Dueling Narratives Cloud Picture Of Campus Anti-Semitism


The “Jews Die” graffiti was the first provocation to appear over a several-month period last year in and around the University of Michigan. The hate message was spray-painted at a skate park near the Ann Arbor campus.

Then, a swastika was discovered scrawled in a bathroom stall at the Big Ten school. And soon after, the U of M student government passed an anti-Israel divestment resolution (that was subsequently rejected by the university regents).

The anti-Semitic and anti-Israel trifecta painted a picture of a hostile atmosphere for the school’s Jewish students and supporters of Israel.

But a Jewish student at U of M paints an entirely different picture.

“I wear a kipa daily on campus and am vocally a supporter of the Jewish democratic state of Israel,” Alex Harris, a sophomore at the school, told The Jewish Week. “I do not feel physically threatened to be Jewish or ‘pro-Israel’ on campus.”

Yet Harris, an active member of the U of M Jewish community who participated in anti-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) lobbying, added that he does occasionally feel himself “the target of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment when the discussion of Israel enters the conversation.”

Harris’ double-sided portrait mirrors the conflicting narratives of several recent national surveys about campus-based anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities. And they come as a Pew poll from 2016 found that among millennials, sympathy for the Palestinian cause jumped from 9 percent in 2006 to 27 percent a decade later, while support for Israel fell from 51 to 43 percent over that 10-year period.

On one hand, recent reports by the Anti-Defamation League and the Amcha Initiative, which studies anti-Semitism on college campuses, contain troubling findings.

According to the ADL’s Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, in the first nine months of 2017 there were “a disturbingly high number of anti-Semitic and bullying incidents in K-12 schools and college campuses across the U.S. … Anti-Semitism continues to be a serious concern on college campuses [where] a total of 118 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in the first three quarters of 2017, compared to 74 in the same period of 2016.”

The Amcha study, which was conducted in 2016 at 100 public and private colleges and universities, found that BDS supporters targeted “not only pro-Israel students, but anyone presumed to support Israel, first and foremost Jewish students.”

And a survey last year conducted by researchers from Tel Aviv University identified U.S. universities as bucking an international decrease in the number of anti-Semitic incidents.

But two studies released in recent months, conducted at several universities in California, and at four elite universities across the country, found that anti-Semitic incidents occur less frequently than commonly believed and that Jewish college students do not matriculate in fear.

A survey conducted by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute at that school, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan — all of which have sizable Jewish student populations — reported that Jewish students “are rarely exposed” to anti-Semitism and “do not think their campus is hostile to Jews.”

And, according to a study that was conducted at five California universities by Stanford University’s Research Group in Education and Jewish Studies, “a minority of [Jewish] students report feeling hostility … . We found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist.”

Is the University of Michigan a welcoming place for Jewish students, or a hotbed of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment?

With the new semester starting up at most universities in the United States, the question remains — which set of findings are correct? Are Jewish students going back to campuses where they feel under attack, as many headlines in the last few years suggest? (That narrative, in part, has led to the introduction in Congress of an Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, focusing on college campuses, in 2016 and 2017.) Or are universities in this country places where varying political and religious perspectives are sanctioned, as the Stanford and Brandeis studies claim?

Is the University of Michigan, home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies of any U.S. university, a welcoming place for Jewish students, or a hotbed of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment?

The answers to both questions is “yes,” depending how you define anti-Semitism, said experts interviewed by The Jewish Week.

“There’s truth to both of these views,” said David Brog, executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, which helps students combat “the delegitimization of Israel on America’s college campuses.”

“There is an unacceptable level of anti-Semitism on college campuses today. And this anti-Semitism tends to grow wherever BDS activists and their allies are actively demonizing the Jewish state,” Brog said in an email interview. “But we shouldn’t exaggerate it either. Even campuses facing serious anti-Israel efforts are far from being ‘no-go zones.’”

“There is an unacceptable level of anti-Semitism on college campuses today. And this anti-Semitism tends to grow wherever BDS activists and their allies are actively demonizing the Jewish state.”

“Studies often differ based on the categorization of what is considered anti-Semitism,” said Elissa Buxbaum, the Anti-Defamation League’s campus affairs director. “The largest difference we see is related to the lines between anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitism. ‘Heil Hitler’ written on a Jewish student’s white board is easy to identify, but political rhetoric crossing the line to anti-Semitism is more complicated.

“All advocacy efforts for Palestinian rights are not anti-Israel. All anti-Israel activity is not anti-Semitic,” Buxbaum said. “If the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses is increasing, it may not necessarily mean that more such incidents are taking place, but that more people are reporting them. Coupled with increased media attention to hate and bias incidents this year, the effect on the public is amplified.

“One thing we actually hope for is that incidents get reported at a higher rate,” she said. “This would mean that students feel supported, and that increased dialogue and education will lead to a future with less hate and bias.”

“The key to the discrepancy between these two descriptions of anti-Jewish sentiment on campus lies in the definition of what constitutes a crisis,” said Harris, the U of M student. “Anti-Semitism on campus is not like anti-Semitism in mainland Europe, nor is it like anti-Semitism in the Islamic world. Both of those cases are entrenched into the psyche of their host nations, which have a longstanding tradition of persecution, or at best, begrudging tolerance of Jews.

“The United States and its college campuses in particular do not have this history. Therefore, the anti-Semitism on campus takes on a different form,” Harris said. “It is not a hotbed in the sense that Europe or the Islamic world is where Jews are either afraid to publicly be Jews for fear of attack or don’t even exist in the area at all. It is not a hotbed of violent anti-Semitism. It is not even a daily barrage of ‘Israel-hate.’”

Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and one of the authors of his school’s study, offered a simple explanation for the differing findings.

The interviews Brandeis and Stanford researchers conducted with students present a nuanced picture of the situation on their campuses, and tend to temper the alarm created by the raw numbers of reported anti-Semitic incidents or pro-BDS rallies.

Saxe said he stands by his survey’s findings. “Campuses are not on fire,” he said. Talk with the students, instead of relying on media reports of rampant anti-Semitism, he said, and “you come out with a very different picture. By focusing our attention on these incidents, we are giving a megaphone to a tiny minority of people.

“I’m pretty confident that few Jewish students feel that [their campus] is a dangerous environment.”

“I’m pretty confident that few Jewish students feel that [their campus] is a dangerous environment,” said Saxe, who called the Brandeis study reflective of the situation for Jewish students at most universities.

In the New York area, “on an average day, Jewish students are comfortable on campus,” said Hindy Poupko, deputy chief planning officer at UJA-Federation of New York, who served as a campus liaison during her previous job at the Jewish Community Relations Council. “However, campus events like a BDS debate can quickly and easily make Jewish students feel nervous or targeted, and a student might think twice before wearing an IDF T-shirt to class or maybe even before putting on their kipa.” UJA-Federation supports 11 local Hillel chapters.

“The overall impact of the BDS movement on campus is two-fold,” Poupko said. “One, it has become deeply uncool and perhaps even politically incorrect on many campuses to be a public supporter of Israel. This reality poses a long-term strategic threat to Israel’s position in the world. Two, we remain concerned that Jewish students, in an attempt to avoid the toxic environment often created by anti-Israel politics on campus, will avoid Jewish life altogether.”

At Queens College, whose 4,000 Jewish students (out of just under 20,000) constitute one of the largest Jewish student bodies in the county, “students do not feel threatened,” said Uri Cohen, director of the school’s Hillel chapter. “There’s a culture of being together with people who are different.”

Besides the occasional anti-Semitic graffiti found in a campus bathroom, Queens College’s Jewish students encounter little anti-Semitism, said Cohen.

“This is the face of anti-Semitism on college campuses today.”

Alex Harris was careful to distinguish between Jewish students’ physical safety at the University of Michigan and the prevailing “demonization of Israel as a pariah state and the sole and worst human rights abuser in the world” at his school and many other universities.

“Any attempt by pro-Israel students to draw attention to the lack of complexity of this dichotomy [of Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians as victims] is met with a variety of rhetoric, which ranges from subtly offensive half-truths to blatantly anti-Semitic statements,” Harris said.

The hostility to students who attempt to defend Israel on campus “is not overblown,” he said. “It is a common, pervasive, well-integrated issue that has been pushed for decades to hundreds of thousands of college students. This is the face of anti-Semitism on college campuses today.”