A disturbing study released this week suggests that more than half of today’s American-Jewish college students “have witnessed or experienced an anti-Semitic incident.”
According to the Louis D. Brandeis Center and Trinity College, the 54 percent of students who experienced anti-Semitism were relatively consistent across gender, religious outlook, and geographical region. What’s more, the survey was conducted in the spring of 2014, prior to the outbreak of last summer’s hostilities in Gaza.
Unfortunately, the survey wasn’t able to probe the nature or context of these incidents — to what degree they represented classic anti-Semitic tropes or reflected anti-Israel activism on campus or the degree, severity, or targets of the incidents described. Regardless, the extent to which students felt hostility or intimidation surprised researchers. And other news reports show that in the heated climate of the Middle East debate, the boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism are all too easily erased — with Jewish students singled out for ridicule for their presumed pro-Israel views, or fair debate shut down by harsh and unacceptable language or physical intimidation.
Some responses to campus “anti-Semitism,” however, go too far in the other direction, trying to shut down criticism of Israel in the guise of combatting intolerance. In defending Jewish students, too many groups come off as enemies of free speech.
The Brandeis/Trinity study aims to avoid this trap by offering a number of concrete suggestions. University administrators must respond more seriously to reported incidents. Jewish institutions must “build a sense of Jewish college student pride to compensate for the pressure that campus anti-Semitism is placing on campus Jewish identity.” And officials need to agree on a standard definition of anti-Semitism.
As the study’s authors acknowledge, more research needs to be done into the extent of campus anti-Semitism. But one conclusion is already obvious: No student deserves to feel threatened or intimidated on the basis of his or her religious identity.