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OPINION

The dubious link between education and antisemitism

There is a lesson in the story of the learned judge with a hatred for Jews.

A stone memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman killed 11 worshippers in 2018.JUSTIN MERRIMAN/NYT

What kind of person considers Jews “the central enemies of Western civilization”? What sort of individual spreads caricatures of leering, hook-nosed Jews or claims that Jewish Germans used their influence to introduce “sexual perversions of all sorts,” including “sadism, masochism, lots of homosexuality”?

It likely wouldn’t surprise you to be told that those grotesque and hateful slurs, which attracted attention recently in the British press, were spewed by a knuckle-dragging boor who never got past grade school. In fact, they are the words of Boštjan Zupančič, who for 17 years was a judge on the European Court of Human Rights. Until recently, Zupančič had a sterling record as a legal scholar and a protector of human rights. He earned degrees from Harvard, lectured at colleges around the world, and published extensively in multiple languages. He even wrote poetry.

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He is also, it transpires, a raging antisemite. Zupančič has spread numerous smears about Jews, of which the examples quoted above are merely a selection.

Such rank antisemitic bigotry is often believed to be associated with ignorance or lack of education. The sociologist Frederick Weil, surveying the academic literature in 1990, concluded that “the better educated are much less antisemitic than the worse educated.” Surveys by the Anti-Defamation League have found that education appears to reduce intolerance in general and the demonizing of Jews in particular.

The recently released US National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism devotes more attention to education than to perhaps any other theme. The words “educate,” “educator,” and “education” appear in the document more than 120 times. Of 18 “strategic goals” set out in the Biden administration’s 60-page report, the very first is to “increase school-based education about antisemitism.” It stresses that “education enables students to understand what can happen in a democratic society when hatred goes unchecked.” It emphasizes the importance of “more education on Jewish American history and the valuable role that Jews have played in our national story.”

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Of course all this is well intended. But as the example of Zupančič shows, education is no prophylactic against the hatred of Jews. The judge is about as learned as anyone in the 21st century can be. And not only learned but an educator himself, an honored jurist who made his mark as an upholder of human rights. How could someone known for such intellectual achievements be an unabashed Jew-hater?

It’s a trick question. The premise is false. Towering artists and learned intellectuals have always been numbered among the most virulent defamers of the Jewish people. Martin Luther, T.S. Eliot, Richard Wagner, Voltaire, Karl Marx, Edgar Degas, Amiri Baraka — the list could be extended indefinitely. On college campuses, hostility toward Jews is becoming endemic. The Nazi genocide may have been inspired by Adolf Hitler, but it was planned and carried out by SS men with PhDs.

So why have studies repeatedly shown a link between low levels of education and antisemitic beliefs? Because, as University of Arkansas researchers Jay P. Greene, Albert Cheng, and Ian Kingsbury explained in 2021, “for the most part, these studies measure antisemitism simply by asking respondents how they feel about Jews or by asking whether they agree with blatantly antisemitic stereotypes.” Respondents with more education are sophisticated enough to realize what is being asked, the three scholars hypothesized, and more likely to respond in ways that hide their antisemitism.

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To examine their hypothesis, they devised an entirely different test, focusing on whether respondents held Jews to harsher standards than others. They drafted two equivalents of a series of questions, with one in each case asking about an explicit Jewish example, while the other applied to a non-Jewish context. For instance, one of the questions asked whether someone’s “attachment to another country creates a conflict of interest” when they lobby for certain foreign policy positions. For half the respondents, Israel was the country in question; for the other half, it was Mexico. Another question asked “whether public gatherings during the pandemic posed a threat to public health and should have been prevented,” with Orthodox Jewish funerals and Black Lives Matter protests as the parallel examples.

What Greene, Cheng, and Kingsbury discovered turned the conventional wisdom upside down. “More highly educated people were more likely to apply principles more harshly to Jewish examples,” they reported. “Contrary to previous claims, education appears to provide no protection against antisemitism.” By preventing respondents from knowing that the purpose of the study was to measure attitudes toward Jews, they demonstrated that more highly educated people in the United States tend to have greater levels of antisemitism.

It may be comforting to cling to the conventional wisdom that the best inoculation against the toxic virus of Jew-hatred is more education. But contrary facts have always been apparent to anyone willing to look. More than 30 years ago, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a renowned scholar of African American thought, lamented in The New York Times “not only that blacks are twice as likely as whites to hold antisemitic views but — significantly — that it is among the younger and more educated blacks that antisemitism is most pronounced.”

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Some forms of intolerance do result from ignorance and can be overcome through education. But antisemitism is more than mere hatred of a minority. It is a moral derangement and a form of conspiracy thinking, and it can seduce the author or statesman or human-rights judge no less than the unlettered high school dropout. Unlike other forms of racism, Jew-hatred is a variety of intellectual disease. Those afflicted with it attribute to Jews whatever in their worldview is uniquely hateful or treacherous, so that it is constantly assuming new shapes and expressing itself in new accusations.

The preventive and cure for antisemitism is not more book learning. It is the cultivation of good character, which is a far harder task. An enduring lesson of history is that where society is disordered, antisemites grow louder and bolder. A human rights judge who loathes Jews? I fear worse is yet to come.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on X (aka Twitter) @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit globe.com/arguable.

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