The Wrong Way to Count Antisemitic Incidents

by Rafael Medoff

The recent wave of bomb threats against synagogues seemed to represent another surge in antisemitism in the United States. But now it appears that the perpetrator’s motives had nothing to do with antisemitism. 

So should the threats still count as “antisemitic incidents”? The Anti-Defamation League thinks so. The FBI thinks otherwise.

Police in Peru traced the approximately 150 emailed bomb threats to one Eddie Manuel Nunez Santos, 33, of Lima.

According to the FBI, Santos’s modus operandi was to ask teenage girls whom he contacted over the internet to send him explicit photographs of themselves. When they refused, he circulated bomb threats that included their phone numbers. The threats were emailed not just to synagogues, but also various school districts, hospitals, and other institutions.

Something similar happened seven years ago. In late 2016, some 163 bomb threats were made against Jewish institutions around the United States. Initially it seemed the threats were antisemitic; but before long, it was determined that 155 of the threats were made by a mentally unbalanced Israeli teenager, and the other eight were made by an African-American journalist who was harassing his Jewish ex-girlfriend.

The FBI defines a hate crime according to the motive of the perpetrator, so it did not consider any of the 163 threats to be antisemitic. The ADL, by contrast, included all 163 in its 2017 tally of antisemitic incidents, a tally that was much larger than the previous year. The ADL blamed the increase on “the 2016 presidential election and the heightened political atmosphere,” although there is no evidence the Israeli teenager had America’s election in mind.

Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, told me at the time that the ADL was categorizing the threats as antisemitic incidents because they had “a major terrorizing effect on Jewish communities.”

According to that criteria, the ADL would have to include as “antisemitism” every instance in which a Jewish person reported feeling “terrorized,” even if the perpetrator was a fellow-Jew, such as a jilted business partner or an angry ex-spouse.

In February 2017, around the same time as those 163 bomb threats, nearly 200 headstones were overturned in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. The perpetrator and motive were not immediately established. ADL’s regional director said, “We don’t call something anti-Semitism until we really know it’s anti-Semitism.”

ADL national headquarters, however, continued calling it antisemitism even after the perpetrator’s rather different motive was revealed. In 2019, the cemetery culprit pleaded guilty to charges of institutional vandalism, explaining that he acted in a drunken rage; an FBI spokesperson said the vandal would have charged with a hate crime if there was evidence of antisemitism, but no such evidence was found. Nevertheless, the incident is to this day classified by the national ADL as antisemitic.

So when the Peruvian pornography-solicitor last week was revealed to be the culprit in the recent wave of threats against synagogues, I contacted the ADL to ask if it intends to include those 150 threats in its tally of antisemitic incidents for the year 2023.

I thought perhaps after the experience of 2016-17, the ADL might have reconsidered how it classifies incidents that at first appear to be motivated by antisemitism but then turn out not to be. But the ADL is sticking to its position. “Yes, we will log these as antisemitic incidents,” Aryeh Tuchman wrote me this week.

That will certainly add to the ADL’s final count of antisemitic incidents in 2023. But will it represent an actual increase in antisemitism?

According to the ADL’s statistics, the number of antisemitic incidents has fluctuated wildly during the past decade. It decreased by 19% in 2013, then rose by 21% in 2014. It rose again in 2015, but only by 3%. There were big increases in 2016 (34%) and 2017 (57%—but that includes those bomb threats and cemetery vandalism). Then it dropped again, in 2018, by 5%. It rose by 12% in 2019, then fell by 4% in 2020.

The past two years have seen large increases—34% in 2021 and 36% in 2022. What is unclear is how much of the increase is due to more reporting of incidents, not more antisemitism; and how many of the incidents fit the ADL’s definition of antisemitism but not the FBI’s.

This is the time of year, around the Jewish high holidays, when our email boxes are filled with fundraising appeals from Jewish organizations—at both ends of the political spectrum—that portray contemporary political or social circumstances in the most dire language. Perhaps the Jewish community would be better served by a more sober analysis of how to define antisemitism, even if the result may not benefit some interested parties.

(September 2023)