Low data quality as a challenge to tackle anti-Semitism in the EU

Low numbers of antisemitic incidents are not good news when the majority of Jews describe antisemitism as an ongoing and even increasing issue. The latest overview of data available in the European Union 2004–2014 issued by the Fundamental Rights Agency makes, once more, strong points about the need for more and better data.

The latest report on antisemitism published the the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) seems to provide contradictory results. While it continues to show low absolute numbers of anti-Semitic incidences for most countries where such data is available, two-thirds of Jews who responded to a survey consider antisemitism to be a problem in their country and 76 % believe that antisemitism has increased in the country where they live during the past five years. Both results point to a core problem in this field: The lack of robust data on antisemitism that could be monitored over time and compared across countries. Neither is possible at this time. The low absolute numbers, which are explained by the phenomenon of underreporting, do not assess long-term trends. The different sources and methodologies of data collection, on the other hand, do not allow for any meaningful comparisons. The FRA report echoes recommendations of a new ENAR report issued in the same month.

Similar to an earlier report, the highest numbers of reported anti-Semitic incidents was recorded in periods that corresponded with Israel’s operations (Cast Lead operation in 2008/09 and Protective Edge operation in 2014). But the EU countries record different types of incidents (offenses, crimes, threats or other forms) and absolute numbers are often double or single digit. Such low (absolute) numbers should not, however, be taken as an indication that antisemitism is not an issue. Conversely, it cannot be said that antisemitism is necessarily a bigger problem in Member States where the highest numbers of incidents are recorded. In addition to the size of the Jewish population in a given Member State there are a number of factors that affect how many incidents are reported and/or recorded, including the willingness and ability of victims and witnesses to report these incidents, and to trust that the authorities are able to deal with such incidents accordingly. In the words of the British Association of Chief Police Officers: “The Police Service is committed to reducing the underreporting of hate crime and would view increases in this data as a positive indicator, so long as it reflects an increase in reporting and not an increase in the actual incidence of crime which we strive to reduce.”

Antisemitism can be expressed in the form of verbal and physical attacks, threats, harassment, property damage, graffiti or other forms of text, including on the internet. The latest FRA report relates to manifestations of antisemitism as they are recorded by official and unofficial sources in the 28 European Union (EU) Member States. ‘Official data’ is understood here as that collected by law enforcement agencies, criminal justice systems and relevant state ministries at the national level. ‘Unofficial data’ refers to data collected by civil society organisations. The report compiles available data on antisemitic incidents collected by international, governmental and non-governmental sources, covering the period 1 January 2004–31 December 2014, where data are available. No official data on reported antisemitic incidents were available for seven Member States at the time this report was compiled: Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Malta and Portugal.

Even for countries that do record data, the FRA report shows that few operate data collection in great detail. This contributes to gross underreporting and limits the ability to take measures or to assess the effectiveness of existing policies. Incidents that are not reported are also not investigated and prosecuted, allowing offenders to think that they can carry out such attacks with relative impunity.

The report underscores the relevance of and need for surveys on perceptions and experiences of antisemitism among self-identified Jews, such as that conducted by FRA. While antisemitic and intolerant attitudes can lead to behaviour punishable by law, the report stresses that antisemitism needs to be countered beyond the criminal justice system perspective. Education is seen to be essential to prevent intolerant attitudes by fostering socialisation, tolerance, universal values, and by encouraging critical thinking.

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