The media has been filled with articles about the situation on American campuses. Most of these highlight anti-Semitic activities and the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign, and some have argued that it is actually unsafe for Jewish students on American college campuses.
Let me say upfront that by putting the data in context I am in no way suggesting we don’t have problems on campus. We do. But are the campuses on fire with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity as many activists claim? Let’s put down our hoses for a moment and examine what is – and is not – going on at America’s universities.
The good news is that the Jewish community has responded with alacrity to campus concerns because of hysteria generated by newspaper headlines and genuinely troubling incidents. Students have benefitted because they now have unprecedented access to information, training, guidance and programs in Israel. I won’t mention all the organizations that do great work on campus because I’ll get an earful from any I inadvertently leave out. Suffice to say, students today have more resources and support than ever before.
One piece of bad news was the recently published survey that reported that 54% of Jewish students had experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year. This shocking figure naturally set off alarm bells in the fire house, but are the campuses really rife with anti-Semitism?
Other data suggests the answer is no. The Forward recently reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses in three of the last four years is “the lowest it’s been since the ADL started keeping track in 1999.” The survey, the Forward also noted, was only a snapshot in time, wasn’t a representative sample of Jewish college students and allowed students to define anti-Semitism. When students say they have witnessed anti-Semitism, for example, does that mean that they saw or heard about a swastika painted somewhere on campus? Is that a serious indication that a campus has a hostile environment for Jews?
I’ve always been leery of statistics on anti-Semitism because they treat incidents such as name calling and vandalism equally with acts of violence. Being called a “dirty Jew” or having a swastika painted on the campus Hillel is certainly unpleasant, inexcusable behavior, which should not be tolerated by university administrators, but it is very rarely dangerous. In fact, to my knowledge there has only been one assault on a Jewish student this entire school year. Still, as I’ve written before, Jewish students today seem more easily intimidated or frightened.
If we look more closely at the statistics the overall campus picture becomes clearer. ADL counted 47 anti-Semitic incidents on campus in 2014. That means that out of the roughly 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States, on average, incidents occurred on 2% of the campuses. Since more than one incident sometimes occurs on a single campus, the actual number effected is tiny, leaving 98% or more unaffected. Moreover, many incidents involve drawing swastikas, which may be acts of vandalism rather than anti-Semitism. Now if the swastikas appeared in many places or there were violent assaults against Jews on those campuses, it would be a serious matter indeed. It is rare, however, for a swastika to have any impact beyond causing anxiety and the inconvenience of removing it.
To put the campus environment in a broader perspective, the FBI counted 836 victims of anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2012 (the latest data) out of roughly 6 million American Jews (0.01%). Of those Jewish victims, 10% were assaults. One anti-Semitic incident is too many, but both the campus and national statistics suggest anti-Semitism is not widespread.
A more dubious analysis of the state of the campus is to count the incidents to create a list of the “most anti-Semitic campuses.” For two years, AICE also kept statistics on the number of anti-Israel incidents on campus, but we were very careful to say that the data did not automatically translate to the campuses with the most incidents being either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. A collection of negative events rarely reflect the campus culture. This is why a recently published list of “the most anti-Semitic campuses” should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Compiling this type of list can be useful if it puts pressure on universities to change the way they react to incidents affecting Jews on campus. Sadly, it often takes donors threatening to withdraw support, declining Jewish applications or bad publicity to motivate administrators to act. Jews will remain targets so long as administrators refuse to treat them with the same zero-tolerance policy they have for attacks on women and other minorities.
Meanwhile, all the attention directed at problematic campuses has obscured the positive activities of pro-Israel students on other campuses, such as the University of New Orleans, where students have turned the tables on the Israel deniers and are promoting divestment from the corrupt, terror-supporting Palestinian Authority, and the University of Georgia, where the student government adopted a resolution calling for more investment in Israel.
Focus on the negative has also ignored some of the dramatic changes at several universities. San Francisco State, which is unjustly on the most anti-Semitic list, is nothing like it used to be when, for example, in 2002 a mob surrounded and threatened group of Jewish students who had attended a peace rally. Today, SFSU has a chair in Israel Studies and a much more supportive atmosphere for Jewish students.
I was pleasantly surprised that Berkeley was not on the list because it has long been ground zero for anti-Israel activity, but it too is in the process of a revolutionary transformation facilitated by the program in Israel Studies established just a few years ago.
UC Irvine is another school that has turned around after becoming infamous as the only university where the Israeli Ambassador was shouted down and a host of other anti-Israel incidents. Today, AICE has a visiting Israeli professor at Irvine, our first Israeli Arab visitor, who is doing a tremendous job and, along with his predecessors, has helped make the university a comfortable place again for Jewish students.
What about the BDS movement that many people fear is sweeping the nation? I’ll address that issue next week in part two.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews.
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