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The conflict in Gaza has sparked a surge in anti-Semitism in Europe, according to several recent articles. People have targeted Jewish businesses and synagogues, and posted hateful messages on social media.

How do we define and measure anti-Semitism? Among the groups compiling data that demonstrate the rise is Community Security Trust (CST), a nonprofit organization in the U.K. that catalogs incidents of anti-Semitism. Media reports of early CST counts of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.K. in July put the total at more than 100, double the usual level. On Wednesday, CST reported that the number had surpassed 200, the second-highest monthly total in the 30 years CST has been tracking the stats, after the 288 counted in January 2009 (during another period of conflict in Gaza). The July count isn’t yet final and hasn’t been broken down by type of incident.

CST defines an anti-Semitic event as “any malicious act aimed at Jewish people, organisations or property, where there is evidence that the victim or victims were targeted because they are (or are believed to be) Jewish. Incidents can take several forms, including physical attacks on people or property, verbal or written abuse, or antisemitic leaflets and posters.”

Whether anti-Semitic incidents were rising before July depends on the frame of reference. The first six months of the year, before the violence in Gaza, brought a 36 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents counted by CST compared to the first half of last year. The figure, though, was down slightly from the first half of 2012 and less than half the total in the first half of 2009. In both 2009 and 2012, there also were conflicts in Gaza. Violent assaults in the first half of this year were down 32 percent from last year.

CST‘s Dave Rich, deputy director of communications for the London-based group, said in an interview last week that the group’s figures have limitations for measuring anti-Semitism. For one thing, an increase could reflect changes in reporting rates. Drives by CST to increase reporting in certain parts of the U.K. have led to increased incident counts in those areas, Rich said. Also, incident counts treat a tweet seen by few and, say, a violent attack on a synagogue, as essentially equal events.

Some spikes, such as the one last month, are clearly tied to external events and probably do indicate a meaningful — though possibly temporary — increase in outward anti-Semitism, Rich said, adding that other conflicts involving Israel have coincided with spikes in incident counts.

But, in general, an incident count “doesn’t give you the full picture, that’s for sure,” Rich said. “The number of incidents we record only tells you the number of incidents we record.” He added, “The incidents are very appealing as a way of measuring anti-Semitism going up or down because they’re measurable, but often the things that actually affect how Jews feel are not measurable.”

Social media is one factor that complicates comparisons over time. One in 6 of the incidents this year through June were abusive comments on social media, a forum that scarcely existed a decade ago.

Rich said CST sets a high bar for counting an anti-Semitic post on social media: It must have been reported to the group, and must originate from or be directed to someone in the U.K. “We’ve had to think quite a lot about how to develop processes for dealing with this,” Rich said. “Potentially the number of anti-Semitic tweets and Facebook comments could completely overwhelm our incident reports and make them completely meaningless.”

Groups like CST help supplement government statistics on hate crimes, which are inconsistently kept in the European Union. Only five of the 28 EU countries, including the U.K., have comprehensive data on racist crimes and hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and Roma people, according to a December analysis by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, or FRA.

“FRA has reiterated the necessity for EU member states to improve their data-collection methods,” Katya Andrusz, a spokeswoman for FRA, said in an email. “The agency has also called for member states to take measures to increase trust in the police and other authorities, as the two big challenges in gauging the extent of anti-Semitism are underrecording and underreporting, i.e. even when countries have the mechanisms in place to note the number of anti-Semitic incidents taking place, most victims don’t report them.”

Many of the articles about the rise in anti-Semitism cited a 2012 online survey of Jews in eight EU countries, conducted by FRA, finding that 2 in 3 respondents said anti-Semitism is a problem in their country. The survey, though, was the first of its kind, so it can’t say whether European Jews were reporting more anti-Semitism in 2012 than they had before. FRA is considering conducting another survey in several years. “There are preliminary plans to do another one, precisely for the reason you say” — i.e. that there is no trend data, Andrusz said. She added, “It’s impossible to say whether anti-Semitism is statistically on the rise in the EU, as the data simply doesn’t exist.”

Carl Bialik is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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