One size doesn't fit all

National Post 

The greatest flaw in B'nai Brith's annual audit of alleged anti-Semitic attacks on Canadian Jews and Jewish institutions is that it lumps the entirely trivial in with the truly appalling. An Internet blog posting blaming Jews for the H1N1 pandemic, for instance, is given equal importance alongside repeated death threats made to a rabbi. An 11-year-old boy "caught passing anti-Semitic notes at school" is seen as on a par with a man who pulled a knife on a Jewish father and his son while hurling racist epithets at them.

This fact alone makes B'nai Brith's final tally -- 1,264 anti-Semitic "incidents" in 2009 -- largely meaningless. This newspaper alone gets dozens of hateful spam emails from random bigots every week. That sort of thing is inevitable in a country of more than 30 million people. If we were to "report" all of these episodes to B'nai Brith, the organization's tally could easily double, or even triple. But that wouldn't mean that anti-Semitic hatred "is on the rise," as the group claims every year.

If B'nai Brith wants Canadians to appreciate the importance of the information in its 28-year-old census of anti-Jewish attacks, it has to stop using this one-size-fits-all approach, and begin highlighting the relatively small number of truly alarming assaults. Raising the hue and cry over the desecration of a cemetery is sensible. Raising the hue and cry because adolescent classmates haze each other with juvenile religious taunts is not.

Jews themselves often speak of one another in terms that closely resemble anti-Semitism. The radical left-wing activists at the Toronto-based group "Independent Jewish Voices," for instance, have promoted blood libels against Israeli troops that resemble the worst species of anti-Semitic Palestinian propaganda. Should those episodes be included in B'nai Brith's report, too?

Like a lot of groups, B'nai Brith spends a lot of ink promoting itself and seeking donations. In this spirit, it boasts that Statistics Canada and other "authoritative sources around the world" view its audit as "the single most credible study of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and patterns of prejudice in Canada." But as with any victimization study, no matter how "authoritative," it is based on self-reported incidents. B'nai Brith says its statistics show "a more than fivefold increase in [anti-Semitic] incidents over the past decade." What it really shows is a fivefold increase in the number of people willing to call B'nai Brith about their bad experiences --in large part thanks to the group's own heavy investment in its own brand: As annual audits such as this become better known, they will attract more and more callers, driving up the statistics even if no more episodes take place than in the previous year.

Similarly, the number of hate speech complaints observed likely reflects a technological expansion of the number of places hateful speech can be uttered. Five years ago, few Canadians used Facebook. Now, millions do. A single anti-Semitic status update from a single bigot can attract dozens of follow-up responses. Every one of them counts as an anti-Semitic "episode" according to B'nai Brith's dilatory calculus.

It is true that violence in the Middle East has led to an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric in some contexts, particularly on Canadian campuses. But B'nai Brith's claim that anti-Semitism in this country is a widespread and rising problem flies in the face of reality. This is probably the least anti-Semitic country in the entire world -- including Israel -- and it becomes more tolerant, not less, with every passing year.

B'nai Brith does all sorts of fine work. But its survey of anti-Semitic incidents shouldn't blindly group all attacks together, regardless of their severity. Instead of scaring Jews into thinking that they are living in a state of anti-Semitic siege, B'nai Brith should update its mandate and methods to reflect the tolerant Canadian reality.

© 2010 The National Post Company. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution, transmission or republication strictly prohibited.