Heat Street, Oslo, and anti-semitic muslims

Joe Simonson, who writes “about politics, culture, and smut” at Heat Street and previously resigned from his position of Editor-in-Chief of a college’s humor magazine because he claimed he was being censored by a “politically correct Gestapo,” wants you to know liberals are lying about muslims.  

An article published by Joe on June 30th attempts to summarize a study from the University of Oslo regarding antisemitic violence in Europe. His conclusion is that anti-semitic incidents of violence are rising in correlation with an increase in the number of muslims in western Europe—and the media is covering it up to focus on populism. 

But a review of the study shows several items Joe omitted or was otherwise misleading about. Let’s compare and contrast.

Says Simonson:

Authors of a study on anti-Semitic incidents in Europe reached a number of conclusions that confirm the fears of conservative skeptics of Muslim immigration and also question the liberal narrative that right-wing natives are behind the increase of attacks on European Jews.

Says the study:

The study doesn’t contain the words “liberal,” “narrative,” or “natives” at all, nor does it claim to “question” anything. In fact, it relies on media reports for some of its data, and only says that it believes Russia may not have media reports of all anti-semitic attacks.

Says Simonson:

“Available data on perpetrators suggest that individuals of Muslim background stand out among perpetrators of antisemitic violence in Western Europe,” the authors wrote.  

Says the study:

“[…] but not in Russia, where right-wing extremist offenders dominate.” That’s the line Joe left out about perpetrators.

Says Simonson:

They also added that this data supports the notion that “antisemitic attitudes are far more widespread among Muslims than among the general population in Western Europe.”

Says the study:

This line is from the opening summary on page 3, and Joe omits the data they’re referring to is from attitude surveys. Page 25 of the study explains these attitude surveys “also suggest that adherence to Islam in itself does not explain all of the difference. Country of origin appears to play a major role, as does the level of religiosity—the more religious people are, the more antisemitic they are likely to be. One study found that anti-Jewish attitudes were most strongly associated with the respondents’ general intolerance of out-groups.” Also left out of Joe’s article is the finding from page 23, which states surveys have found anti-semitic attitudes correlate with radical criticism of Israel, something not limited to muslims. 

Says Simonson:

The exception to this conclusion was Russia, “where right-wing extremist offenders dominate.”  Russia still had a “very low number of incidents,” despite having a “relatively large Jewish population.”

Says the study:

Joe arrives at Russia a paragraph later, and notes Russia’s large population of jewish people. What he doesn’t note is rather telling. First, page 21 points out Russia has a large population of muslims as well as jewish people, and far more of both groups than any other European country. Second, the same section states, “Although Russia has Europe’s largest Muslim population (between 15 and 20 million), we have found no instances of perpetrators being referred to as Muslim or similar.” Finally, page 16 has the authors explaining that they believe anti-semitic incidents in Russia aren’t being reported, “but according to Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Center, the level of antisemitism-related violence in Russia is clearly far lower than in Western European countries.” 

Why, exactly, did Joe leave out the high muslim population in Russia?

Says Simonson:

When victims of violence were asked who the perpetrators were, those living in France, Germany, Sweden, and the UK all overwhelmingly responded that “someone with a Muslim-extremist view” were behind the incident.  In all four countries but Germany, individuals with “a right-wing view” (who the study’s authors say “are often associated with antisemitism”) were the clear minority by a significant margin.  With the exception of Germany, leftists were the second highest perpetrators.  In Sweden, leftists constituted 25 percent of all the violence against Jews.

Says the study:

There’s a lot to unpack here, as Joe has crammed several pages’ worth of information into a single paragraph, and the information requires a deeper analysis.

First, we’ll look at the methodology and collection of data used for this study.

Page 6 begins the section on ‘Data and comparability,’ which states, “For violent incidents in France, UK, Germany, and Sweden, two sets of data have been used: figures based on reported incidents, and the results of the FRA survey on antisemitism in Europe.” What is the FRA survey? It was an online, open survey conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency in 2012, where the only requirements were for a participant to say they were jewish, and have access to a computer. Not only could someone take the survey without being jewish, due to the study relying on participants needing only select ‘Yes’ at the beginning when asked if they are jewish, but from page 70 of the FRA report, “[…] the chosen survey mode is likely to have excluded some eligible members of the target population, such as those less motivated to take part in the survey, those with problems accessing the internet or those lacking the skills to complete an online survey.” 

The exclusion is important to note for a couple reasons. One is that people who identify as jewish but don’t feel they’re particularly experiencing anti-semitism are less likely to respond, and another is there may be people who experienced anti-semitism but were neither aware of nor could access the survey.

Also noted in the Oslo study and the FRA survey is the timing of the FRA survey’s operation. Page 74 states, “During the data collection, antisemitic incidents of varying degrees of severity were noted in all EU Member States surveyed or other EU Member States,” and on page 75, “While the spike in incidents ended before the survey fieldwork began, it is highly probable that [the shooting of three Jewish schoolchildren and an adult at Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse in March 2012] had a significant bearing on the results recorded for France in this survey.”

These incidents could affect responses regarding what social group or ideology perpetrators in their own experience belonged to. 

Another declaration made in the Oslo study, on page 6, explains, “Acts of vandalism, threats and harassment were excluded. Compared to verbal insults and acts of vandalism, physical violence has a greater terrorising impact and should thus be examined separately from the other, usually less serious, types of incidents.” This was a decision by the authors themselves, which excludes a large portion of data from the FRA survey that dealt with all forms of anti-semitism. 

We must also note how data on violence in the Oslo study was used. The FRA survey states on page 47, “Due to a relatively low number of incidents – both as regard physical attacks/threats and harassment – no country breakdowns are presented here.” But from page 7 of the Oslo study, “[…] this report also makes use of the FRA survey on antisemitism conducted in September–October 2012 with respect to France, UK, Germany and Sweden.” The footnote of this disclosure links to the FRA report, but the report itself doesn’t give totals for violent incidents by country, only a total across all countries surveyed. Oslo does not clarify how the FRA data was used to reflect country-specific totals, only that it was included in some form. 

A final point to be made comes from the FRA survey. When describing the perpetrators of anti-semitism, page 47 says, “[…] the survey offered respondents a list of 16 categories, including a ‘do not know’ option, which could be used to describe the perpetrators. Respondents could select as many options as relevant.” Because of this process, page 48 warns against drawing broad conclusions:

“While the category ‘someone with a Muslim extremist view’ is reported most often, respondents frequently selected it in combination with another category. In one third of the cases, respondents chose it with ‘someone with a left-wing political view’ (36 %); in one quarter, with the category ‘teenager or group of teenagers’ (25 %); and, in one case out of five, with ‘someone with a right-wing political view’ (19 %). When indicating more than one category, respondents may also be referring to two or more separate incidents perhaps involving different people. The survey data do not provide information on the way in which respondents identified the perpetrators, and therefore only limited conclusions can be drawn from these results.”

Why is this important? Well, the Oslo study uses this data to make “tentative findings” as disclosed in its conclusion. These are tentative findings based off of a survey that itself says should only be used for limited conclusions. These are important caveats included in both works, and responsible journalists must be sure to include them in their coverage. Joe failed to do so whatsoever. 

Of course, he also uses “leftist” to describe what the study terms “left-wing,” as its never used in the study. Interesting thing to do in an article that complains about irresponsible talking points.

(An aside:  neither the study nor the survey bring up the caveat on eyewitness testimony and recollection which can be affected by bias. While some data in the Oslo study was reliant on police reports immediately after the fact, other data came from the FRA survey in which victims were asked to recall events as far as five years back.)

Says Simonson:

Even in cases where proponents of right-wing positions were blamed by local governments in Sweden for acts of vandalism or violence, the authors write, one shouldn’t necessarily trust these numbers.
“The use of the swastika and similar symbols does not necessarily mean that the perpetrators is a “classic” right-wing extremist.”  Many individuals who use these classic symbols of hate are Arabs, motivated by the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Says the study:

The authors never say you shouldn’t “trust these numbers.” Instead, the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) data was noted on page 20 as, “Between 2008 and 2013 right-wing extremist symbols and speech were registered for between 26 and 37 per cent of reported instances of all antisemitic hate crimes. But even in these cases—as pointed out by Brå—the use of the swastika and similar symbols does not necessarily mean that the perpetrator is a “classic” right-wing extremist.” 

There’s an important difference between stating numbers aren’t to be trusted, and saying data isn’t conclusive. Even the authors note that “Brå provides little concrete information about the question” of who is carrying out attacks if not right-wing extremists. 

Says Simonson:

While many anti-Semites use conflicts in the Middle East as a foil for their hatred of Jews, the authors point out that increased attacks are not necessarily correlated with flare ups in the region, nor with the actions of the Israeli government — delegitimizing the common left-wing talking point that Israel is the cause of tensions between Jews and Muslims in Europe.

Says the study:

The first half is somewhat on point. Page 24 of the Oslo study states, “First, the number of reported attacks on Jews does not always increase when the conflict in the Middle East flares up. Second, even though some attacks on Jews in Europe do occur in the wake of events in the Middle East, there is no direct causal link between Israeli government actions and subsequent attacks on Jews in Europe.” But, it’s a little more complicated. The page goes on to say, “Antisemitic attitudes and violence propensity are likely necessary conditions to trigger such attacks. In other words, events in the Middle East provide individuals in Western Europe who hold antisemitic views and are prone to violence with an occasion to attack Jews.”

As for “delegitimizing the common left-wing talking point,” this is an example of Joe putting his own political spin on something never brought up in the study he’s covering. It also runs counter to page 22 of the Oslo study, referencing data from a 2004 study on immigrants in Denmark which “also found that Palestinians (all else equal) were more antisemitic than were other groups, indicating that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict played a role.”

Says Simonson:

In short, this latest study should give pause to those who believe Muslim-European integration is going smoothly.  Not only are anti-Semitic incidents on the rise — and directly correlated with rising Muslim populations in Western Europe — but many individuals in the mainstream press seem unwilling to discuss the culprits.

Says the study:

This might possibly be the biggest case of Joe putting words in the Oslo authors’ mouths. 

The study makes only one mention of refugees, in which it quotes Bent Blüdnikow of the Mosaic Religious Community of Denmark in a 2012 article saying Palestinian refugees blame jewish Danes for the Israel-Palestine conflict, with no supporting data; immigrants are mentioned only twice, the first being Bent’s quote, the second being a 2004 attitude survey in Denmark of immigrants from Turkey, Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine and the former Yugoslavia. 

The rise of anti-semitic incidents Joe cites? This is, again, far more complex an issue than a single sentence can explain. 

Page 7 explains the increase in Sweden after 2008 is explained by two things: A change to the national police system that required officers to note whether or not an incident had a suspicion of being a hate crime, and the definition of a hate crime being expanded. Figure 1 on page 4, showing anti-semitic violence, harassment, and vandalism, indicates these incidents are less than half what they were at their peak in 2009. Table 1 on page 9, dealing solely with violence, shows every country in 2015 is at or below their total from 2005, with the UK being the exception at five incidents of violence more than its 2005 total. The same table also has all countries indicated fewer incidents of violence than 2014, with the UK again being the exception (as its 2005 and 2014 totals are the same). Figure 2 on page 10 again disputes Joe’s claim of a rise, as does the study’s own conclusion:

The level of recorded violent incidents increased sharply following the turn of the millennium and remains at a high level compared to the 1990s, with no major upward or downward trends apparent for the period 2005-2015. The increase around the turn of the millennium coincided with rising tensions in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, marked by the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. 

As to Joe’s final claim of a media coverup, the Oslo study is in part based off of media reports of violent incidents, which is stated multiple times throughout the study.

Says Simonson:

Instead, cable news stations and newspapers discuss the so-called “disturbing” increase of populist or nationalist political movements and parties while making outrageous comparisons to the social climate of the 1930s and 1940s.  Unfortunately for those behind these irresponsible talking points, the facts don’t make the rhetoric.  While right-wing extremism should be routinely condemned, we shouldn’t ignore the real threats against Europe’s most vulnerable population just because it’s politically inconvenient.

Says the study:

This is really Joe’s own conclusion. None of the recommendations at the end of the study have anything to say about cable news or newspapers, and no part of the study claims or insinuates news reporting is relevant to anti-semitism being carried out. Joe also pulls a sleight of hand in dismissing right-wing extremism, by stating it doesn’t fall under the category of “real threats,” and subjectively decides jewish people are the “most vulnerable population” in Europe despite neither linking evidence of such or pointing towards any part of the study where this is claimed. 

There is, however, evidence of rising criminal acts being caused by far right extremists in several European countries.

(Worth noting, Joe's article is the second attempt in a single day from Heat Street at putting a misleading spin on new research; author Martin Daubney spent the morning erasing everything about right-wing extremism from the latest Europol report on terrorism that didn't have to do with the left-wing or anarchists, removing context from sentences of the report in an attempt to downplay the threat, and complaining about feminism.) 

What can we conclude from Simonson’s reporting? Simply, that he misrepresented a study full of caveats to make political attacks against groups he personally disagrees with, those being “leftists” and the media, while never citing anything to give those attacks standing. These tactics are useful for getting your metrics up on social media in an age where the President of the United States has a loyal base for making these same attacks. But responsible journalism—especially on complicated items like detailed studies regarding violent hate crimes against a minority group—require putting your best foot forward. 

For Simonson (and Heat Street), their best just doesn’t cut it.

Title image provided by Flickr/Takver under CC BY-SA 2.0