An online poll on anti-Semitic attitudes in the wake of the Bernard Madoff scandal suggests more than a third of Americans blame “the Jews” to some degree for the economic crisis.
The poll, by two professors at Stanford University, did not distinguish between financiers, corporate CEOs, economists, government officials or others who are Jewish, but simply inquired “How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?”
Five answer categories ranged from “a moderate amount” to “a great deal,” with 24 percent giving the strongest answer, and a total of 38.4 percent attributing at least some blame for the biggest financial crisis since the Depression on “the Jews.”
But rather than fuel concern about rising hate, the poll, taken in February, has generated an online debate about its methodology, and the Jewish agency that regularly takes the temperature on anti-Semitism is skeptical about its accuracy.
“I would question those findings,” said Kenneth Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “although I don’t want to underestimate the situation.”
Jacobson said the numbers, if true, would rival European figures that have been traditionally higher than in the U.S. An ADL survey of people in seven European countries taken at the same time as the Stanford professors’ poll, found 41 percent had anti-Semitic views.
The last ADL poll of Americans, in 2007, before the economic crisis, showed that 15 percent of Americans held views that were unquestionably anti-Semitic. Jacobson said it was unlikely that so many people had shifted their attitudes in the interval, even given the troubled times.
“[Anti-Semitism] is still disturbingly high,” said Jacobson. “But our numbers have been consistently higher in Europe. From what people tell me, I am not sure the Internet is as reliable as the long established methodology [of polling].”
The poll has generated debate on two Web sites, but has garnered little media coverage since being discussed by the authors in the May-June issue of the nonprofit Boston Review magazine.
The professors, Neil Malhotra and Yotam Margalit, commissioned the online study of almost 3,000 adults around the time that Madoff’s $60 billion Ponzi scheme unraveled. Survey Sampling International, an organization that uses a pool of respondents, conducted the poll.
Lee Miringoff, director the Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, said that SSI was a reputable company used by his institute and others. But he added, “If a person is regularly part of a survey process, there is the danger of contamination, unless they are there for trend line information,” meaning to study their reactions over time.
Malhotra is an assistant professor of political economy at Stanford, and Margalit is a fellow at the university’s Program on Global Justice, who also teaches at Columbia University.
About 1,000 of the respondents were asked the blame question, while the others were divided into groups that were each asked to read a paragraph that detailed Madoff’s Jewish affiliations, in differing degrees, to see how what they read affected their views of the economy and the government response.
They found that those who read the article with the most Jewish references were opposed to the idea of tax breaks for corporations.
“We find that priming people to associate Madoff with his religion changed attitudes on seemingly unrelated public policies,” Malhotra wrote in a comment in the Boston Review discussion area, where the professors have gone online to defend their work. They also responded to posts about the poll on a blog, CrookedTimber.org.
One critic on both sites, identified as Martin Bento, noted that there were four poll responses that would qualify the subject as anti-Semitic and only one choice for those who aren’t.
“Malhotra has … conceded in discussion that some of the anti-Semitism he noted may simply be a result of people’s tendency to select, on average, from the middle of a set of options, since 4 of the 5 choices assigned some culpability to ‘The Jews’,” wrote Bento. He also noted that the two had not subjected their study to peer review, as do most academics before publishing their findings.
But in an interview, Maragalit said he felt it was important to get the data out now while continuing to analyze the results. He said the two expected to get a low response to the blame question, and then planned to test implicit attitudes, but were surprised to see the explicit results were so high.
“When we found these results we thought it was important to put it out there,” he said, “ in particular the need for the media to be careful in how it was reporting these issues.”
Margalit said he believed that in some instances it was appropriate for the media to mention Madoff’s religion “such as discussing how the community dealt with it, or how Madoff abused his relationships with Jewish clients. It was not OK, however, to just mention it as an additional fact about him. Mentioning his religion, in that sense, is not the same as mentioning his age, or how many children he has.”
He said the preliminary finding is that “there is an issue here, but I wouldn’t take the number 24 [percent] literally.”
Margalit, citing standard academic procedure, said the full data set will not be released until after the study is complete. He said one regret of the researchers is that they did not test attitudes about other ethnic groups and the recession, a comparison that could have been informative.
The survey’s political implications caught the attention of conservative commentator William Kristol, who discussed it in a blog entry on the Weekly Standard Web site.
Kristol focused his attention on the finding that Democrats surveyed were almost twice as likely as Republicans to blame Jews for the economic crisis, 32 percent versus 18.4 percent. Kristol speculated that the news was surprising because “most American Jews foolishly continue to maintain allegiance to a party that includes lots of people who don’t like them much …”
Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that in studying the results he was left curious about the methodology.
“You can’t find what questions they asked, and in what sequence they asked it, so it’s very hard to assess that to say, what does it all mean?” said Forman. But he conceded that there was an established correlation between lack of education and anti-Semitism, and Democrats tend to have lower incomes and to be less educated than Republicans.
Less than 1 percent of respondents refused to answer the question, the researchers said.
In a comment posted on crookedtimber.org, a reader identified as Henry Vieutxtemps said: “I hope I would’ve answered that the question is absurd, but I can imagine feeling compelled to give one of the multiple choice answers; you know, because I’m being paid for participation, or I don’t want to disappoint the questioner, or whatever.
Jacobson of the ADL said a poll taken in Europe in February found that 41 percent of respondents answered yes to the same question asked by Malhotra and Margalit.
Comments posted in response to the Boston Review article offer a stark example of those who clearly do blame Jews for the recession.
“Why is it that EVERY Federal Reserve Chairman has ALWAYS BEEN AN ASHEKENAZI [sic] JEW,” read a post signed Jude. “Same folks that pulled off the last depression are DIRECTLY involved in this latest financial fraud … Own up to your tribes [sic] crimes, because the rest of us are getting pretty F-ing sick of suffering from them. Either you do it yourselves, or you will experience BLOWBACK of the likes you have never seen.”
Another post read: “The Zionist invasion is a vicious invasion. It does not refrain from resorting to all methods, using all evil and contemptible ways to achieve its end.”
But such posts represented only a small handful of the 46 comments on the article as of Monday.