Alarming Study on U.S. Campus anti-Semitism Levels Is a Wakeup Call

New study recommends university administrators take anti-Jewish activity as seriously as other forms of ethnic/racial bias, and that Jewish groups focus more resources on the subject

UCLA campus
Illustration: an American university campus © Studioceja | Dreamstime.com

NEW YORK – A study of American Jewish university students has found that a majority experienced or witnessed at least one anti-Semitic incident during a single year.

The study’s organizers say that they are surprised and alarmed that 54 percent reported experiencing or witnessing an incident that the respondent defined as anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitic experiences were reported across an unusually wide swath of students. The study found only slight variation in anti-Semitic experiences across different regions of the U.S., “which strongly suggests that anti-Semitism is a nationwide problem,” according to the report.

“We really need people to pay attention to this. We didn’t expect it to be 54 percent,” said Ariela Keysar, associate research professor of public policy and law at Trinity College. Keysar, a Jerusalem-born demographer, conducted the study along with Barry Kosmin, research professor of public policy and law at Trinity, which is a small private college in Hartford, CT, whose roots are in the Episcopalian denomination of Christianity, but is now non-denominational.

The study, via online questionnaire, was conducted from September 2013 to March 2014 — before the Gaza war of last summer, Keysar notes, which is believed to have given rise to more anti-Semitism on campuses than before — and asked students to report having experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism only during the preceding year. What qualifies as anti-Semitism was not defined by the study. Respondents were asked to report anything they experienced or witnessed that felt anti-Semitic to them.

The anti-Semitism finding was plucked out of a larger study of 1,157 self-identified American Jewish college students on 55 different campuses on a variety of topics.

Since just 8 percent of American Jewish college students say they are Orthodox, few are identifiable as Jewish because of external factors like what they wear. While 90 percent said they are proud to be Jewish, 62 percent reported that the majority of their friends are not Jewish. Little visibly separates the overwhelming majority of American Jewish college students from their non-Jewish peers.

And that is what makes the findings about anti-Semitism so startling, said Keysar — that is experienced not only by students who are identifiably Jewish or involved in vocally pro-Israel activities.

“We were surprised how prevalent it is. There are no pockets where it is in specific places, regions or universities. It’s kind of widespread,” Keysar said in an interview.

Ariela Keysar (courtesy photo).

The findings are “a wakeup call to university administrators who have been in denial about this problem,” said Kenneth L. Marcus, president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, in an interview with Haaretz. The Brandeis Center is a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., which monitors and addresses anti-Semitism on campus. Marcus drafted policy recommendations as part of the study report.

“We frequently hear from college students who find that their experiences of anti-Semitism are not taken seriously,” writes Marcus in the report’s introduction. “This report gives substance and data to their experiences.”

“The eye-opening findings should awaken authorities to the need to address campus anti-Semitism much more aggressively, comprehensively and effectively than they are now doing,” the report says.

“Many campus administrators are sensitive to problems facing other minorities, women and people with disabilities, but just don’t get it that Jewish students are facing a problem that needs to be addressed,” Marcus told Haaretz.

Kenneth L. Marcus. Photo: Paul Morigi.

Five years ago, Keysar said in an interview, there was far less anti-Semitism faced by Jewish college students. “If this is a common ground that American Jewish students now experience, I want to know more about it.”

According to the new report, 29 percent of respondents said they witnessed anti-Semitism from an individual student, and 10 percent say they did in the context of a club or other campus group, with 6 percent reporting that they did in a classroom setting; 4 percent from the student union and 3 percent from the college administration.

Students in each of the four years of undergraduate study reported experiencing or witnessing something anti-Semitic in almost equal proportion (from 53 percent of freshman to 58 percent of seniors).

So did students across disciplines (from 51 percent of those studying the arts and humanities to 54 percent of students in social and behavioral sciences and 53 percent in science, technology, engineering and math).

There was surprisingly little variation in the rate of students reporting anti-Semitism at the full range of types and locations of campuses, from 44 percent at private colleges in the Western area of the U.S. to 70 percent at public colleges in the South. Though anti-Semitic experiences are conventionally believed to be more common at colleges on the coasts, 56 percent of Jewish students at private colleges in the Northeast reported having witnessed or experienced one, as did 60 percent at public colleges in the West.

Students affiliated with the full range of Jewish campus groups, from Hillel (63 percent) to Jewish fraternities/sororities (67 percent) to Chabad (64 percent), reported very similar rates of experiencing anti-Semitism.

Most surprising, perhaps, is that there is virtually no difference in the rates of experiencing anti-Semitism between those who are “never open” about being Jewish on their campus and those who are “always open” about being Jewish (59 percent of those who are “never open” about being Jewish said they experienced anti-Semitism during the previous year, as did 58 percent of those who are “always open”).

The only notable difference between populations was found in the experiences reported by AIPAC-aligned students and J Street U-aligned students. Of those connected with AIPAC, 73 percent said they experienced anti-Semitism, while 49 percent of those connected with J Street U reported the same.

It might be because “the AIPAC kids are vocal, they are out there. They express some political ideas that invoke resistance on campus,” Keysar conjectured. “These kind of hevre who are out there become a target.”

The other difference, though slight, was in the percentage of male students (51 percent) and female students (59 percent) who reported an anti-Semitic experience.

“That a majority of Jewish students felt they had suffered or witnessed incidents of anti-Semitism on the college campus in only one academic year was an unexpected finding which requires very serious investigation,” the report states, adding that there is thought to be under-reporting of anti-Semitism through the normal campus channels, possibly because authorities are not believed to be sympathetic to such complaints.

Anti-Semitism is a problem faced more by younger American Jews than older ones, according to the 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center. That study found that 22 percent of Jews ages 18 to 29 reported being called an offensive name in 2012, while just 6 percent of American Jews ages 50 to 64 did, as did just 4 percent of those ages 65 and older.

Stepping up fight on anti-Semitism

The report’s policy recommendations include university administrators strengthening their definition of anti-Semitism, staff training and response to reported incidents. The report also recommends that Jewish organizations devote more resources to researching and combating anti-Semitism on campus, outside of when it comes up around well-known issues like BDS resolutions.

Administrators “need to name this problem if they’re going to solve it properly,” Marcus said in an interview. “They have to be specific that they’re dealing with anti-Semitism and that Jewish students are facing a problem similar in many ways to what other groups face but it also has its own specific nature and history that is very dark and very disturbing.”

The study covered a wide range of topics, from religious beliefs to their upbringing to feelings about Israel. Anti-Semitism was just one of the areas explored and the researchers hope to pull out data on a variety of subjects in order to produce additional reports.

Some 800 of the study’s respondents expressed a willingness to be interviewed again, Keysar said. She and Kosmin hope to conduct another study in order to follow the topic longitudinally. “We need to further explore and go back to the students to go in depth to the topic” of anti-Semitism, she said. “We want to continue to monitor it.”