As Jewish students head back to school, one of the many issues on their minds—and that of their parents—is anti-Semitism. Recent extreme incidents of anti-Jewish prejudice at campuses like Oberlin have colored the perception of higher education for many, as have anti-Israel boycott campaigns. At the same time, other campuses like Stanford have rallied around their Jewish students in the face of anti-Semitism, painting a different picture.
This week, Stanford’s Research Group in Education and Jewish Studies released a study about Jewish life on campus that dives into these concerns, based on interviews with 66 students from five California campuses: UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford. The findings, however, don’t fit neatly into any of the usual boxes.
I spoke with one of the researchers, Stanford associate professor of education and Jewish studies Ari Kelman, about the study, its implications, and his own experiences on campus.
So what did you learn from your conversations with these students?
We had two major findings. All these are based on our limited sample that was not a representative sample of Jews on campus. Number one, based on the California campuses we looked at, we didn’t find Jewish students who felt themselves under threat or in hostile conditions. We didn’t find students who characterized their campuses as anti-Semitic. And the other finding is that with respect to the Israel/Palestine conflict, we found that students choose to put themselves on the sidelines of that debate. They are turned off by the tone of that debate on both sides. They find it vociferous and strident in a way that doesn’t capture their pretty complicated understandings of the issue.
They’re turned off by the expectation from people who are critical of Israel that Jews are responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. And they’re similarly turned off by the assumptions of people in the Jewish community that all Jews will get behind the actions of the state of Israel. Unwilling to be conscripted into both sides of that fight, and not liking how that fight goes down on campus, they often choose to walk away.
The report says you “intentionally sought out Jewish students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses” for your 66 interviewees. Can you talk a little about the process there?
We wanted to get outside of the really involved Jewish students. We wanted to get outside of leaders of Jewish student organizations on campuses. Most Jewish students on campus are not very involved in Jewish student organizations of any kind. And so we really strove to get to students whose voices represented the vast majority of Jewish students on campus. We looked for people who went to Hillel once or twice but were not active in leadership, not regular Hillel people, not regularly active in any Jewish organization on campus period.
On the one hand, that makes a lot of sense. On the other, my first reaction when I read the criteria was that this study has selected the people that are least likely to be actively Jewish and recognized as Jewish, and thus least likely to experience anti-Semitism. Hillel leaders, secular Jews who wear Jewish symbols, or religious Jews who wear distinctive attire might get very different reactions in public than someone who’s not visibly Jewish. And this comes out in the study when one interviewee says, “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina, so a lot of people … it doesn’t come up in conversation.”
Now, I don’t think that’s necessarily a criticism of report, because I don’t think that its goal was to give an exhaustive picture of all the campuses, let alone these five. The idea was to say: here are voices that aren’t being heard as much and deserve our attention. It’s more counterbalance than comprehensive. Do you think that’s a fair characterization? Or is that just my idiosyncratic read?
I think that’s not quite an idiosyncratic read; I think that’s the read a lot of people are going to have on it. But I do want to say that because the majority of Jewish students are white-passing or identify as white or look white—and those that don’t are just assumed to not be Jewish because so many Jews are Anglo—there isn’t really any reason why a Jewish student who say, wears a Jewish star necklace, would be more or less a target. And I don’t necessarily know that the wearing of jewelry or whatever is correlated with more involvement in Jewish student organizations. We interviewed people with Chai necklaces, so I don’t think that’s a correlation that we can establish.
Some Jewish organizations have put out material casting college campuses writ large as “anti-Semitic.” My sense is that didn’t jive at all with what you were seeing as an educator on one.
Not only do I teach here [at Stanford], but I actually live on campus. I live in a dorm with 100 freshmen. I eat dinner in a dining hall that seats 400-500 students. I talk with undergrads all the time. I sit with them at dinner and listen to them talk about things. It didn’t accord with my image, and when I talked to colleagues on other campuses, it didn’t accord with theirs. So I said, let’s go and talk to students and see what their account is. Let’s see their experience. That was really the idea. And if they said, “yes, it’s as bad as they say,” we’d have reported that, but that’s not at all what we found.
As someone who speaks to and reports on young Jews on campus regularly, my impression is that while the loudest voices tend to be heard most outside, they don’t represent most Jews inside. On one end, you have students who have experienced anti-Semitism or heard anti-Israel sentiments they understood as anti-Semitic, and who are very vocal about it. On the other end, you’ve got anti-Zionist Jews who campaign for boycotting or even abolishing Israel. Journalists and activists love to talk to both of these groups, because they’re sharply ideological and make for great quotes and great stories. But this results in a discourse dominated by two camps which represent very small numbers of the overall Jewish student body. Does that accord with your experience and what you found?
Yeah, that was my impression as well.
I want to be clear, the students who we talked to, they say that they do experience anti-Semitic speech occasionally, just not worse than any other minority on campus. So they do encounter it. We’re not saying everything’s rosy. The students do encounter it. But they contextualize it, and they make a distinction between “I have heard about or heard speech like that” and “my campus as a whole is anti-Semitic and Jews are targeted more than other people.”
Read the whole report here.