A foundational principle of the fight against hate in America is the belief that intolerance in general, and anti-Semitism in particular, are functions of ignorance that can be solved with education. We see evidence of this whenever concerns about intolerance or anti-Semitism become more salient. Proposed solutions frequently feature improved Holocaust education or expanded diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Profiles of anti-Semites tend to feature rural whites or urban minorities from low-educational backgrounds. Well-educated people tend to feel secure in their higher-class status and imagine that the dangers of intergroup hatred are concentrated elsewhere.
Indeed, widely cited studies of anti-Semitism support the conviction that it is associated with low levels of education. For example, the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 survey of anti-Semitism worldwide found that “among Christians and the non-observant, higher education levels lead to fewer anti-Semitic attitudes.” The survey, which included Iran and Turkey, found “the opposite is true among Muslim respondents …” Yet excluding school systems that may explicitly teach hatred toward Jews, education does appear to reduce anti-Semitism. After reviewing several studies, the sociologist Frederick Weil concluded that “the better educated are much less anti-Semitic than the worse educated in the U.S., and no other measure of social status (e.g., income, occupation) can account for this relationship.”
A large problem with this widely held belief—which has dominated the American Jewish community’s approach to combatting hatred since the days of Louis Brandeis—is that it depends on survey questions that probably fail to capture anti-Semitism among the well-educated. For the most part, these studies measure anti-Semitism simply by asking respondents how they feel about Jews, or by asking whether they agree with blatantly anti-Semitic stereotypes. But educated people, being experienced test takers, know these to be “wrong” answers.
For instance, a recent survey designed to gauge anti-Semitism on college campuses was based on respondents’ level of agreement with statements like “Jews have too much power in international financial markets” or “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.” Sophisticated respondents may be more likely to detect what they are being asked and give socially desirable answers that might fail to reveal a more nuanced degree of anti-Semitism. The belief that anti-Semitism is associated with lower levels of education may therefore be a function of who gets caught by surveys, rather than based on an accurate relationship between education and antipathy toward Jews.