By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – In a new national survey of American college students who self-identify as Jewish, professors
Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College in Hartford reveal that more than 50 percent experienced antisemitic incidents during fall semester 2013.
Issued jointly with the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., The National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students: Anti-Semitism Report is a follow-up to the more general National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, conducted by Kosmin and Keysar last spring. Brandeis Center President, Kenneth L. Marcus wrote the foreword and provided recommendations on the report. Marcus is author of the forthcoming “The Definition of Anti-Semitism.”
The rates of victimization for students with different social characteristics – such as type of campus, year of study, academic major, demographics, religiosity, or politics – ranged from a low of 44 percent to a high of 73 percent. There was only a slight variation in the rates across the regions of the U.S., strongly suggesting that antisemitism on campus is a nationwide problem.
While the most likely targets of antisemitism in the general population historically have been Orthodox Jewish males, the new survey shows that Conservative and Reform Jewish students are more likely than Orthodox students to report being victims. Membership in a Jewish campus organization also raises the likelihood of a student reporting antisemitism. Another finding was that female students were more likely than males to report antisemitism.
The researchers observed that, while antisemitism is often linked to anti-Zionism, this survey was undertaken in spring 2014, before the summer 2014 conflict in Gaza that led to a worldwide flare-up of antisemitism. The report also includes recommendations for colleges, universities, and Jewish community organizations to remedy this situation.
Barry A. Kosmin is director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, where he is also research professor in the Public Policy & Law Program. A principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) series since its inception in 1990, he is editor of the online international journal, Secularism & Nonreligion (Ubiquity Press) and of the ISSSC’s series of collected volumes on aspects of secularism: Secularism and Secularity: Comparative International Perspectives, 2007; Secularism & Science in the 21st Century, 2008; Secularism, Women & the State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st century, 2009.
Demographer Ariela Keysar is associate director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, and associate research professor of public policy and law. She is a principal investigator of the Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, 2014; the National College Students Survey 2013; the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 (ARIS); and Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists: India 2007-08. She was the study director of ARIS 2001.
Recently, Kosmin (BK) and Marcus (KM) discussed the findings – and implications — of the new survey with the Ledger.
Q: Let’s start with some of the general findings.
BK: Antisemitism seems to be a generational issue. That’s the most important thing about the study, and it just confirms what the Pew [A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 2013] finding was. Pew asked a question about “Has anybody been called nasty names in the street?” or something like that.
That study showed that only five percent of people over 60 ran into antisemitism, but amongst young people in their 20s, it was more than five times as much. My own view is that part of it is linked to social media in many ways because inhibitions and civility have been eroded in this generation and that’s why we’re seeing much more bullying in high school. The worry for people who are talking about this issue is that we know, with social media, that users move from nasty names to rants and then, as we’ve seen in parts of Europe, it does become action and that becomes nasty.
It is generational because people mix with their peers. So, if only five percent of Jews who are over 60 say they’ve heard antisemitism in the past year, according to the Pew study, that means that everybody who was born in the 1940s doesn’t go around saying nasty things and insulting Jews. But people who were born in 1992 – there is a difference.
There does seem to be a lack of inhibition about antisemitism among young people, and part of it may be a reaction to political correctness but also, I think, they have the means at their disposal to say nasty things about anybody and send them off to the other side of the world. Do you think these ISIS people would be burning people and executing as many people as they did if they didn’t have the opportunity to put it onto social media and send it off to the whole world? Whatever we say about the Nazis and Stalin and the like, they tried to cover up their misdeeds. ISIS is into a blatant show of their barbarity. The Nazis were into Holocaust denial.
A surprising point is that Orthodox people are no more likely – in fact, slightly less likely – to be picked on than other types of Jews. So, it’s not people identifiable distinctly by dress; everybody’s having problems. The victimization is being reported more by women than men. That might be very worrying and surprising but that’s kind of part of the times. It’s linked to bullying and it has echoes of sexual assault.
One interesting thing is that the J Street people are being picked on as much as the AIPAC people. Antisemitism is not totally political. Being pro-Israel and pro-peace and willing to compromise doesn’t really satisfy an anti-Israel extremist. If you go around supporting a two-state solution, extremists are not particularly interested in that and they’re still going to be nasty to you. We have this peculiar idea that being reasonable will protect you but it doesn’t. These fanatics can be unreasonable and they want to eradicate you like everybody else.
We didn’t go through any [Jewish student organizational] affiliation, so you’ve got a very diverse Jewish student body. If you read our question in the spring 2014 survey – Are you Jewish? – you can be Jewish any way: religion, ethnicity, family, etc., and 36 percent of these people have non-Jewish ancestors, so you’ve got a pretty integrated Jewish community; it’s not just all Chasidim or obvious targets or ghettoish. On the other hand, you could say that because the vast majority say that most of their friends are non-Jewish, that’s why they run into problems in those social circles. If you’re in the ghetto, you’ll meet less low-level antisemitism.
We used a question from a 2011 survey of British Jewish students and the responses show a different pattern between the two countries. The American stuff seems to be less political and less organized and much more interpersonal – it could mean face-to-face or social media – whereas, as you’d expect, in Europe it would be much more political and much more anti-Zionist.
We’re picking up some of that in this country but we’re also picking up traditional stuff. I don’t think people rush around campus saying, “You killed Jesus” any more but
there may be an undercurrent or one or two people who might say, “You kill Palestinians, you killed Jesus.”
Q: How did you define “antisemitic incident” in the survey and in follow-up recommendations to college administrators?
BK: The survey is subjective: we didn’t define antisemitism to these folks and we just said, “an incident.” So, it was up to the respondents to decide. The difference between antisemitism and other forms of prejudice is that there are many more tropes in antisemitism. If you don’t like black people, you’ve got two or three things you don’t like about them, but if you don’t like Jews, they’ve been around for several thousand years, so there are many reasons people don’t like Jews – their religion; they’re all communists and caused the Communist Revolution; they’re all capitalists and they swindle people; they’re unpatriotic and they caused World War II… There’s such a long ‘Chinese menu’ of complaints and irritations against the Jews, if you want to call it that.
The fact is, there are a lot of tropes and things to draw on, and in some social media you criticize Israel and say, “They shouldn’t have bombed this,” and then suddenly it ends up, “bunch of Nazis.” That’s where I’d say the social media or interactions have gone. Also, as we point out, to some extent, the Jewish students are more sensitive these days. We spent a lot of time teaching them about Holocaust education; 28 percent of these students who replied to us have been to Israel and half of those went on Birthright, so they know the history and so they, to some extent, pick up these nuances, not just when someone uses an allusion to a classic antisemitic or anti-Judaism term.
Coming back to subjectivity: is someone joking in poor taste or is it a nasty joke? Especially on a campus, you’re meeting people from all over the world and all over the country, some of whom may not have met Jews before. If I say to you, “Why don’t you eat bacon?” you could say that’s a question of curiosity or you could say I’m saying something nasty about you. It needs a lot more nuanced, in-depth research to find out what this is but, obviously, the bottom line is that these students are reporting it and it’s upsetting some of them.
The argument on the other side is that someone criticizing Israel is automatically accused of antisemitism. But it’s probably antisemitic if you accuse “Jewish settlers” of wrongdoing and refer to somebody who chops off a Christian’s head as a “violent extremist” and not a “Muslim.” If I won’t blame one group because I’m protecting them and yet I keep talking about Jewish crimes against humanity, I’ve got a problem.
KM: It’s a complicated topic and the way in which antisemitism should be defined depends on the purposes one has. One might use a slightly different approach for scholarly purposes, for instance, than for law-enforcement evaluation. But the best definitions are clear, specific, and detailed, and they relate to the form that antisemitism takes in the contemporary world.
We work with university administrators all the time. I travel around the country speaking to university presidents, vice presidents, chief diversity officers, equal-opportunity specialists, general counsels and even security chiefs. Some of our recommendations they will address more quickly than others. So, for example, we’re frequently discussing with them best practices for responding quickly and firmly to antisemitic incidents. Sometimes they do that quickly and sometimes they don’t. We urge them to name antisemitic incidents as specifically as possible, rather than being vague about it. Sometimes they do as we suggest and other times they take approaches that are a little bit easier politically. When we urge them to adopt formal definitions of antisemitism, that’s one where they have not been responding as well as we would like and that’s something that I think is going to be a long-term initiative.
In order to be effective, a definition of antisemitism needs to provide examples of anti-Israel conduct that crosses the line into antisemitism. The U.S. State Department has adopted an excellent definition along these lines. But at many universities, any kind of bias that relates to Israel is perceived as controversial. Administrators are sometimes reluctant to make a firm statement along these lines because they fear that there will be disagreement or controversy.
I would like to see universities be more clear and specific about other forms of hate and bias as well. Most universities do a fairly good job of specifically defining and identifying sexual harassment, but they aren’t necessarily as good at dealing with racial and ethnic bias in a very specific way, and they certainly aren’t as good at dealing with any form of religious bias.
Q: Where are these incidents taking place?
KM: People used to think of campus antisemitism as a bicoastal phenomenon, which was especially concentrated in California and in the Northeast. I’m not sure that that was ever as true as some commentators thought, but it’s certainly not what we’re seeing nowadays. We see significant anti-Israel and antisemitic activity all around the country. There are certainly institutions where it’s worse than others, but it’s no longer the case that any region, state, or school is immune.
We used to focus more on a handful of hotspot campuses, but now you really have to keep an eye on virtually every institution around the country because this problem is now so clearly nationwide.
Q: The survey’s foreword indicates that many antisemitic incidents go unreported. How are reporting mechanisms set up and why don’t students use them?
KM: At the Louis D. Brandeis Center, we always encourage students to report incidents of antisemitism to their colleges for several reasons: one is to give administrators an opportunity to solve the problem; and another is because the administrators can’t be held accountable unless they’re on proper notice. Students sometimes don’t report these incidents either because they don’t know about reporting mechanisms or because they fear that their complaints won’t be taken seriously or because they’re afraid of some sort of retaliation.
We know they’re not reporting because we ask students. For instance, sometimes I will ask a student audience if they have faced antisemitic incidents and several hands will shoot up. Then I might be more specific and ask them if they have heard antisemitic epithets such as ‘greedy Jew’ or ‘dirty Jew’ and more hands will go up. Then I ask them to keep their hands up if they reported the incident to their university and the hands will go down. That’s not always the case but I see it more often than I would like.
Oftentimes we don’t hear about incidents until it’s too late to address them effectively. We hope that students will bring them to the attention of the Center and other communal organizations as soon as possible because there are some things that need to be addressed right away. For example, if there are potential legal claims, they may be subject to a statute of limitations. That means that we sometimes hear about cases too late to make legal use of them. We still want to know about them because we still need to raise them with the colleges and universities, but it’s always best to raise them as early as possible.
Q: What do you want to know more about and what would you like to do with the new data?
BK: In this report, we’ve got about 800 students who say they want to be re-interviewed and are keen to talk about the problem. We haven’t got any information on the perpetrators; we’ve only got it on the self-defined victims and we don’t really know the circumstances of each. We’re not carrying out a criminal investigation, where somebody’s burnt down the local Hillel and the police would have dealt with it and all the media would have heard of it. At the end of the survey, we asked students if there was anything they wanted to comment on and we picked up those things they were concerned about regarding antisemitism, most of which was anti-Zionism or the overflow of anti-Zionism.
One of the reasons why this is an important issue for the Jewish community is that we send a higher proportion of our kids to college than anybody else and because a lot of them go to graduate school, they’re on campus longer. And of the students who are reporting incidents, 94 percent had a parent who’s graduated from college and 75 percent had a grandparent who did, so that shows you some level of the Jewish investment in higher education. If we send 90 percent of our young people to college for four years, that’s a long time, so that’s a big investment, socially and financially.
KM: One thing we need is more information about particular institutions and also particular perpetrators. We need to know which institutions have the biggest problems and where the problems are coming from. We also need greater detail about the nature of the problems that students are facing.
But we can’t stop with research. After all, the point is not just to understand the problem but to defeat it. This survey really needs to be the starting point for more active efforts to fight antisemitism on college campuses. I think many in the Jewish communal world have been reluctant to confront antisemitism directly. I’m hoping that this will be a wake-up call for the Jewish community.
To read the full National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students 2014: Anti-Semitism Report: http://bit.ly/1w2mfTI
Voices from Connecticut campuses
By Cindy Mindell
The Ledger regularly canvasses leaders of Jewish campus organizations in Connecticut to get a feel for antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. In light of the National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students 2014: Anti-Semitism Report, a quick look at two Connecticut universities – the public UConn and the private Wesleyan – revealed that dialog and identity-strengthening are the best responses to antisemitism.
At UConn, says Hillel director Gary Wolff, increased dialog between student groups actually reduces antisemitism. “The fact that the student leadership of Hillel, Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP], and the Muslim Student Association are talking, there’s a better understanding about where these groups want to drive activity,” he says. “We know, for example, that SJP at UConn doesn’t want the BDS movement [boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel] to be antisemitic; they want BDS to be against certain things that Israel is doing towards the Palestinians. They want to try to do BDS from a humanitarian perspective, not BDS from an antisemitic point of view. So the question our students ask is, ‘Why do you want to do BDS?’ And they respond, ‘We don’t really want to do BDS.’”
At Wesleyan, generally thought to be a left-leaning campus and therefore perhaps more tolerant of antisemitic – or anti-Israel – rhetoric, the spectrum of political opinion was in evidence over the past year. In April, current and former student leaders of the Hillel-affiliated Wesleyan Jewish Community announced their solidarity with and support of the Open Hillel movement, a nationwide student campaign to expand on-campus Hillel programming to include individuals and organizations that support anti-Israel views and actions like the BDS movement.
A month earlier, the on-campus chapter of SJP began calling for a boycott of products made by Sabra, a company jointly owned by the U.S.-based PepsiCo and the Strauss Group, an Israel-based company that has sent money and care packages to the Israel Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade.
In May, the Wesleyan Student Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the university to divest from companies “that profit from the occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.”
In November, the university agreed to remove Sabra products from its dining facilities. But a month later, after a group of Jewish students requested that the hummus and other dip products be restocked, the university agreed, and added the Cedar brand of similar products as an alternative.
“I do think that students will tell you that they feel antisemitism on campus,” says Rabbi Levi Schectman, co-director of Chabad at Wesleyan. “What I think the report gets right to an extent in one of its recommendations is that a strong antidote to antisemitism is a fostering of Jewish pride. When people commit acts of antisemitism meant to cow and weaken, and instead the opposite reactions happen, that is the best and strongest medicine. And I think this is a propos to the upcoming festival of Purim, where the megillah tells us that Mordechai did not bow or kneel before Haman, an antisemite of the highest degree.”
For both Wolff and Schectman, providing opportunities for Jewish students to explore and strengthen their Jewish identity is a key part of their work on campus. “Overall, we want to create the opportunity for students to expand their ideas, push the boundary lines they encounter while they’re on a college campus and trying to figure out what things mean and who they are,” says Wolff.
Echoing the report on campus antisemitism, Schechter says, “We think that our policies or our political identities will protect us one way or another, but I think our ultimate protection is our Jewish identity, our Judaism, our pride in being Jewish. That’s exactly what my wife and I try to do on a daily basis at Wesleyan.”
“College Choices, College Voices” in West Hartford on Mar. 9
Sophie Kruger was at an Israel advocacy-training program in December when she realized that she could do something about the spread of anti-Israel activity on U.S. college campuses: educate others.
A graduate of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, the West Hartford native is a freshman at University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business and active in the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee. “This is one of the most Israel-friendly campuses in the country and every day I walk by a huge poster protesting Birthright trips,” she says. “Pro-Israel activism is the most important issue to me.”
Kruger is motivated by the active BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel) presence at University of Pennsylvania. The on-campus of chapter Students for Justice in Palestine recently announced plans for a “BDS week” after spring break, followed by an anti-Israel resolution to be presented to the Undergraduate Assembly.
With the hope of educating college-bound teens and their parents, Kruger approached Beth El Temple and Jewish Teen Learning Connection (JTConnect), both in West Hartford, with an idea for a panel discussion. Both signed on as co-sponsors of the program she conceived, “College Choices, College Voices,” which will be held on Monday, March 9, 7 p.m., at Beth El Temple, when current college students from Greater Hartford will share their experiences with Jewish life and pro-Israel activism on campus, and help families understand what to look for and ask about when researching colleges.
“Do you feel comfortable revealing your Jewish identity on campus? Do you feel safe sharing pro-Israel sentiment on campus? How do you know if a college campus supports and protects Jewish and pro-Israel students? These questions raise issues that most students do not know to ask before they pick a college or university,” says Kruger. “Students too often fear the consequences of revealing their pro-Israel views.”
“College Choices, College Voices:” Monday, March 9, 7 p.m., Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. Admission is free. For information: (860) 233-9696.