativeness of those surveyed is almost completely unknown. What is plausible from the description of the recruitment method given by CAA is that there is probably a bias towards the observant and against the secular and towards those who have or think they have experienced anti-semitism.
There is probably also a bias towards those that view criticism of Israel as prima facie evidence of anti-semitism:
Boycotts of businesses selling Israeli products constitute intimidation. (84% agree)
Media bias against Israel fuels persecution of Jews in Britain. (82% agree)
I have witnessed antisemitism that was disguised as a political comment about Israel. (77% agree)
At least I hope that is the correct interpretation of these figures. If it isn't then we really do have to wonder about what kind of a bubble some of us are living inside and what organizations like CAA are doing to inflate it.
And finally we can ask, why is the BBC giving such weight to the rather tendentious "research" of a lobby group, moreover a lobby group whose Director of Communications has burned their fingers before? Surely we should be told...