Washington Jewish Week

April 9, 2014

The group’s numbers are not statistics, says crime analyst

by David Holzel, Senior Writer

Anti-Semitic incidents are down in the United States. In its recent “audit,” the ADL counted 751 incidents during the 2013 calendar year, a 19 percent decline from the 927 incidents reported in 2012.

That appears to be the good news. The bad news is that anti-Semitic assaults are up — 31 attacks in all, up from 17 in 2012. There was the 12-year-old Jewish girl who had a bottle thrown at her by a group of girls, including one who yelled, “You dirty Jew.” And the Jewish man in Los Angeles who was surrounded by five male suspects who yelled “Heil Hitler!” before striking him.

“In the last decade we have witnessed a significant and encouraging decline in the number and intensity of anti-Semitic acts in America,” says Abraham H. Foxman, ADL’s national director. But, “the high number of violent in-your-face assaults is a sobering reminder that, despite the overall decline in anti-Semitic incidents, there is still a subset of Americans who are deeply infected with anti-Semitism and who feel emboldened enough to act out their bigotry.”

Not so fast, says Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There are a lot of assumptions being drawn.”

And those assumptions are based on very little hard evidence, he adds.

The ADL has released numbers, but no statistics, Butts points out. There is an extended press release but no statistical report detailing the organization’s methodology. ADL responds by saying it doesn’t release a full report “to protect victims who wish to remain anonymous,” Todd Gutnick, the organization’s director of media relations, writes in an email.

The audit tracks one-year changes. This makes it more difficult to draw accurate conclusions, because a big one-year jump or drop could prove to be a fluke and unimportant over the long term, says Butts.

New York saw the biggest one-year jump in incidents of any state, according to the audit. Violent assaults tripled there from six in 2012 to 22 in 2013. The rise coincided with the appearance of the “knockout game,” in which players try to knock over pedestrians.

Butts looks at those numbers, not like the 72-year-old Brooklyn woman who was attacked, but from the point of view of a statistician.

“When you have a big one-year jump, the first operating hypothesis is a reporting error,” he says. In other words, there may have been no jump.

And even though there indeed were knockout victims, they may have been targeted not because they were Jews, but because they looked different, he says. “If you’re a young person who’s kind of pissed off and you want to punch someone, you tend to go after someone who’s not like you” — an older person or someone dressed in chasidic clothes, for example. “Were all these people hit for the same reason? There were a lot of assumptions being drawn.”

Whatever the motives, Butts doesn’t recommend ignoring such attacks. And he says the police and government have been vigilant in their response.

Overall, crime in the United State is dropping to levels not seen since the 1960s. But even there, there’s good news and bad news.

“There are two Americas,” says Butts. “One lives in relative luxury and safety. The other lives in Third World conditions.”

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