43% of Jewish US university students experienced, witnessed antisemitism - study

Hostility to Israel is prevalent on campus, with some students ‘ostracized, harassed,’ or even excluded from college clubs for expressed support for Israel.

Students at Columbia University hold a "die-in" demonstration (photo credit: ACF)
Students at Columbia University hold a "die-in" demonstration
(photo credit: ACF)

Some 43% of Jewish students in American colleges and universities have personally experienced antisemitism or witnessed antisemitic activity on campus that was not directed at them, according to a new study conducted for the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International.

The report found that 15% of Jewish students felt the need to hide their Jewish identity on campus, while many of the respondents witnessed swastikas daubed around campus, including on the doors of Jewish students’ accommodations, on Jewish fraternities, sororities and cultural buildings, and in one case on the notes of a Jewish student.

Concern that being Jewish might be interpreted as supporting the Israeli government was prevalent, with significant percentages of respondents citing this as an issue during their campus lives.

Although 70% of Jewish students said they felt safe on campus, the ADL-Hillel International study found antisemitism was still “a looming and present threat for Jewish college students” and that more needs to be done by university administrations in condemning antisemitic incidents and in staff training, as well as supporting Jewish life on campus.

“This survey makes clear that antisemitism and hate are of growing concern for Jewish college students and merits the serious attention of university leaders across the country,” said Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International.

Demonstrators take part in an antisemitism protest outside the Labour Party headquarters in central London, Britain April 8, 2018 (credit: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON)Demonstrators take part in an antisemitism protest outside the Labour Party headquarters in central London, Britain April 8, 2018 (credit: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON)

ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt observed that “Jewish students are facing more antisemitism and hate on college campuses than we previously thought,” and said Jewish students must be “empowered to express their Jewish values and their whole selves when they are in the classroom, residence halls and throughout campus life.”

The survey was conducted by College Pulse from July 7 to August 21, 2021, and included 756 self-identified Jewish undergraduate students who are currently enrolled in 270 different four-year colleges and universities across the US, with a reported margin of error of 4%.

According to the study, 32% of Jewish students have personally experienced antisemitism, while 31% witnessed antisemitic activity on campus which was not directed at them personally.

The most common forms of antisemitism mentioned by those who said were offensive comments or slurs online, some 19%, along with offensive comments or slurs in person which comprised 13% of antisemitic incidents experienced by respondents, while 9% of antisemitic incidents were offensive comments or slurs in campus media, 8% were incidents of antisemitic vandalism, 1% physical attacks, and 1% threats of physical attack.

Additionally, in the last year, 31% of Jewish students witnessed antisemitic activity on campus that was not directed at them, most commonly witnessing antisemitism in symbols, logos and posters on campus, observed by 18% of respondents.

Many of the respondents recalled swastikas being drawn around campus and the vandalism of Jewish fraternities, sororities, and cultural buildings, while one student said a mezuzah was stolen off a Jewish student’s dorm room door.

“I’ve had swastikas drawn on my notes, been called a ‘kike’ downtown... while I was wearing my hamsa. I’ve seen an increase in people making judgments about me for being Jewish due to the current political climate with Palestine,” said one student.

“People keep tying Jews that have nothing to do with the conflict to the Israeli government. Anytime it is mentioned that I am Jewish to someone who doesn’t know that already, the topic of Palestine is brought up, which is intrinsically antisemitic,” the student added.

TAKEN TOGETHER, 43% of Jewish college students experienced or witnessed antisemitic activity in the last year, or both experienced and witnessed such incidents.

Most Jewish students did not, however, report antisemitic incidents they experienced, neither to communal organizations, campus authorities or the police.

Fully three-quarters of respondents who personally experienced antisemitism did not report it to anyone, the study found.

Reporting is higher for physical violence and threats of violence, yet fully 37% of students reported property damage, defacement, and vandalism.

Of the 12% of students who reported incidents to campus employees, 33% felt they were not taken seriously.

At the same time, knowledge of how to report antisemitic incidents was also low, with 41% of all student respondents saying they did not know how to report an antisemitic incident when it occurs.

In terms of campus climate, Seven out of 10 students reported feeling safe on campus as a Jew, while 67% agreed their campus was welcoming and supportive of Jewish students.

But for those students who had experienced antisemitism those numbers were lower, with just 51% agreeing that they felt safe, and 50% agreeing that their campus was welcoming and supportive.

Concerns regarding association with Israel were also prevalent.

“The anti-Israel sentiment is very strong... and it often manifests as antisemitism,” said another student.

“In the 2019/2020 school year (pre-COVID) our Hillel was repeatedly vandalized, and even though the administration knew about it, we had to fight with them for months before they took action.”

The study found that some 24% of respondents said that others on campus has assumed they held certain views on Israel and Israeli policy because they were Jewish; 15% said they felt they needed to hide their Jewish identity on campus, either by not mentioning they were Jewish or refraining from wearing Jewish symbols or apparel; and 12% said they had been blamed for the actions of the Israeli government because they were Jewish.

Another 10% said they felt unwelcome in a campus organization because of their perceived support for Israel, and 6% said they felt unwelcome in a campus organization because they were Jewish.

Some 4% of students said they had even been asked or told to leave a student organization either because they were Jewish or because of their actual or perceived support for Israel as a Jew.

“Expressing support for the Jewish community or Israel is immediately met with ostracizing and harassment to the point of not being able to talk about it in class,” said another student.

One student said they recalled being harassed and essentially banned from liberal clubs that they had previously been welcome in after openly supporting Israel.

Many students also said they want more action to be taken in response to antisemitic activity on their campuses, with many respondents noting that they felt antisemitic incidents were not acknowledged by their universities and in many cases are not even investigated.

One notable finding in terms of resilience to antisemitism showed that students who participated in at least some Jewish activities on campus felt safer than those who did not.

The study found that 74% of students who participated in Jewish activities reported feeling safe on campus as a Jew, compared to 65% of students who did not participate in Jewish activities.

This finding comes despite the fact that students who participated in Jewish activities were more likely to experience antisemitic incidents and behaviors.