Last May, the Anti-Defamation League made the start­ling pronouncement that one-quarter of the world’s population is anti-Semitic. The source for that charge was the ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism, a comprehensive survey of international populations sponsored by the ADL and funded by New York City real-estate magnate Leonard Stern. Newspapers across the country and beyond broadcasted the statistic without question, affirming the results as a fair measure of the deplorable state of world attitudes toward the Jews.

We should be skeptical. The survey reports that longstanding misconceptions about Jews persist worldwide, a fully trustworthy claim—but it doesn’t stop there. The authors break those misconceptions down into a battery of specific cases, then judge them uncritically as measures not just of ignorance or misunderstanding, but of anti-Semitism itself. The assumptions are broad enough to make the survey results unreliable and misleading. The authors interpret opinions and attitudes flatly as evidence of ethnic hatred, though they might easily have other causes. This is to devalue the concept and the word, and to complicate the work of calling out genuine anti-Semitism as it is expressed not only in thought but in deed.

The ADL survey is based on telephone interviews and face-to-face meetings conducted in ninety-six languages and with 53,100 persons living in 101 countries and in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Over six billion people inhabit these areas, which include nations that have or at one time had a significant Jewish population—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Iran, and Egypt, among others—as well as states whose Jewish population has never been more than minuscule: China, for example, and Paraguay, Laos, Botswana, Mon­golia, and Trinidad and Tobago. On the survey’s criteria, 26 percent of the world’s population counts as anti-­Semitic. “For the first time we have a real sense of how pervasive and persistent anti-Semitism is today around the world,” Abe Foxman, the ADL’s national director, announced upon the survey’s release. He predicted that it would “form a baseline for further consideration of anti-Semitism and Holocaust awareness.”

In the mid-1960s, the ADL subsidized Patterns of American Prejudice, a book series on anti-Semitism, published by the Survey Research Center of the University of California, Berkeley. The volumes were severely criticized by historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz in her Commentary article “Can Anti-Semitism Be Measured?” (July 1970). Dawidowicz contended that survey research by its very nature was inconsistent, could not accurately measure the extent or the intensity of anti-Semitism, and reflected the values and prejudices of the authors. With its focus on opinion and not action, survey research was ill equipped to deal with a phenomenon “marked by a high degree of multiformity and contradictoriness.” The study of anti-Semitism, she concluded, was “too serious a matter to be left to the exclusive attention of survey analysts.”

The methodology of the ADL’s 2014 survey will not reassure those who share Dawidowicz’s skepticism. The problem begins with the interview process. Respondents were asked whether eleven classic anti-Semitic stereotypes were “probably true” or “probably false.” The list included the statements “Jews have too much power in the business world” and “Jews don’t care about what happens to anyone but their own kind.” Given the delicacy of the topic, it is likely that interviewees felt pressured to answer one way or another, not because they actually believed it, but because of trends in the culture they inhabit (trends sometimes backed by law or force). What did interviewers do to ensure honesty? Did the subjects have any preconception about the interviewers themselves, making presumptions about what the interviewers wanted them to say?

Not only that, but the survey assumed a knowledge that the subjects may not have possessed. One part of it asked whether Jews talk too much about what had happened to other Jews in the Holocaust. But how could Nigerians or Chinese whose contact with Jews had been little or nonexistent respond intelligently to such a question? The ADL was surprised that most of those interviewed had either not heard of the Holocaust or believed it to be a myth or an exaggeration. The survey aligned such ignorance with anti-Semitism, but it is entirely possible that people far from Europe and with little education simply hadn’t learned about the Holocaust in school or in the media—innocently so. It shouldn’t be surprising that Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans overlook events in Europe that occurred seven decades ago and did not affect their lives or the lives of their forebears.

Ignorance about Jews and their history pops up again in a query about how many Jews there are in the world. Forty-eight percent of the respondents said Jews make up over 1 percent of the world’s population; 18 percent said they constituted more than 10 percent; and 9 percent said they were at least 20 percent. Only 28 percent put them at less than 1 percent. In fact, Jews constitute approximately 0.2 percent of the world’s population. An answer higher than the true figure reflected anti-­Semitism, the survey authors concluded, because people who overestimated the Jewish population tended to endorse negative Jewish stereotypes, too. But we shouldn’t overplay the value of population estimates. If, for example, people encounter news stories over time featuring Jewish people and issues, and those stories make up well above 1 percent of total news stories—a likely outcome given the prominence of Middle East conflicts—then they would reasonably assume that the Jewish population is proportionately above 1 percent. An exaggeration here is no sure sign of anti-Semitism, only half-knowledge.

The survey’s major premise is that a person answering in the affirmative to six of the eleven questions is an anti-S­emite. But why should six be the magic figure? Because it tips past 50 percent? The Executive Summary of the survey (available online) doesn’t say. Indeed, the Methodology section of the summary doesn’t even mention the six-out-of-eleven threshold. Nor does the survey attempt to determine whether the respondents agreed with the stereotypes strongly or only mildly. They were asked to give simple “probably yes” or “probably no” answers, fuzzy options that fail to catch the complexity that typically characterizes racial and ethnic biases. The simple scoring lends the survey arithmetical clarity, but it doesn’t do justice to the many personal, historical, geographical, and cultural variables of the thinking of those surveyed.

Furthermore, the stereotypes presented in the questions were not weighted according to importance. The attitude captured in each question differed in what it imputed to Jews, but all the responses counted equally. Surely, affirming the statement “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars” indicates more than affirming that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries they live in.” Nevertheless, the researchers simply counted replies and assigned a score.

Note, too, that the survey admits that in certain countries, because of “security concerns or extreme logistical challenges,” the sample was incomplete. Those include the highly populated nations of China, India, and Indonesia.

The biggest problem with the ADL survey, however, is its failure to delineate the relationship between attitudes and behavior. The best yardstick of anti-Semitism is not of belief, which is often half-articulated and self-contradictory, but of action. How, one wonders, has the anti-Semitism of, supposedly, one-quarter of the Mongolian population manifested itself? How important is it that a person might harbor anti-Semitic attitudes if they are not expressed in conduct? There is a fundamental difference between the normal joshing between members of various ethnic and racial groups—what Dawidowicz referred to as low-key “antagonisms”—and the conventional understanding of anti-Semitism as irrational and unfounded hostility toward Jews, often accompanied by discrimination in employment and housing, for example, and by violent attacks.

This focus on attitudes is not surprising. It’s the customary option in an era of political correctness, campus speech codes, and heightened ethnic and racial sensitivities to slights, both real and imaginary. According to the survey’s standards, many Jews, too, should be classified as anti-Semitic, since they tell jokes about other Jews—jokes that, if told by Gentiles, would be anti-Semitic according to the survey’s standards. In addition, many Jews are poorly informed about the Holocaust and the size of the Jewish population. Does this make them anti-Semites?

The limitations of the survey’s methodology are evident in its discussion of Americans as well. We read that 9 percent of Americans are anti-Semitic. But where and how has this anti-Semitism been manifested? Overt anti-Semitism in contemporary America has been largely relegated to the fringes of society. Today there is not one prominent anti-Semitic American politician or any anti-Semitic movement of note. To judge from the ADL survey, however, American Jews cannot, as Abban Eban once quipped, take “yes” for an answer.

Formal barriers restricting the economic and social mobility of Jews and other ethnic and religious groups have largely vanished. Jews have been elected to Congress and appointed to high positions in government in numbers far exceeding their percentage of the population; Jews are ­arguably America’s most affluent ethnic group; Jews have served as commissioners of Major League Baseball, the ­National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, as well as presidents of Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia; and, as the wedding notices in the Sunday New York Times indicate, Jews have not been reluctant to marry Gentiles, or vice versa. And all this has occurred without any outcry about excessive Jewish wealth or power. In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2012), Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell found that Americans felt more warmly toward Jews than toward any other major religious ­denomination.

And so we should be wary not to take the conclusions of the ADL survey at face value. To those who are committed to exposing anti-Semitism, exaggerating it is as much a disservice as is denying it.

Edward S. Shapiro is professor of history emeritus at Seton Hall University.