Jewish students on campus are still feeling the aftermath of last summer’s Gaza War, according to a new Brandeis University report. Findings reveal that during the 2014-2015 academic year, one in four Jewish college students was blamed for Israel’s actions during the war, and nearly three quarters of students experienced anti-Semitic comments.
While physical harassment is still relatively rare, “verbal harassment is apparently a fact of life for a substantial portion of young Jewish students,” according to the report, “Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities,” released at a special media event in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the authors also found that preliminary surveys conducted immediately following the war indicated an increased level of connection to Israel throughout the school year.
The new report was based on data collected in April and May 2015 from online surveying of 3,200 Taglit-Birthright applicants. It was prepared by Brandeis University professors Leonard Saxe and Theodore Sasson, who were in Jerusalem to present their findings and field questions, and research assistants Graham Wright and Shahar Hecht. The survey was conducted with support from Birthright and Brandeis research institutions: the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.
Because of the diverse broad-based sample of respondents, culled randomly from applicants to the 2015 summer Birthright trips, the authors postulated that the experiences of the surveyed students “are likely to represent those of a ‘typical’ college student living on campus.”
In the survey, students were asked their perceptions about hostility toward Israel and Jews on campus. In line with the trend of anti-Israelism as the “new anti-Semitism,” 27 percent of students heard anti-Israel expressions from students, and 9% reported hearing hostility toward Israel by faculty.
The data showed that the campuses with the most perceived anti-Semitic and anti-Israel atmosphere were Canadian, in the California state systems, or large Midwestern state schools. At the Jerusalem event, Saxe wondered if these campuses were singled out in particular due to wide media reportage on anti-Semitic incidents that created “self-fulfilling prophecies” with greater sensitization on the part of Jewish students and impetus to further attacks by anti-Israel activists.
However, despite grim media reports about college campuses as the frontline for the Israel-delegitimizing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, only half of Jewish college students surveyed for a new Brandeis report had even heard of BDS, and only a third had “some” or a “great deal” of knowledge about the movement.
Co-author Sasson said the level of perceived hostility reflects stepped-up efforts by BDS activists, but the data is inconclusive as to whether they are part of an organized BDS campaign or a diffuse movement.
The paucity of students’ knowledge of current events in Israel was also mentioned by Sasson. He said that whereas 59% of the students claimed they check news about Israel at least once a week, he found that they are interested in Israel but don’t follow events, including Israeli politics and policy, closely.
A long-time professor, Saxe described students today having a “seriousness about career… that is palpable. They are very consumed by whatever passion they have,” citing music, arts, etc., “which doesn’t leave room for other things.”
Saxe stated, however, that despite their lack of education, the prospective Birthright participants declared great interest in learning about Israel and meeting Israelis firsthand.
Learning about Israel is on a Jewish college student’s “checklist,” said Sasson. Through Birthright, an Israel experience is now normative and the 18- to 30-year-old Jewish population segment is the largest that has visited Israel, he said.
“They have a robust connection to Israel, with opinions that run the spectrum. They feel a connection, but are not equipped with knowledge to defend it,” he said.
“There is no compelling data or survey that shows a disconnect from Israel” among young people, said Sasson.
Who are the targets of harassment?
Interestingly, despite the reported relatively high hostility, a third of students felt “very much” connected to Israel, and another third chose “somewhat” connected — a higher percentage than was found by similar polls prior to the Gaza War.
“The present findings suggest that the higher levels of connection recorded immediately after the war persisted throughout April 2015, establishing a new baseline,” stated the report.
The report found, however that although they are indicators of level of Israel connection, political views and level of Jewish education were not significantly related to how much a student was verbally harassed, which went across the board.
In line with the findings of a recent Jewish People Policy Institute Diaspora Dialogue, students who described their political orientation as conservative (the minority) felt more connected to the country and saw hostility to Israel as more problematic.
“It is likely that those who are highly connected to Israel become a target of antisemitic or anti-Israel sentiment because they make their support for Israel known,” stated the report. It is also likely they are more sensitive to criticism, it continued.
Of the three-quarters of students who reported hearing anti-Semitic comments, the most commonly heard statements were that Jews have too much power (52%), that Israelis behave “like Nazis” toward Palestinians (44%) and that the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated (37%).
Jews are not unique in feeling discomfort on campuses, said Sasson, who referenced recent racially instigated incidents. What is different, however, is that “the protection of Jewish students from harassment is not on the radar” of university administrations.
Sasson and Saxe said they intend to cross-check perceived hostility against reported anti-Semitic incidents, and “identify places where this problem exists,” said Saxe.
“We need to bring it to the attention of the universities and encourage free debate, but discourage harassment,” said Sasson.