Three-quarters of North America Jewish College Students Exposed to anti-Semitism, New Study Reports

One-third of students surveyed say they have been harassed; new study conducted at Brandeis bears crucial social, political and policy implication for Jewish engagement in U.S. Jewish community and Israel.

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File photo: Swastika painted on wall of UC Davis Jewish frat house.
File photo: Swastika painted on wall of UC Davis Jewish frat house.Credit: (YouTube screenshot from Sacramento Bee)

About one-third of U.S. and Canadian Jewish college undergraduates report having been verbally harassed during the past year because they were Jewish, and nearly three-quarters of them report having been exposed at one time during the past year to anti-Semitic statements, according to a survey, released Tuesday, conducted by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

In an interview with Haaretz, Leonard Saxe, principal researcher, and his colleague, Theodore Sasson, emphasize that the study bears crucial social, political and policy implications for Jewish engagement in the American Jewish community and Israel.

Saxe, who is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and directs the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, and Sasson, a Senior Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, Brandeis University and Professor of Jewish Studies at Middlebury College, are in Israel to present the report to Israeli officials and educators. They note that although there have been extensive reports of anti-Israel and anti-Semitism on North American campuses, there have been very few attempts to study these questions systematically and to assess the relationship between these trends and Jewish students’ support for and connection to Israel.

The survey, entitled “Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities,” is based on a random sample of 12,049 American and Canadian undergraduate college students who applied to go on a ten-day educational Israel experience with Taglit-Birthright Israel. Conducted before any of the applicants left for Israel, the study is based on an online questionnaire and respondents were offered the opportunity to win one of three $100 Amazon gift cards.

More than one-quarter of undergraduate respondents describe hostility toward Israel on campus by their peers as a “fairly” or “very big” problem and nearly 15 percent perceive this same level of hostility toward Jews. Nearly one-quarter of respondents report having been blamed during the past year for the actions of Israel because they were Jewish.

Canadian universities, schools in the California state system and, to a lesser extent, large land-grant universities in the Midwest are overrepresented among schools with the highest average levels of hostility toward Jews and Israel. However, no systematic differences were found between universities with regard to the average rates of anti-Semitic verbal harassment.

A large majority of respondents defined the claim that Jews living in the United States were not Americans (or in Canada, Canadian) as anti-Semitic. More than three-quarters similarly defined opposition to Israel’s existence as anti-Semitism. A much smaller proportion— 27 percent—defined criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic.

Saxe acknowledges that there is some confounding regarding definitions of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. “It is clear that anti-Israelism morphs into anti-Semitism on campus,” he says, “but it is also likely that those who are highly connected to Israel become a target of anti-Semitic or anti-Israel sentiment because they make their support for Israel known. It is also likely that those who are more connected to Israel are more sensitive to criticism of Israel, or more likely to perceive such criticism as anti-Semitic. Political conservatives were also more likely to see hostility toward Jews as a problem than moderates or liberals.”

Saxe also notes that it is important to “distinguish between love of a country, loyalty to the country, and the policies of that country. No one would doubt me as an American if I said scurrilous things about racism in America. And in Israel, criticism of the government and society is a national sport.”

Furthermore, he notes, the oft-noted polarization of the American Jewish community with regard to criticism of Israeli policies “is mostly connected to the elites. Most American Jews, and certainly most students, recognize that criticism and loyalty can coexist, and they are tolerant of debate. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that Jews will distance themselves from Israel because they don’t like Israel’s policies.”

Furthermore, Saxe’s data does not reveal any decrease in support for and connection to Israel, despite the perceived on-campus hostility.

In response to the atmosphere on campuses, Sasson recommends expanded experiential Israel education along with increased university courses, and emphasizes that it is crucial that university leaders understand that they are responsible for creating an environment that is conducive to debate.

He says, however that he has “reservations” about mobilizing Jewish students to confront the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus. “We have to recognize that this actually fans the conflict and contributes to the contentious atmosphere,” he says. “On the one hand, we want to encourage activism, but must be aware that on the other hand, this could also create a situation where Jews who are not comfortable with conflict will stop being involved in Israel-oriented and Jewish activities. That would be a loss, because we know that the university is a critical arena for identity. There is a place for activism, but organizing it is a risky endeavor.”

Sasson also discusses the connections between Israel’s policies and the atmosphere on campus. “BDS is a denial of the legitimacy of the state of Israel and the right to Jewish self-determination. But to the extent that Israel blurs the distinction between Israel and the West Bank, it actually empowers BDS because it reinforces their contention that all of Israel, and not just the occupation or a settlement, is illegitimate. When the Israeli government communicates that it is peace-seeking and compromise-oriented, it weakens the position of the BDS activists.”

According to Saxe, it is the lack of knowledge among young American Jews, rather than Israel’s policies, that is the major problem. “We see that young American Jews have a poor sense of history, context and complexity. They want to be involved, they care about their Judaism and about Israel, and they want to learn.”

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