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Jewish students feel unsafe on campus? A new study says otherwise

A new study published by Stanford University reveals that Jewish students feel safer on university campuses when they refuse to conflate their Jewish identities with unequivocal support for the State of Israel.

By Oren Kroll-Zeldin

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a 'die-in' on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Israel's Operation Protective Edge, March 3, 2014 (photo: SJP)

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a ‘die-in’ on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, March 3, 2014 (photo: SJP at UC Berkeley)

In recent years numerous studies have created the impression that university campuses across the United States are a hotbed of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment. These studies describe Jewish student experiences on campus, painting an alarming portrait of a politically unsafe climate for Jewish students who are ill equipped to deal with these challenges.

A new study published by Stanford University Graduate School of Education contests these beliefs, arguing not only that campuses are a safe place for Jewish students, but also that students are alienated by the very nature of the debate on anti-Semitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict. This groundbreaking new qualitative study, called “Safe and on the Sidelines,” is based on a 10-month study of Jewish students on five campuses across California, and highlights the subtleties of the experiences of Jewish students and emphasizes student voices to uncover a far more complex picture of Jewish life on campus – particularly regarding the complexities of the political debate they face on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Contrary to what we often hear about Jewish experience on campus, the report argues that “students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” Furthermore, the report finds that student safety is partially predicated on students’ refusal to conflate their Jewish identities with unequivocal support for the State of Israel, as students argue that they feel unsafe only when an attack on Israel becomes an attack on the Jewish community. In the study, less than 10 percent of respondents articulated the belief that anti-Israel sentiment is, by definition, anti-Semitism.

The report’s analysis provides other essential elements that help us more deeply understand Jewish student experiences on campus. First, the students who were interviewed expressed only limited amounts of anti-Semitism and discomfort. Those that did encounter discomfort “traced it either to the carelessness of student speech or to tensions within campus debates about the Israel-Palestine conflict,” not to targeted or intentional anti-Semitism. Second, students struggle with Israel. Though many feel an affinity to the Jewish state, they say its politics and policies are at odds with their own political values. Third, the divisive nature of the debate on campus about the Israel-Palestine conflict directly results in student disengagement from both political discourse and the campus Jewish community altogether. Even those students who wish to speak out often choose silence instead, intentionally removing themselves from the debate as an objection to the expectation that their Jewish identities mean that they have a particular politics.

UC Berkeley students demonstrate after the student senate the student senate did not overturn a veto on a bill that would divest from American companies profiting off the occupation. (photo: Ramsey El-qarey)

UC Berkeley students demonstrate after the student senate the student senate did not overturn a veto on a bill that would divest from American companies profiting off the occupation. (photo: Ramsey El-qarey)

The findings are welcome news, as they are largely reflective of my experience teaching courses on Jewish identity and the Israel-Palestine conflict at the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit university in the heart of a major California metropolis, one that is often perceived as hostile for Jews and teeming with anti-Israel activists. The fact that my university was not included in the study serves to further cement the report’s findings that Jewish students are safe on campus and happily place themselves on the sidelines of hotly contested political debates vis-à-vis their Jewish identities. My experiences, as well as those of my colleagues and students, may help to elucidate just how far we have been mislead to believe that Jewish student lives are in peril on American campuses.

First, for many of my students, campus activism is a privilege that they simply cannot afford. They are preoccupied with the menial tasks of everyday life in their attempts to survive economically, physically, and emotionally in a harsh and expensive urban environment. Participating in campus activism is simply not an option for full-time students who also work full or part time to support themselves. Moreover, most of them commute to school, taking up more of their time and further preventing them from engaging in campus activism.

Second, student activists on my campus – both Jewish and others – do not feel that the Israel-Palestine conflict is as relevant to their lives as other social and political issues, which have only been exacerbated by the divisive rhetoric and racist policies of the Trump administration. Those who do have time for campus activism have other interests and political concerns, in particular the president’s decision to rescind DACA, which has tangible ramifications for our campus community that go far beyond any existential connections between the Israel-Palestine conflict and a private university in California. In fact, most of the Jewish students that I have encountered on campus are unaffiliated when it comes to connecting their Jewish identity with the State of Israel, rejecting attempts to conflate the two. Simply put, the politics of Israel and Palestine do not play a large role in their lives of the Jewish students who enter my classroom.

Illustrative photo of pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters on campus. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Illustrative photo of pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters on campus. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Lastly, my university is not a hotbed of activism for Israel and Palestine politics, which is reflective of the larger political climate across U.S. campuses. For every campus labeled a flashpoint, such as U.C. Berkeley or Stanford (both of which are featured in the report), there are dozens of schools that are not perceived as a dangerous crossroads for political debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Campuses are diverse, representing a multiplicity of ethnic, cultural, religious and political expressions of student identities. Some students choose to engage with the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet most do not – a fact whose significance cannot be understated.

All of this does not imply that Jewish students are bystanders to the Israel-Palestine conversation on campus. Instead, it appears that they assert their agency and most are making an informed decision to disengage from the debate, feeling empowered by their choice. The Jewish students with whom I work are engaged in a practice they find more relevant and personally meaningful than participating in the public debate over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Through a deep engagement with the curriculum and material they encounter in class, they cultivate the capacity to think critically, impacting their Jewish identities and transforming the ways they articulate their political commitments in their everyday lives. In doing so, they put their university training to use as agents of change in their communities.

The life experiences of students today are different than those of their parents and grandparents. To this end, the new report is an encouraging reminder that although anti-Semitism undoubtedly still exists in numerous insidious forms, university campuses remain a place where Jewish students can feel safe to explore the complexities and multi-layered nature of their identities, while struggling with what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. For some, the State of Israel will be central to their Jewish journey, but for many it will not. That is perfectly okay: it speaks to the wonderful nature of Jewish identity in all its plurality, diversity, and multiplicity.

Dr. Oren Kroll-Zeldin is a cultural anthropologist who teaches in the Jewish Studies and Social Justice program at the University of San Francisco. He researches the systematic and physical exclusion of Palestinians from Jerusalem.

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    1. JeffB

      First off no question the anti-Jewish stuff is limited to a small number of campuses. Most colleges have none and even those that have some it can be isolated. So we agree there.

      That being said, when I went to college (88-92) I experienced 0 instances of Antisemitism or hatred of Israel. It never happened. It never happened on a political campus. I wouldn’t have “acknowledge the presence of antisemitism” there wasn’t any. I think it is a horror that a generation later it exists again and is considered normal. Moreover when I read their descriptions of the political culture that nothing like what I experienced. I experienced dialogue, conversation and a desire to build consensus through activism not various sects engaging in wars of intimidation. Admittedly Bush-41 set a very different tone than Trump, but I’m not sure he set all that different of a tone than Obama.

      I was on a liberal college during the height of the divestment debates. There were students who supported constructive engagement (Reagan’s position), there were more students who supported BDS. It never got personal or nasty. There was an assumption of good faith on both sides. That’s missing from our dialogue more generally, but it is a critical difference between the two.

      The graduate student union at UCLA that now has become officially antisemetic I helped found. I didn’t hide my Jewish identity nor was it ever an issue, no one cared or would have cared. It also was 100% non political. It focused on issues like excessively long shifts for medical students or low ceiling on health insurance plans. Labor Union stuff. Today it is political.
      Muslim students whom I represented on things like excessive hospital hours would never have engaged on anti-Zionism though I’m sure they detested Israel.

      What you are describing is something like the environment on campuses during my parent’s generation. Where Jews were in partial hiding. I didn’t find your article or the report uplifting. Our political culture is bad, but the Israel/Palestine debate is pure poison added to an already unhealthy body politic.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @JeffB: “but the Israel/Palestine debate is pure poison added to an already unhealthy body politic.”

        So we should just stop talking about it? Is that what you’re saying?

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Bruce Gould

          So we should just stop talking about it? Is that what you’re saying?

          I’m not sure who “we” is in that sentence. Obviously Israelis have to talk about it, it’s their conflict. For most Americans it should be talked about as one of the countless tribal squabbles in dozens of countries we are tangentially involved in. There are tens of millions of pro-UN mildly antisemetic Christians. There are tens of million of pro-Israel anti-Muslim Christians. Those groups hate each other mostly because of the Fundamentalist / Modernist controversy and its spill over effect. The Fundamentalist / Modernist controversy has nothing to do with Israel / Palestine. Recruiting those factions into the battle doesn’t help cool things off. I/P doesn’t need extra layers of complication.

          For Palestinians and Jews inside America it is similarly unavoidable. Here I think 90s style dialogue makes sense. Jews and Palestinians in cities they share in reasonable numbers (Los Angeles being the best example) got along before this poisonous debate. The dialogue can and should be one of understanding and reconciliation (which as an aside would IMHO be a good thing for Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians as well). Both sides should refrain from inflaming the other. The conversation needs to happen with mainstream groups. It needs to come from a place of win-wn. It needs to take into account the humanity of the other.

          And one more thing. Techniques like using each other’s dissidents to bash the other group accomplish nothing. There are Jews who hate Zionism, and say terrible things about Israel.
          But they don’t represent the Jewish community. There are Muslims who despise Islam and Muslim culture and say horrible things about it. But their distorted picture of Islam is not enlightening. Elevating these dissidents as a way to trash each other isn’t really conversation. Dissident Jews need to have their dialogue with Jews not Christians and Muslims. Dissident Muslims need to have their dialogue with Muslims not Jews and Christians.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Wow. As someone named ‘John’ here memorably put it. “the amt of time you spend deliberately misunderstanding things, it’s like yr salary depends on it.” (John is indirectly invoking Brandolini’s Law, the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. I should be so smart. But we’ll just note one of JeffB’s signature devices—as usual, he starts right off, in his very first words!, with the style of mealy-mouthed evasion: ”I’m not sure who “we” is in that sentence….” And off he goes….)

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        First off, you are taking the “few campuses” qualification the author makes and running wild with it and completely ignoring the many campuses. Second, anti-Semitism does not “exist again” it has always been around and will be around, just like anti-black racism and white supremacism and anti-Arabism, etc. But you act as if this expression of latent potential nastiness arises out of thin air. There will always be extremists and fanatics and hateful and resentful people who need little excuse to let the latent nastiness come out, give it free reign. Witness all the white supremacist anti-Semites coming out of the closet, given license to do that by Trump, who winks at it and says “I’m sure there are a lot of good people” in that crowd. Where is your “horror” at that? Where is your “horror” at the anti-Arabism all over these pages by extremists like Lewis from Afula? And Bezalel Smotrich?

        I think what you are doing here is a lazy pull of the anti-Semitism card–“the horror, the horror”–without any acknowledgment of the anti-Arab racism of all sorts of right wing commenters here and all sorts of Israelis, without any acknowledgment of the fact that demagogic people like Netanyahu and Trump deliberately stoke this kind of thing. What do you think will happen when an Israeli Prime Minister relentlessly sends the message that “I am the leader of the Jewish people and I am the leader of the nation state of the Jewish people and Israel is the Jewish people” and then stiffs everybody and lies to everybody to their faces and they know it and absolutely no leader trusts a thing he says and he continues to show blatant anti-Arab “coming in droves” racism and “the nation state of the Jewish people” continues to show blatant anti-Arab racism and cruelty such as, for example, here:
        https://972mag.com/the-bedouin-village-where-compassion-ends/130063/

        You act as if this “horror” of a few fringe extremists, the usual fanatics drawn to any conflict, comes out of a vacuum, out of thin air. It does not.

        “There was an assumption of good faith on both sides.”

        Please tell me WHAT Netanyahu and his government and his allied US lobby have ever done that would build good faith? I mean seriously? WHAT has Netanyahu and his government ever done but build cynicism and bad faith and shut down every avenue at a peaceful solution? And then when every peaceful avenue is cynically and smugly frustrated you act all shocked, just shocked, that a few extremists come out of the closet!

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Ben

          I live here. I don’t need the author to tell me how many campuses and which kinds of campuses it is happening at.

          Second I don’t buy your latent racist theory. I think racism is learned and cultivated. Behavior changes belief. So no, I’d disagree that there is just more free expression of underlying racism, there is simply more racism.

          As for the Israeli stuff. This article is about America not Israel. Israeli anti-Arab racism and American anti-Arab racism (to what extend I’d even say it exists as a racism) are rather distinct. I’d say that Israeli anti-Palestinian sentiment is a lot more like American anti-black sentiment than American anti-Islamic sentiment.

          Netanyahu from the 1990s expressed serious reservations about the 2SS. He was strong armed by the world community repeatedly. But I’d say his policies have reflected his stated opinions. Netanyahu OTOH has completely lacked putting forward an alternative vision in detail. And that is a major failing. In general I have high regard for Israeli politicians, but he is not one of your better leaders. As far as actions towards peace, he’s been I think the most peaceful PM you’ve ever had. No wars with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon… during his tenure.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Sorry. Racism is both innate and learned. Human, all too human. That’s why we need political liberalism that we make an effort at, that we practice and defend. We are not “good” by nature. By “latent” I did not mean something that is not learned and cultivated. On the contrary. Or I would not have used the several words that I did. These things are never simply nature or nurture. There is a complex combination of evolved and ancient impulses, of living temperaments and personalities, of societies, learning, and finally of license given and encouraged by leaders. That’s why demagogues do what they do. They bring out potentials in fallible individuals and complicated cultures, and that potential is then magnified by the power of crowds, of the mob.

            “I’d say that Israeli anti-Palestinian sentiment is a lot more like American anti-black sentiment than American anti-Islamic sentiment.”

            I’d say it is like none of these. To blithely compare them as you do is to obscure, to dismiss, to reduce, to slip a veneer of pseudo-comparability over the matter. In my view it is yet more of your signature shallow analogy-making tendency at work.

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        And for that matter, extremists like yourself, who finally dropped the lawyerly façade and admitted here what you’re really about: 18th Century-style brutal occupation and colonization. “Yeah, pretty much” was your smug acknowledgement of that proposition. But you reserve the right to lecture the rest of us about “the horror” of racist extremism? Yeah? Pretty much? You, who sit in a comfortable American locale and fret about anti-Semitism when it suits you but fret not at all about this?:
        https://972mag.com/the-bedouin-village-where-compassion-ends/130063/

        The mind boggles, JeffB.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Ben

          Have you ever heard of Histrionic Personality Disorder? I’m a strong anti-racist. I’d like the Palestinians to be full Israelis as you know. They are welcome to be part of the state of Israel. They are not welcome to create an Arab Muslim state in its place. That’s not racism.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Histrionic Personality Disorder.” See, that’s perfect. Principled objection to injustice as a kind of character flaw. You would say that wouldn’t you? You expose yourself. Encapsulated in that is every Israeli right winger’s attempt to dismiss the principled objectors in their midst, and every attempt by you to dismiss the issues at hand. “Histrionic” implies a characteristic shallow theatricality and I assure you I do no such thing; the record will show that I am reacting in non-shallow annoyance to you alone (I find you uniquely annoying), to your coldness, to the blitheness, the shallowness!, to the insouciance with which you treat other people’s lives when you blithely say “yeah, pretty much” to their brutal oppression and colonization. To disdain passionate and principled objection as “histrionics” is in fact a sign of your coldness and removal from reality. Spoken like someone who apparently has no trouble being cold and heartless about people at least when they are not his in-group. What you are dismissing as Israeli “racism” is not simply a matter of discrimination at job opportunities or housing, a matter of social attitudes, an incrementally reformable social ailment, it is on-the-ground organized crime, brutal oppression, ethnicity-based, the suppression and imprisonment of an entire people. This cavalier reduction of the occupation and the heartless dispossession of the Palestinians and Israeli Arab citizens (e.g., of Khan al-Ahmar) to American style racism is quite typical of you. There is a blithe, dry and at the same time quite slippery quality to the way you engage these matters. This is as good an example as any, of which there are many.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            The record shows your histrionics towards many other posters. You have the ability to control yourself but enjoy losing yourself in strings of badly thought out emoting. Passion in discussion is not a virtue but a vice.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            More fake news courtesy of JeffB. (About on a par with Trump’s comments about Bob Corker today if you ask me.) Methinks your internal definition of “histrionic” is anything less cold and dry than an insurance law brief or a toaster oven instruction manual, JeffB. Again, I gather you find being squarely confronted quite difficult.

            Reply to Comment
          • Carmen

            “Histrionic Personality Disorder.” See, that’s perfect. Principled objection to injustice as a kind of character flaw. You would say that wouldn’t you? You expose yourself.”

            He does it everywhere Ben. He’s always on top of the posts on Mondoweiss; not because it’s any good mind you; he just likes to twist every article from the top and then, like a metastatic disease, clogs up the comment sections with his bullshit. He’s the most-posted zionist apologist whiner on Mondoweiss. And he’s given lots of room for this rambling, monotonous tripe. He exposed himself from his first post. He’s a ‘liberal’ zionist who is actually a right-wing zionist pretending to be ‘liberal’, which, by his superfluous posts and logorrhea, prove time and time again he’s a run of the mill racist prick. And there’s no such thing as a ‘liberal’ zionist. It’s a fantasy term used by assholes like JeffBee to hide behind, thinking ‘liberal’ makes them less horrible. Sorry Jeffbee – you fool no one but yourself, ya fool.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “They are not welcome to create an Arab Muslim state in its place.”

            In fact they are not welcome by Israelis to create anything, JeffB and then you whine about what they might create in place of what you won’t let them create. And as if it were up to you to direct their self-determination, like children should be directed. Israel has offered then no 2SS and no 1SS and no anything except bantustans, except crumbs.

            In fact, “In Israel’s Eyes, No Palestinian Struggle Is Legitimate.”
            read more: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.815896

            To characterize Netanyahu as someone engaging in “actions toward peace” is remarkably blithe. Netanyahu is engaged in maintaining the status quo of a creeping annexation and the status quo of Netanyahu in power. It is Orwellian to call that “actions towards peace.”

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            Reread the comment about Netanyahu. It was about his policies of peace with Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan as contrasted with the Palestinian situation. Specifically and explicitly.

            Reply to Comment
        • Tom S

          Funny, I thought the Bedouins are nomadic. You weep out loud for the Arabs who lose land in the “west bank”, but I’m guessing you have nothing to say about the many thousands of Jews whose land and property was stolen by Arabs in 1948 when the Jordanian army swept through Judea and Samaria (that’s right, JEW-DAY-UH) and exiled them from the land they lived on for thousands of years and renamed the area the “west bank”. Correct?

          Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            Nope, Bedouins are not always nomadic, funny you don’t have such basic knowledge …. And concerning the “many thousands of Jews whose land and property were stolen by Arabs in 1948 (….) [in] Judah and Samaria and were exiled from the land they lived on for thousand of years”, do you have a serious source ? I’m saying that because according to the Partition Plan, only 10.000 Jews were living in what was supposed to be the Arab State (and the West Bank actually covers less), and most were recent immigrants (like the inhabitants in Gush Etzion), other came after the Reconquista like most Jews in Hebron. Actually, according the Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola, only 3.000 Jews lived in all of Palestine in the 15th century, and most in Jerisalem.
            Looking forward to you exposing a revolutionary discovery on the topic …

            Reply to Comment
    2. nikihanna baptiste

      Very important article!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Carmen

      So some Jewish students feel unsafe on college campuses? Nu? Whining ass babies, some of the most self-absorbed, coddled, spoiled rotten folks on God’s green earth. You shame your grandparents and great-grandparents with your demands and your sense of entitlement. Always the victim, right? Your support of an apartheid state is your problem babies. You want to know what feeling unsafe really feels like? Try being hispanic-american on a college campus. Try being african american on a college campus. And most of all, try being a muslim american on a college campus.

      Reply to Comment
      • Tom S

        To be clear, when you say “apaertheid” are you referring to Israeli Arabs, the Arabs in Gaza or the Arabs in Judea/Samaria (the “west bank”)?

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          @Tom S
          It’s an artificial distinction that you make. Yes there are glaring differences in the legal status accorded Arab persons who are Israeli citizens and Arab persons who are inhabitants of the occupied territories. And glaring miscarriages of justice derive from those differences. But those legal status differences are mere symptoms of a larger disorder. The entity comprising Israel and the territories it occupies has become one politico-legal-military entity What Israel does is deviously work both sides of this equation. When it suits it, Israel treats the green line and other separation lines it draws as something quite real, but when it suits it Israel completely ignores and in fact works day and night to erase these lines for all practical purposes. All of this working both sides of the equation, or eating one’s cake and having it too, inside what is basically one entity, is based on whether the particular humans concerned are Arab or Jewish. That’s apartheid.*

          *That is, an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one ethnic group over another ethnic group with the intention of maintaining that regime. Law is one tool of that regime, but only one. But the point is, Israel and the territories is occupies are in reality one seamless entity and boycotting “the territories” without boycotting Israel (to put pressure on it, not “destroy” it) makes no sense.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      @Carmen:
      Thank you for illuminating for me just who this character is. Your phrasing is apt: » “he just likes to twist every article from the top and then, like a metastatic disease, clogs up the comment sections with his bullshit… rambling, monotonous tripe…. a ‘liberal’ zionist who is actually a right-wing zionist pretending to be ‘liberal’…«

      Reply to Comment
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