Hate and War: A Stark Correlation

An interview with political scientist Ayal Feinberg
By | Jun 06, 2024
Ayal Feinberg
Ayal Feinberg

Ayal Feinberg

Ayal Feinberg, PhD, is the director of the Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights at Gratz College in Pennsylvania and a quantitative research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League. In 2019 and 2020 he published research on how violent homeland conflict affects diaspora communities’ insecurity, focusing on how Israeli military operations from 2001-2014 correlated with reported antisemitic hate crimes in the United States.

Tell me about your main research interests and how you ended up directing the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Gratz College. 

When I started my PhD program, it was 2014, and we had just seen the devastation of Operation Protective Edge [a 7-week- long eruption of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that killed 67 Israelis and more than 2,000 Palestinians]. Specifically, I remember the violent protests in France targeting the Jewish community—in Sarcelles and another at a synagogue in Paris that was surrounded by protesters threatening the Jews inside, telling them that they would be gassed again, all as a perceived consequence of what was happening with Israel and Gaza. And I thought to myself, what are the empirics on this? I found that most of the political science research was focused on how the diaspora affects homeland behavior but was extremely limited on how homeland behavior affects diasporas. And that’s really the orientation I’ve taken since 2014: how homeland behavior—real, exaggerated and fictitious—affects the security and identity of diaspora groups.

One finding of your study was that in weeks when Israel was engaged in a substantial, high-intensity military operation (defined as resulting in at least 100 opposition casualties), reported violent and intimidation hate crimes increased by an average of 33 percent across the United States. How do you define antisemitic hate crimes? What kind of incidents fall outside that definition?

I don’t define antisemitic hate crime—I let the FBI Uniform Crime Report define it. Crimes that were reported to and investigated by the FBI as hate crimes are what I evaluated in my research. In addition, these reports are not exhaustive, because the crimes are self-reported incidents. People are obviously very hesitant in some cases to alert the authorities. In terms of the difference between a hate crime and, say, a bias incident, a hate crime is something that reaches a criminal threshold and is being investigated by an authority as such, while a bias incident might be something that is targeting a specific group, potentially with hate speech or some sort of verbal harassment, but it doesn’t necessarily reach the level of a crime. 

There is no more important factor in explaining variation in antisemitic hate crimes in this country than Israel being engaged in a particularly violent military operation.  

In your 2020 paper “Explaining Ethnoreligious Minority Targeting: Variation in U.S. Anti-Semitic Incidents,” you note that, typically, Jewish Americans are going to be more comfortable reporting potential hate crimes or bias incidents than other groups, such as Black Americans or Muslim Americans, due to a history of police bias. Do you think we’re in a time where reporting has increased on the whole?

Absolutely. I don’t think the ADL and other organizations that are interested in this from the Jewish side and others from the Muslim side are engaging in purposeful exaggeration of the numbers. The data that they’re collecting is reflective for the most part of the increase in bias incidents that are targeting these two groups. Salience matters, not just in the number of victims reporting these incidents, but it’s also an important motivator for potential perpetrators of bias incidents. Certainly the Jewish community, and the Muslim community, the Arab community, the Palestinian community are very sensitive to what’s happening at this moment. 

In looking at motivations for and manifestations of antisemitic incidents, you propose four drivers in your study: opportunity, distinguishability, stimuli and organization. Can you briefly explain how each relates to antisemitic activity in the United States?

We can think about opportunity as target group concentration, so places that have higher concentration of Jewish individuals. That can be a more static measure, like where people live, but it can also be related to any sort of group concentration, such as a rally for Israel.

When it comes to distinguishability, we’re talking about target group visibility. Not all Jewish communities are equally visible, especially to perpetrators, and many Jews don’t have obvious characteristics that identify them as a potential target, which is why in many cases Jews, as opposed to other minority groups, are targeted through vandalism; there’s an institutional focus more than an individual focus when compared with other groups. Distinguishability applies to the fact that the Orthodox community, whose members are visibly identifiable as Jewish, has a higher likelihood of being targeted. It could also be a factor in a large gathering, where all of a sudden, individuals who we might not know are Jewish are now identifiable as Jewish.

Stimuli is any sort of event that increases target group salience—this can be at the geopolitical level, like the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, or the thwarted attack by Iran on Israel, but it can also be things that are happening at the domestic level. For example, we see a correlation between the celebration of Jewish holidays and increased reporting of hate crimes.

And then, lastly, organization. I utilized a variety of different measures here, looking at neo-Nazi groups, racist skinhead groups, and several other group types. As we know from perpetrator statistics, these groups are frequently responsible for many of the bias incidents that take place. We often think of hate crimes as so-called crimes of passion, however a sizable number of perpetrators engage in serious planning and utilize group organization in order to commit acts of hate. 

You name poor economic conditions and Israeli conflict violence as two examples of stimuli associated with antisemitism “that invoke resentment and conspiratorial notions of control and domination.” Can you explain how these operate?

There’s some limited evidence that the economy helps to explain variation in antisemitic attitudes and beliefs. But that doesn’t translate in my research into behavior. What we do see consistently is that when Israel is engaged in military operations that have significant casualties, there are real effects. In fact, there is no more important factor in explaining variation in antisemitic hate crimes in this country than Israel being engaged in a particularly violent military operation.  

Will you do an updated study on the correlation between a rise in antisemitic hate crimes and Israeli military activity after 2014, and especially after October 7?

The trend lines don’t change when the data is extended through 2020, and I’m currently working on doing updated analysis through 2023. It takes time for hate crime data to be reported, but I’ve evaluated bias incidents and other incident-level data we have from places such as New York City, and my initial results absolutely hold.

Can we assume that correlation rises as social media is used more and more?

Absolutely, the media plays an important role in this. But thinking about what’s changed from when I did the study to where we’re at now, certainly the modality of how information is exchanged has changed; in 2001, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no social media that functioned as a source of news in the way that it does today. We were much less siloed. Today it’s harder to penetrate specific narratives, especially anti-Israel narratives. And, of course, we see that individuals are now engaging in commentary as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who are not in any way, shape or form experts on it. They’re doing this in part because there’s a monetary component. They gain followers, likes and influence for having specific views on Israel and even Jews. So, it makes examining this issue much more challenging than it was prior. But again, I suspect that these changes only further the effect that we’re seeing; they’re not going to reduce it.

So, if someone sees a horrific image of an injured child in Gaza and this triggers an antisemitic trope, how does that translate then to perpetrating a crime or even just yelling at someone on the street here in the United States who they assume to be Jewish?

Talking about this at the socio-psychological level is a good place to start. So, if you see some sort of behavior that you vehemently disagree with, but you feel like you have no agency to change it, what do you do? (And let me be clear, I’m absolutely not justifying the perpetrators of bias incidents or hate crimes—I’m just trying to get inside their heads.) You see this horrific image and you ask, who is responsible for supporting this type of behavior that has led to this moral, ethical challenge that I’m confronted with? Well, you think, Jews in the United States care greatly about Israel as part of their identity, many lobby on behalf of Israel, so Jews are partly to blame. And then maybe you ask: How do I go about altering their behavior and altering the policy preferences of the country? Maybe you join a protest or you engage in a letter-writing campaign, you talk to your politicians. But in many cases, there’s no direct recourse to change the behavior that upsets you. And, frankly, you want to punish the group that you believe is responsible.

My colleague Dr. Jacob Scott Lewis at Washington State University and I ran a survey experiment back in 2022 where we evaluated the effect of exposure to news stories to see whether exposure affected the perpetrator group evenly. Study participants saw news stories with identical headlines, except the perpetrators changed: Israeli bombs destroyed a hospital and apartments in Gaza; Russians did the same in Mariupol, Ukraine; and Saudi Arabia in Sanaa, Yemen. Our main question was whether there’s something different about the way Jews in the United States are blamed for the actions of Israel, then let’s say Russian Americans are for the actions of Russia, or Muslim Americans are for the actions of Saudi Arabia or even ISIS.

In the study, American Jews were the only group that saw higher levels of reported blame post exposure than the control groups, so this notion of blame is something that’s specific to, at least in our survey experiment, Jews and Israel. So then we thought, okay, maybe we should also ask about the idea of a responsibility to speak up. Again, the only group that is seen as responsible to speak out are Jews. This work is unpublished, because we did another iteration immediately post-October 7, and we’re in the process of collecting data for a third one. But I wanted to share our findings so far because it’s important that we understand that blame and responsibility are not evenly distributed. There’s a perception, and in my view a latent antisemitism, that exists related to Jewish power and control that ties Jews to Israel in a way that other diaspora groups are not tied to their own states or homelands they are identified with.

Are there dangers in highlighting the correlation between Israeli military actions and antisemitic activity in the United States? Does it shift blame from those who commit antisemitic hate crimes to Israel? 

I think that it depends on how you want to define danger. That will be a natural reaction for some Jews—that Israel is further isolating them socially. It may be responsible for increasing their sense of insecurity and, as a consequence, they might be less likely to identify publicly and even privately as Jewish. Their Jewish identity might become less important. We go back and forth about the greatest challenge to Jewish survival: it’s assimilation or it’s antisemitism. And at times of heightened antisemitism, like we’re experiencing now, there’s a grave concern about antisemitism actually leading to assimilation. We’ve seen time and time again, throughout history, that a very common response to extreme levels of antisemitism is a discarding of Jewish identity.

How much of the rise in antisemitism can be attributed to Donald Trump and his presidency? 

It’s hard for me to identify Trump as a single will factor in any of the analysis that I would do, but certainly when you look at the timing, we see a difference in conspiratorial thinking beginning at about 2015, 2016. But again, I don’t think that conspiracy thinking is exclusive to the right. Antisemitism is less ideological than people think, although it’s often weaponized that way. One of the things we know in the empirics that I’ve examined on this issue is that those on the left are much more likely to see antisemitism as not motivated by Israel. Those on the right are much more likely to see it motivated by Israel. Of course, it can be both. But what’s interesting is that many people see what’s ongoing in Israel as just part of this hyperpolarization that we see in this country. And one of the surprising facts we’ve seen in several polls is that there are many people in the ideological center who have particularly strong anti-Israel positions. And sometimes that bleeds into higher levels of antisemitic trope alignment as well. There used to be a small but substantive distinction between those who voted for Trump and those who voted for Biden in determining antisemitic trope alignment, but in the most recent polls that has disappeared. So, who you vote for is not a predictive factor in the number of antisemitic tropes that you will align with. That’s something that’s changed. So again, I think we focus so much on ideology and partisanship when we should be focusing on the specific factors that make one more susceptible to developing antisemitic tropes and beliefs.

You said at the beginning that you were drawn to this area of research because it just wasn’t really being done. Why is that?

This is an interesting segue into why we recently created the first master’s program in antisemitism studies. It’s my response to the fact that we have utterly failed at creating rigorous, meaningful educational approaches to better develop our understanding of antisemitism. Thinking about American Jewish exceptionalism—this notion that American Jews have always had it different than other diaspora groups, when you look at our economic success or disproportionate placement in certain positions of power or the government—there’s this belief that antisemitism wasn’t something that was structural in the United States, it was something that was predominantly social. And following the postwar period, those social structures that might have been discomforting to Jews have really dissipated. And so there was this prevailing view, especially in the beginning in the 1960s but all the way through the 2000s, that American Jews have it good, right? So why would we study antisemitism? You would have never made a career in Jewish studies in the United States by studying antisemitism. (I can count all of the serious antisemitism scholars over the last three decades here in the United States on two hands.)

And now we’re in this position where it’s becoming one of the unfortunate core factors of the Jewish experience in the United States, and there’s very little research for us to turn to. So, the program that I’ve created is about helping individuals flatten the learning curve that it takes to become an expert in antisemitism in order to be most successful at combating it through education and advocacy.

Top illustration by Noah Phillips.

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