Thursday, January 31, 2019

New Data on BDS, "Apartheid", and Antisemitism

A new report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research explores who and how many in the UK that Israel is an "apartheid" state, how many think we should boycott Israeli goods, and the relationship of both beliefs to antisemitism. It's fascinating just as a treasure trove of data (though I'm not 100% sold on the methodology the authors use to draw inferences from that data). But even just looking at face value, there's quite a lot I find interesting:

First, lots of people in the UK just don't have an opinion on these questions. On the "apartheid" question, for example, the plurality winner was "I don't know" at 37% (only a minority -- 21% -- endorsed the apartheid label, but that was still slightly larger than the 19% who affirmatively rejected it. The remaining 22% neither agreed nor disagreed). Obviously, from a Jewish vantage these are very pressing questions and are occupying a lot of our attention with respect to British politics, but it's useful to remember that a great many people simply don't care about this issue. It isn't as big for everyone else as it is for us.

Second, respondents were far more likely to call Israel an "apartheid" state than to support boycotting it, which surprised me greatly. I figured that those who endorse the "apartheid" label are those who think Israel is the worst-of-the-worst, whereas boycotters would include that cadre but also some number of people with more moderate views who support boycotts for tactical or contingent reason. Instead, boycotting was pretty roundly rejected (9% support, 46% reject, the remainder split along "don't know" or "neither agree/disagree"), which means presumably there's a solid chunk of Brits who think Israel is an apartheid state but don't back boycotting it. I'm not really sure what to make of that.

Third, Labour doesn't stand out in these surveys quite to the degree one might think. Labour voters seem comparatively more supportive of both the "apartheid" label and boycotting Israel compared to Tories, LibDems, or UKIPers, but it's hardly a consensus view and there's far more expression of uncertainty than one would expect given current press coverage. On the apartheid label the breakdown is 27/16, with the rest undecided; and on boycotting Labour voters are opposed by a 16/40 margin (the rest, again, are undecided).

Finally, the study authors explore the connection between believing Israel is an apartheid state or supporting boycotts and more "traditional" antisemitic beliefs. They survey a battery of non-Israel related statements (e.g.: "Jews think they are better than other people" or "Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes"), and see how many people endorse zero, one, two, all the way up to six or more of these statements. Then they plot that against supporting BDS or the "apartheid" label.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they find a pretty solid correlation. People who subscribed to none of the antisemitic statements are the least likely to support either boycotts (6%) or the apartheid label (16%). As people support more of the antisemitic statements, the likelihood that they back to the two anti-Israel questions correspondingly rises -- of those who endorse six or more of the antisemitic statements, 47% back the apartheid label and 52% back boycotting Israel.

(Note that I've seen media reports which appear to get this backwards, saying that 52% of boycott supporters also endorse 6+ antisemitic statements. That doesn't appear to be correct, and there is a very large difference between 52% of those who endorse 6+ antisemitic statements back boycotts, and 52% of those who back boycotts endorsing 6+ antisemitic statements. The Jewish Chronicle already issued a correction here -- it seems like this confusion was originally in the actual report as well -- and hopefully others will follow suit).

One thing that's immediately striking about this is, oddly enough, how low the support is for boycotting Israel/calling it an apartheid state is among the "extreme" antisemites (endorsing 6+ antisemitic statements). Intuitively, I'd suspect that someone who dislikes Jews that much would search out any and every possible means for striking out against Jewish-identified institutions. And to be sure, the fact that support for boycotts and the "apartheid" label increases significantly as one endorses more and more antisemitic statements is compatible with that story. But for the pretty sizaable chunk of extreme antisemites who don't seem to endorse anti-Israel practices, I wonder if we're picking up on the existence of significant "pro-Israel" antisemitism (or if another factor is in play).

Even with that caveat though, it's probably not that surprising that antisemites are more drawn to anti-Israel sentiment than are people who possess no antisemitic beliefs. Still, as is often rightly pointed out, correlation doesn't equal causation. For any correlation between A and B, there are three possible causation stories: A causes B, B causes A, or neither causes the other and there is a some other unstated variable that happens to cause both (the classic example of the last case is the correlation between ice cream consumption and crime. Ice cream consumption doesn't cause crime, and crime doesn't cause ice cream consumption. Rather, warm weather causes ice cream consumption and, by causing more people to spend more time outside, also causes increases in crime).

So what causal story can we tell about the correlation between antisemitic attitudes and support for (among other things) BDS? One possibility, of course, is that the correlation is spurious -- there's a confounding variable that explains both (the "warm weather" case). I'm open to that possibility, but I confess I'm not sure what likely candidate is. For example, imagine it was the case (and the data actually doesn't support this) that old people were more likely to be antisemitic and more likely to support BDS. Even if that were true, it seems highly unlikely that their antisemitism and their BDS advocacy were unrelated to one another (compare if there had been a correlation between BDS support and having "blue" as one's favorite color. If that was explained by old people being most likely to support BDS and most likely to favor the color blue, then it'd be very implausible that there was any causal story linking blue and BDS to one another).

Again, I'm open to the confounding variable explanation, but I'd need to hear the story. So let's leave that aside, and explore the other two possibilities.

BDS proponents usually seem most invested in falsifying the causal story whereby BDS support is caused by antisemitism. The reason that's so important is because, in popular argot, BDS is antisemitic if and only if it is motivated (caused) by antisemitic sentiment. This actually strikes me as too great of a concession -- I'm don't think the antisemitism of a given policy position can only be established via the existence of antecedent antisemitic beliefs that motivate it -- but I might be in a minority there.

In any event, the idea here is that if someone arrives at BDS without harboring any antisemitic sentiment, then their support of BDS is not antisemitic (and consequently BDS is not antisemitic at least so far as it is endorsed by that sort of person). Proponents of this view generally might concede that antisemites are attracted to BDS, but maintain that many people support BDS without harboring any antisemitic impulses whatsoever. Or put differently, antisemitism is a cause of BDS, but not the only cause, and it's unfair to tar the whole movement by focusing solely on that one cause.

Though it doesn't directly speak to this question, the JPR dataset does raise questions about this apologia, since only 6% of people who harbored no antisemitic beliefs backed BDS. That doesn't itself show that most people who back BDS harbor antisemitic beliefs -- we'd need to know more about the base rates to establish that. But it does raise the question of what causal force is operating on that 6% that doesn't apply to the 94% of their non-antisemitic peers who don't back BDS?

If that's what we can say about "antisemitism causes BDS", what is there to say about the flip causal story: "BDS causes antisemitism"? Though it gets less attention, for me that's the story that's more interesting (and more worrisome). If this causal story is true, then people might arrive at BDS without any antisemitic ideology whatsoever, but the time spent in the "waters" of BDS would actually cause them to develop more systematically negative views about Jews qua Jews. And that would I think be a far more damning indictment. It's one thing -- arguably a trivial thing -- to say that antisemites will be attracted to any movement which seems to be sticking it to the Jews, and BDS happens to be one such movement. There might not be all that much the BDS movement could do about that. It's another thing to say that people who aren't antisemitic are more likely to become so the more interaction and engagement they have with BDS.

Put differently: it strikes me as likely that antisemites would be more likely to want to punish Bernie Madoff extremely harshly compared to the population writ large. It also seems likely that there are plenty of people who want to punish Bernie Madoff extremely harshly who are not motivated by antisemitism. But it strikes me as relatively unlikely that non-antisemites who want to punish Madoff harshly will emerge "out the other side" of that campaign as antisemitic. If BDS is different -- if people come in without antisemitic attitudes and come out with them -- that would be extremely worrying, and it would suggest that there is something fundamentally rotten going on inside the movement, such that it is actually generating of antisemitism.

That claim requires a lot more research to establish. But if that causal story is plausible, then we have to be able to talk about BDS as potentially antisemitic notwithstanding the fact that many of its arrivees don't start off as motivated by antisemitism. A movement which converts non-antisemites into antisemites is antisemitic even if the recruits don't come in with any particular desire to disparage Jews. This alternative causal story demands a different way of thinking about antisemitism beyond the question of antecedent motivations.

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