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Right-of-reply: ADC report muddies the water

December 2, 2010 – 5:30 pm26 Comments

By Larry Stillman

This article is a response to Deborah Stone’s recent piece in Galus Australis and her summary of the ADC special report, “Antisemitism on Campus. Contemporary Jewish experience at Victorian universities”. The article has now been circulated internationally, which may make ADC happy because it’s up there in the propaganda war; but in fact, I received a puzzled query from a professor of Jewish Studies in Canada.

As a preface, let me say that there is a problem with Australian anti-Semitism, and particularly virulent anti-Zionism that crosses into anti-Semitism. Recently I took a Palestinian organization to task for using vile materials produced by the bizarre Gilad Atzom, an Israeli now in the UK. On another occasion I have berated Palestinian protesters for marching with posters taken out of pages of Der Stuermer. I have also gotten into long online ‘discussions’ with well-meaning Anglo advocates whose stereotyping and typecasting are contemptible. I also resent simplistic and stereotypical representations of Jewishness, which the media seems to thrive on (sounds of Fiddler on the Roof).

But there is a problem with misstating or exaggerating the problem of ‘anti-Semitism’ and presenting the ‘evidence’ as authoritative. This is the case with the ADC report. As Deborah Stone says in her report, 50 students who were members of the Jewish students’ organization out of a number we actually don’t know, self-selected to respond online, and that they perceived anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism as direct anti-Semitism. These were students who were motivated and WANTED to respond.

From the start, I will admit that I am primarily a qualitative researcher who understands the ins and outs of that sort of work, but I also know a bit about statistics and validity in social science. There is a basic flaw with the methodology. For the survey to have any credibility whatsoever, it has to be constructed in such a way that the various hypotheses put forward on the basis of the evidence are defensible. The only way to do this is to construct a valid scientific poll, what is known as a random sample of a total population. Usually, in polling, you want at a 95% confidence that the results are valid with a 5% margin of error. For example, with a population of say 3000 Jewish students, you would want a poll of at least 341 students. This can be constructed for example, by phoning a sample of male/female students assuming that everyone has a phone, spread across different age groups and suburbs, as well as faculties and universities. This is the kind of methodology used in the Monash Centre for Jewish Studies 2008-9 Population Survey where it says (p. 39), “A ‘scientific’ sample is only as reliable as the database from which it is drawn”. Thus, a self-selected ‘sample’ of only 50 Jewish students, all of whom are members of the Australian Union of Jewish Students is bound to have an inherent bias because it excludes other Jewish student and working with relatively small numbers and thus making extrapolations is misleading and erroneous.

In addition, the report makes all sorts of assertions without empirical data. As an example, the causal suggestion that Latrobe is more anti-Semitic because it is in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne and closer to Muslim populations and has a training program for Muslims is made without any evidence. Could it not also be due to a strong presence of fringe leftists of Anglo or other persuasions who dominate campus politics? If the ADC’s conclusion is not true, then the ADC could be guilty of stigmatizing the Muslim/Arabic community. I see many Muslim students at Monash and if anything, they are too studious and apolitical.

It can also be argued that the poll had leading questions, because it asked, for example, whether students had seen ‘anti-Semitic’ acts (as distinct from anti-Israeli acts). A cleverer poll would have investigated student’s understandings of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and their relationship to campus politics. It would have closely examined the types of acts that were considered anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist and scaled their perceived and if possible, actual severity. How do you compare ‘Fuck Jews’ on a toilet door to a nasty banner at a rally?

Thus, the survey resembles push-polling, which results in self-fulfilling and confirming answers for the polster. Since anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism are difficult and contested terms, there is a need to unpack the terms in research and get some insight into how students, a) perceive the relationship between the two, b) see the responses of non-Jews, and particularly political antagonists in terms of the distinction, and c) if possible, deal with some real facts (the very hard stuff).

The survey has another problem, because it doesn’t look at how students perceive Israel’s actions (good, bad, ugly) and how actions at particular times lead to activity on campus. Instead, the survey works from an unproblematicized picture of Israel, that is a ‘Zionist approach’, which again, excludes or marginalizes legitimate and /or extreme critique.

Another issue that the survey fails to address adequately is that of identity on campus. The report claims that students live in fear on campus and that they play down their identity. But again, the survey only looks at the responses of the most highly motivated of students who responded to the survey. I suspect that on campus, many Jewish students who come from a relatively cloistered and privileged existence are somewhat shocked to be in contact with the rest of the population. Unquestioned Zionism comes into strong conflict, and assertive and not very polite debate with very different sorts of people with elements of a culture clash. But again, this is just a hypothesis that has to be tested through much more careful forms of research.

The ADC report is a very sloppy self-fulfilling report that should not be called research. Yes, there is a problem with ultra leftists and a few others on campus and over-enthusiastic embrace of the Palestinian cause at all costs, but the effects of what they do (and what Jewish students do in response) are not well analysed.

Reading

Anthony Lerman, Sense on Anti-semitism

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