After years of reports suggesting U.S. college campuses have become intolerably anti-Semitic for Jewish students, a new study out of Stanford University draws a different conclusion. Contrary to popular belief, the report says, the kids are all right.
“Safe and on the Sidelines” is the title of the study, which was conducted by a program within Stanford’s Graduate School of Education called Education and Jewish Studies. Ari Y. Kelman, the director of that program, led the study with help from several graduate students.
Though previous studies point to U.S. university campuses as “hotspots of anti-Semitism,” this one notes that Jewish students report “low levels of anti-Semitism” and feel safe on their campuses — even at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University, a pair of schools with reputations for anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish activity.
The study is based on in-depth interviews conducted with 66 students at Cal, SFSU, Stanford, UCLA and UC Irvine, campuses generally considered to fall into the “hotspots of anti-Semitism” category.
Researchers deliberately selected subjects who “were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses,” Kelman said; a high majority of them held positive feelings about Israel but disliked certain Israeli government policies.
“What makes them interesting,” Kelman said of the students interviewed, “is that they don’t feel threatened by anti-Semitism. They notice it but don’t take it personally. Not a single one characterized their campus as anti-Semitic.”
Kelman said he opted against interviewing students involved in Hillel and pro-Zionist student groups like Bears for Israel at U.C. Berkeley because the minimally engaged represent “the vast majority” of Jewish students at U.S. universities.
One of the main findings, he said, is that the locus of any perceived anti-Jewish tensions has to do with raging campus debates over Israel and Palestinians. All bad feelings flow from there.
“[The students] were repelled by or turned off by the stridency and divisiveness of the debate,” Kelman told J. “Their discomfort came out of that debate. But they don’t experience that as anti-Semitism. They experience it as discomfort.”
The study highlights how a majority of the students devise coping strategies to avoid that discomfort. Many reported a fear of entering into the political debate around Israel, choosing instead to opt out, remain silent or sometimes simply feign ignorance about the conflict.
The students also expressed resentment over assumptions that they are presumed to be pro-Israel simply because they are Jewish. They rejected a conflation of their Jewishness with automatically Zionist views.
They don’t want to be conscripted into either side of a fight.
“They don’t want to be conscripted into either side of a fight,” Kelman said. “As Jews they are pulled into a debate they don’t want to have. They feel the pressure from both sides.”
Kelman, an associate professor at Stanford and a faculty member in the school’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, didn’t refute that troubling incidents with anti-Jewish overtones have occurred on various campuses over the years. At SFSU, for example, Jewish and/or pro-Israel students face such an extremely hostile environment that action needed to be taken, according to a group that filed a lawsuit against the university making such claims.
As for the students in Kelman’s study, he said they generally said their campus administrations were “doing the best they can” to mitigate any incipient anti-Semitism that may crop up.
Kelman said he hopes the study will catch the eye of Jewish community leaders, philanthropists and others who may have seen reports about anti-Jewish vandalism or activity on campus, but may not have heard from the students themselves. The study is filled with lengthy quotes from students.
“I hope they take the voices of the students very seriously, and understand the students are not clamoring for greater advocacy or investments,” Kelman said. “They are looking for a moderate, more productive debate, places to have complicated conversations, and to stop talking about college campuses as overly threatening to Jewish students. It might be uncomfortable but not overtly threatening.”