Generalized Discrimination Perceptions and American Jewish Perception of Antisemitism


Why do American Jews, who are highly successful in several regards, perceive so much antisemitism and discrimination? Previous research has focused on individual characteristics, Jewish identity, and environmental factors. This paper adds another factor, perceptions of discrimination against non-Jews, arguing that when Jews perceive high levels of discrimination against non-Jews, they fear that discrimination against non-Jews will spread to Jews. The paper used data from the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews to test this hypothesis, and the analysis finds support for it. The conclusion puts the findings into context and offers suggestions for future research.

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Fig. 1

Source: 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews


  1. 1.

    Question QB6C from the 2013 Pew poll. The AJC polls were accessed from the Berman Jewish Databank,, on October 23, 2017. AJC has been surveying American Jews on their perceptions of antisemitism in the US since 1998. From 1998–2006, those surveys report over 90% viewing antisemitism in the US as a serious or somewhat serious problem. The percentages generally dip to the 80%-90% range from 2007–2017, with the smallest percentage, 73%, in 2016. In 2017, the percentage reporting antisemitism as very serious rose to 41%, the highest in the AJC series, with 43% saying antisemitism was a somewhat serious problem.

  2. 2.

    The 2014 Pew Landscape Religious study found 59% of U S Jews with a college degree, with Hindus at 77%, Unitarian Universalists at 67%, and Anglicans at 59%. That poll estimated 27% of adults had completed college, while a 2016 U S Census Bureau report claimed the college rate for adults was 33% in 2015 (Ryan and Bauman 2016).

  3. 3.

    According to the same report, 44% of Jews have incomes of $100,000 or greater; the next highest income group is Hindus at 36%.

  4. 4.

    A 2017 Pew poll found that Americans feel warmer toward Jews than to any other religious group, with a feeling thermometer rating of 67 on a scale of 100, slightly above Catholics at 66 and Mainline Protestants at 65 (Pew 2017a). A November-December 2016 Pew survey found 13% of Americans saying there was a lot of discrimination against Jews, with another 31% saying there was some discrimination (Pew 2016).

  5. 5.

    There is almost no research on Jewish perceptions of antisemitism outside of the United States. What exists is primarily descriptive; see Levy (1996) on Israel, and Staetsky and Boyd (2012) and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2013) on Europe.

  6. 6.

    For instance, South and East Asians, and recent Caribbean Black immigrants to the US.

  7. 7.

    It also is possible that someone who perceives a high level of antisemitism will interpret an incident as being antisemitically motivated, when it is not.

  8. 8.

    On the difficulty of collecting hate crime data in general, see Levin and McDevitt (1993).

  9. 9.

    There does not appear to be a clear linkage between economics and hate crimes (Green et al. 1998).

  10. 10.

    There is little research on American Muslim attitudes towards Jews, in part because of their small population percentage. In a rare national survey of American Muslims, a 2017 Pew survey reports 33% of American Muslims saying there is a lot of discrimination against Jews, with 55% saying there is not a lot of discrimination, and 13% having no opinion. Such figures are close to findings from surveys of the US population in general, such as a 2017 Pew survey, which reports 38% perceiving a lot of discrimination against Jews (Pew 2017a, b, 74), while in the September 2015 Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey 30% see a lot of discrimination against Jews. It is not clear that American Muslims are more antisemitic, at least from these survey questions. Kressel maintains that “better data is needed” and raises the concern that more virulent anti-Israel and antisemitic attitudes in Moslem majority nations may bleed into the American Muslim population (2016, 25).

  11. 11.

    The number of worldwide incidents rose until 2009, dropping from 2009–2016, although levels post-2009 are still higher on average than for the pre-2009 years (Kantor Center 84).

  12. 12.

    In their analysis of the 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey, Alper and Olson (2011) note that only 3% and 13% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that they felt like an outsider in the US (826). Their analysis also shows that perceptions of antisemitism increase feelings of being an outsider (827). Clearly, the causal relationship between outsider and antisemitic perceptions are complex and linked, as the feeling of being an outsider may lead one to perceive higher rates of antisemitism, and the possibility exists that outsider feelings may spread to larger segments of the American Jewish population under certain conditions, such as when more individuals feel threatened by increases in perceptions of antisemitism.

  13. 13.

    But note the increase in antisemitic acts in recent years.

  14. 14.

    Pooling prohibits looking at factors that change over time (see Mazur 2016).

  15. 15.

    CCES uses these questions to identify Jews: “What is your present religion, if any?” with the follow up, “To which Jewish group do you belong?” with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Other as response categories. See the various CCES codebooks.

  16. 16.

    Data accessed from the Roper Archive, The commercial polling firm Abt SRBI, Inc. conducted the survey, from February 20–June 13, 2013.

  17. 17.

    Critiques of the Pew study include (Dashefsky and Sheskin 2014; DellaPergola 2013, 2014; Heilman 2014; Lugo et al. 2013; Saxe and Tighe 2013; Saxe et al. 2014).

  18. 18.

    The questions are (1) “What is your present religion, if any?” RELIG; (2) “Aside from religion, do you consider yourself Jewish or partially Jewish, or not?” Q.A4; (3) and those who did not answer the above as Jewish or did not identify as Jewish were asked: “And did you have a Jewish parent or were you raised Jewish or partially Jewish – or not?” Q. A5.

  19. 19.

    Jewish affinity is defined as those who are not Jewish by religion and who neither have a Jewish parent nor were raised Jewish but who nevertheless say they consider themselves Jewish in some way” (Pew 2013, 8).

  20. 20.

    The allowable response categories are: (1) Yes, there is a lot of discrimination; (2) No, not a lot of discrimination; (3) Don’t know/refused, if the respondents volunteered this response.

  21. 21.

    Of respondents who were called offensive names and left out of social activities because of being Jewish, 22.5% said there was not a lot of discrimination against Jews, while 34% who experienced one of these acts said there was not a lot of discrimination. Different respondents may define what “a lot of discrimination” means differently.

  22. 22.

    To compute these correlations, I recoded the three response categories, with Yes = 1, No Opinion = 0, and No = − 1. Factor analysis shows all loading positively on one factor, with factor loadings from 0.17 to 0.70. Evangelical and Catholic discrimination perceptions also load on the second factor more strongly than on the first factor.

  23. 23.

    The 2000–2001 NJPS and the 2013 Pew study use different questions to identify Jews, creating some comparability issues. The 2000–2001 NJPS study used these questions to identify Jews: “1. What is your (other adult’s) religion, if any? (If not Jewish, then ask:) 2. Do you (Does other adult) have a Jewish mother or a Jewish father? (If no, then ask:) 3. Were you (Was other adult) raised Jewish? 4. (Ask all if not Jewish/Judaism in Q.1): Do you (Does other adult) consider yourself (him/herself) Jewish for any reason?” (United Jewish Communities 2004, 28). Those classified as “Jews of Affinity” in Pew would not be considered Jewish in the 2000–2001 NJPS.

  24. 24.

    Pew did not identify respondent location in the public version of the 2013 study, but supplied me with that information. My analysis includes four contextual variables, Jewish population % and the natural log of state population, as in Rebhun, and following Cohen (2010) I added two other variables, the number of antisemitic incidents and those incidents as a proportion of state size. The antisemitic incident data come from the ADL 2012 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents. Rebhun includes several other state context variables, unemployment rate, 2000 Democratic presidential candidate vote percentage, and % Afro-American, none of which proved to be statistically significant and not included in the analysis.

  25. 25.

    The formula with factor weights is, .7859(Ritual Index) + .7448(Communal Index) + .5781(Informal Social Cohesion) + .6665(Israel Index).

  26. 26.

    The non-Hispanic White/Black-Hispanic-Other variable weakly correlates with perceptions of Jewish discrimination, Pearson’s r = − 0.04 (p = 0.002), but is more strongly correlated with perceptions of discrimination against non-Jews, Pearson’s r = − 0.11 (p = 0.000). The weak correlation may impact the effectiveness of this variable for the instrumentation.

  27. 27.

    Cmp does not allow one to test for the strength of the instrument.

  28. 28.

    In an ordered probit, with experiencing discrimination, age, female, education, political ideology, partisan identification, and the Jewish identity index as controls, the race dummy does not significantly predict perceptions of Jewish discrimination (b = 0.06, p = 0.53).


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Correspondence to Jeffrey E. Cohen.



See Table 5.

Table 5 Comparison of variables used in Rebhun (2014) and this study.

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Cohen, J.E. Generalized Discrimination Perceptions and American Jewish Perception of Antisemitism. Cont Jewry 38, 405–433 (2018).

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  • Antisemitism
  • Perceptions of prejudice
  • American Jews
  • Public opinion