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The Problem With Fighting Anti-Semitism

10/05/2011 08:57 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

In September the Canadian government became the first to sign the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Antisemitism, a fact applauded by many Jewish groups. But I'm not sure they should be so pleased.

Yes, there are issues with the Protocol's position on anti-Israel discourse, but those have been tackled by others. I have another problem with it: I think this document could do us Jewish people more harm than good.

The ICCA, authors of the Ottawa Protocol, tell us that Jews are being attacked on the Internet and on university campuses, that anti-Semitic hate crimes are dramatically rising, that, in short, there is an epidemic of anti-Semitism sweeping the world.

If so, I should be grateful that my government cares enough to protect me (at least this aspect of me; they seem far less concerned about homophobia). But instead, I feel singled out. I feel a bit like a kid whose teacher summons her to the front so the class can discuss just why everyone dislikes her so much, and what can be done to stop the bullying. It's especially awkward since I didn't feel that unpopular in the first place.

There's more to my concern than a vague, squirmy feeling. Here are two reasons why the Ottawa Protocol sends a dangerous message:

1) People often blame the victim

Some studies suggest this stems from a desire to believe in a just world, where bad things only happen to bad people. Or maybe it's that we like to ally with the strong and distance ourselves from the weak. Either way, there's specific evidence that this applies to Jewish victimization. Researchers at the University of Bonn found that people were more likely agree with anti-Semitic statements after being shown texts that describe the ongoing suffering of Jewish people.

2) Presenting a problem as widespread normalizes it

If we're told something is wrong, but that everybody's doing it, we're more likely to do it. Why would that be? People are highly susceptible to perceived social norms, i.e. we're sheep. For example, a classic study found that people were less likely to litter in a clean parking lot than in a lot already covered in litter. Even when researchers posted a sign warning of fines, the presence of litter had a potent pro-littering effect. So when the ICCA says the world is experiencing "an escalating, sophisticated, global, virulent and even lethal antisemitism, that is arguably without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War," we have to ask whether people are getting the message that prejudice is wrong, or that it's popular.

Put these two ideas together, and it seems the more we talk about anti-Semitism, the more appealing it becomes. If that's true, we have a conundrum. How do you address a problem without letting people know it exists? If people tend to adopt what they perceive to be popular opinions, it seems like a good strategy to point out how widely-adored Jewish people are, that these Jew haters are a small, thuggish, unattractive minority. If I have my way, the campaign would also mention how Jewish people perfected bagels and how cute we are first thing in the morning when we're still sleepy and have just a little schmutz in the corners of our eyes. Adorable!

But seriously, it would be absurd to deny that anti-Semitism exists. I've had a few encounters with it myself, like the fellow grad student who asked me why, as a Jew, I couldn't afford a bigger apartment. Such incidents have been thankfully rare and minor in my life, but always disconcerting because they came from people I'd thought of as progressive, self-aware types. Other Jews in Canada have experienced far worse. Statistics Canada reports that Jewish people are the most targeted religious group for hate crimes, more so in recent years. B'nai Brith Canada reported 1,306 anti-Semitic incidents in 2010, and a 2007 survey found that 15 per cent of Americans hold "strong anti-Semitic beliefs."

A successful initiative would need to acknowledge the reality of this problem, but could also communicate that anti-Semitism is far from the norm. The figures above are disturbing, but still consistent with the idea that most people aren't anti-Semites. It's important to emphasize this in campaigns, alongside assertions that it's a serious issue.

More importantly, the fight against anti-Semitism should be part of a broader program to fight prejudice in general. After all, in Canada there are many more racially-motivated hate crimes than anti-Semitic ones, and hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation are the most likely to be violent. Each type of prejudice has its nuances and might demand a different strategy, but there's room for tailored sub-strategies within a larger program. Not only would such an approach minimize the false perception that Jews are the most disliked of all, but clearly, other groups could benefit from extra protection too.

In making their case for bringing special attention to anti-Semitism, the ICCA refer it as "the most enduring of all hatreds," implying that other types of prejudice haven't been quite as hardy. But receiving protection needn't be an unpopularity contest. Regardless, it's not a contest I'd want to win.