Pro-Palestinian protesters participate in an ‘All Out for Palestine’ rally outside Columbia University in New York on Feb. 2, 2024

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Why Campus Antisemitism Matters

Studies and polls of American Jewish students reveal a startling degree of anxiety and fear

Leonard Saxe
February 06, 2024
Pro-Palestinian protesters participate in an 'All Out for Palestine' rally outside Columbia University in New York on Feb. 2, 2024

Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images

“Context,” has become an ugly word. Used by a trio of college presidents to avoid agreement with a politically barbed question in a congressional hearing as to whether or not calling for genocide against Jews is acceptable student conduct, use of the term seemed morally obtuse. They failed to acknowledge their university’s responsibility to protect students from harassment. Two presidents later apologized and subsequently resigned; their testimony, however, has continued to inflame the already charged debate about antisemitism on campus.

In the case of antisemitism, “context” includes understanding how certain types of action and speech affect Jewish students. The moral obligation to speak out against calls for genocide notwithstanding, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act obligates a university to protect members of ethnic, racial, and religious groups from discrimination. Under a “disparate treatment” provision of the act, Jewish students must be treated in the same way as those who are members of other protected groups. Notably, the impact on the victim of prejudice—not only the intent of the source—governs assessment of discrimination.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, as reports of antisemitic incidents spiked, my colleagues and I launched a program of research to document Jewish young adults’ experiences of antisemitism. We wanted to understand how the war was affecting young diaspora Jews. Since the war began, we have conducted a set of surveys with nearly 7,000 Jewish young adults (college age to mid-30s) across the United States.

One recent study, conducted during November and December (with data collection before, during, and after a cease-fire), included a survey that garnered more than 2,000 Jewish respondents at 51 U.S. campuses that have large Jewish student populations. Our respondents were drawn from a pool of over 20,000 young adult Jews who had applied to Birthright Israel. Overall, the sample is broadly representative of Jewish students on U.S. campuses, although on average, respondents were slightly more engaged in Jewish life and more likely to have traveled to Israel than their Jewish peers.

Our survey was designed to give voice to Jewish students. We wanted to understand their reactions to the war and their campus climate; specifically, their perceptions of the level of hostility toward Jews and Israel, as well as their concern about antisemitism on campus. The three questions were highly correlated and yielded an index of hostility based on responses to these questions which enabled us to compare campuses with one another. 

The impact on the victim of prejudice—not only the intent of the source—governs assessment of discrimination.

Not surprisingly, we found that antisemitism experienced by Jewish students is now far more prevalent than in the past. Many of our respondents commented that they were scared by what was happening on their campuses and, among other issues, afraid to be recognized as Jewish. A 2016 study that used similar methods found that the overall rates of perceived hostility toward Jews were nearly half of what we are currently observing.

Nevertheless, there is substantial variation across schools, even after controlling for individual differences. Using our antisemitic hostility index, we arrayed campuses into four groups, from most to least hostile. Respondents at the highest hostility schools were five times more likely to indicate that they “very much” agreed that their campuses were hostile toward Jews and Israel compared to those in the least hostile group.

Antisemitic hostility is not concentrated at any one type of school. Schools with the highest levels of antisemitic hostility include elite private universities in the Northeast, as well as large public universities in California and the Midwest. Both private and public universities, including some highly selective, appear in the list of schools with the lowest levels of antisemitic hostility. That hostility varies across campuses suggests that we can identify predictors of anti-Jewish hatred and use that knowledge as the basis for addressing it more effectively. 

Across schools, one-third of the Jewish students we surveyed reported personal experiences of insult or harassment. Many reported being insulted or harassed on social media, but at the most hostile campuses, nearly one-quarter reported personal experiences of harassment. The vast majority also reported seeing antisemitic images on campus, and many said that they were blamed for Israel’s actions because they were Jews. Students at the most hostile schools were also much more likely to have these personal experiences than students at the least hostile schools.

Campus sentiment toward Israel was also directly related to Jewish students’ concerns about antisemitism. Antisemitism related to Israel was, for our respondents, much more of concern than antisemitism about traditional Jewish stereotypes. Again, these concerns were not limited to Jewish students with more conservative political views or those who were more “pro-Israel” or even among those Jewish students who had unfavorable views of the Israeli government.

Notably, when asked about the political orientation of the source of antisemitism on their campus, respondents expressed far greater concern about antisemitism emanating from the political left than from the political right. Consistent with other findings, this was evident even among those who identified as politically liberal. Students spend the bulk of their time with peers, so it should not be surprising that more are concerned about antisemitism from liberal sources.

Nevertheless, faculty and administrators have an important role and their words and actions shape what happens on a campus. Especially at campuses with the highest levels of antisemitic hostility, many more Jewish students are concerned about their safety. Among students in the group of campuses with the highest level of hostility, only one-quarter of our respondents felt “very safe” compared to nearly half who felt “very safe” at schools in the lowest hostility group. Their ratings are confirmed by student comments about being frightened and needing to hide their Jewish identity.

So, what can be done? Our findings seem to confirm what was on display at the congressional hearing: a gap between the lived experience of Jewish students and how university leaders view the situation. The law requires that universities protect Jewish students, but many seem not to acknowledge the problem.

Apparently, some university presidents believe that Jewish students are not harmed by discourse that holds all Jews responsible for Israel’s actions and echoes Hamas’ call for the elimination of Jews. That such discourse is associated with threats and acts of violence against Jewish students is also ignored. These views appear to run counter to the way that other protected groups are routinely treated by those in charge of campus life and appear to violate Title VI.

Although we do not as yet have clear data about the impact of measures to recognize and act on antisemitism, it is difficult to imagine a solution that doesn’t involve academic leaders and faculty. As has been done with diversity, training faculty how to deal with ethnic and religious differences that includes specific discussion of Jewish students is needed. Whether or not Jewish students are considered a minority, they carry with them family histories and the memory of being targets of oppression. Most young Jews feel a connection with Israel and the Hamas attack on Israel reignited their sense of vulnerability.

The law requires that universities protect Jewish students, but many seem not to acknowledge the problem.

Similarly, mobilizing an institution’s educational programs to offer students a better understanding of Judaism, Israel, and the Middle East conflict also seems essential to addressing antisemitism on campus. Offering such courses should be part of the mission of any college or university that accepts its responsibility to create an educated citizenry.

Unfortunately, antisemitism is only one of the challenges being faced today by colleges and universities. Institutions of higher learning are struggling to respect diversity, while also reckoning with fundamental curricular debates, questions about the role of scholarship, and financial pressures. At the same time, public approval ratings of higher education institutions are in free-fall.

A key question for university leaders in their response to pernicious antisemitism is the degree to which they are willing to exercise moral authority. Are they willing to address antisemitism by using their office to draw lines between acceptable and unacceptable conduct? Statements alone by academic leaders may not be sufficient to address the current problems, but actions that enforce guidelines for civil and productive discourse about issues such as the Hamas-Israel war seem essential. Guidelines should not be a matter of supporting the political left or right, but relate to institutions’ core educational mission.

Historically, Jews have been the “canary in the coal mine” and anti-Jewish discrimination has often served as an early warning of broader societal turmoil, including discrimination against other groups. Confronting antisemitism on campuses is therefore not only important for members of the Jewish community, but also for higher education and the aims of civil society. That’s one part of the context that has not yet been sufficiently appreciated by campus leaders.

Leonard Saxe 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.