American Jewish students feel connected to Israel, are harassed for it

July 28, 2015

With some reports there is no better way to begin than presenting the main headlines:

Jewish students in North America have a problem. They have a problem that has to do with Israel. Many of them feel that they live in a hostile environment, because of their perceived connection to Israel.

One-quarter of them “describe hostility toward Israel on campus by their peers as a 'fairly' or 'very big' problem”.

One-quarter “report having been blamed during the past year for the actions of Israel”.

Nearly three-quarters “report having been exposed at one time during the past year to at least one of six anti-Semitic statements, including the claims that Jews have too much power and that Israelis behave 'like Nazis' toward the Palestinians”.

Canadian universities, schools in the California state system, and, to a lesser extent, large land-grant universities in the Midwest are overrepresented among schools with the highest average levels of hostility toward Jews and Israel.

These findings, and many others, appear in a study that was released today by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University. “Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities” was authored by Leonard Saxe, Theodore Sasson, Graham Wright and Shahar Hecht – all researchers with vast experience in studying such matters. The survey that led to the above-mentioned conclusions is a survey of Taglit-Birthright applicants.

This is not the first survey that raises troubling question about campus environment and the difficulties of Jewish students to navigate their way as they face hostility towards Israel and, at times, harassment because of it. Not long ago I wrote about a study on a similar topic by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar.  Not long ago I published my own study on Jewish values and the use of force by Israel in armed conflict, in which I wrote that non-Israeli Jews feel “that their relationship with Israel complicates their interactions with the local non-Jewish community”. They feel that way, I wrote, “in places where there is no great fear of physical harm– just awkwardness due to the constant need to defend and apologize for Israel, and to explain Israel's actions (which they themselves may not fully understand). They may find themselves clashing with others over Israel (on college campuses, with anti-Israel activists), or feeling embarrassed to be identified with Israel”. Not that long ago before that, Sylvia Barack Fishman authored her paper “Delegitimation of Israel and Israel Attachments Among Jewish Young Adults: The College Campus and Other Contributing Factors”.

From all these studies one gets the same picture – a picture that is getting more troubling with time. As the authors of the new study write, these findings “highlight the complex relationship between emotional attachment to Israel and perceptions of hostility toward Jews and Israel”.

When 25% of Jewish North American students feel that they are “being blamed for Israel’s actions because you’re a Jew” – that's a problem. When “verbal harassment is apparently a fact of life for a substantial portion of young Jewish adults” – that's a problem.

There are also bits of positivity in the report. As shown in a previous report by the same group of authors, and contrary to the assumptions made by many commentators, Israel's war in Gaza last summer did not erode the level of connection with Israel among young American Jews. In fact, “a broad increase in connection across the political spectrum” was identified in this study. “Connection to Israel among Jewish young adults in general increased between spring 2014 and spring 2015”.

But here is another problem: it is good that many of them are connected (a third “highly” connected, another third “somewhat” connected), but the more they are connected the more they feel harassed on campus.

“Connection to Israel was the strongest predictor of perceiving a hostile environment toward Israel and Jews on campus and to a lesser extent a predictor of personal experiences of antisemitic verbal harassment”, the study notes. And, of course, we cannot know for certain what the reason is for the connection between connection to Israel and campus harassment. It’s unclear how much of it is because Jewish students that are more connected to Israel demonstrate their support for Israel more publically, and hence are being harassed more than other students. And it’s also unclear how much of it is a psychological phenomenon: namely, students that are connected to Israel are more sensitive and alert and hence feel more harassed than others even when they aren't.

But we do know this: a Jewish student in North America faces a tough dilemma. If connection to Israel means more harassment, he or she might choose to lessen his or her connection to Israel. Or he or she might choose to lower his or her Jewish profile on campus altogether to avoid harassment. This is exactly what many Jewish Americans told me at the end of twenty discussions that I led last winter and spring, as we at JPPI gathered information for the “Jewish values and use of force” report.

Here is a paragraph from that report: “At one seminar, an embarrassed Jewish father related how, during a tour of colleges with his son, he had been shocked into silence by a guide who bragged about his achievements as an anti-Israel activist on campus. And he was not the only one to behave this way. At the seminar in Tenafly, New Jersey, an Israeli-born participant told how he had often 'chickened out' of opportunities to defend Israel from criticism”.

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