Survey: 1/3 of Jewish students experienced anti-Semitism in last year

Hillel, ALD survey finds Jewish college students experienced large amount of anti-Semitism during the coronavirus pandemic.

Philissa Cramer/JTA ,

campus anti-Semitism
campus anti-Semitism

A third of Jewish college students say they have personally experienced anti-Semitism in the last year, according to a new survey conducted jointly by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League.

The two groups recently announced a partnership aimed at combating anti-Semitism on college campuses; the survey represents one of the first fruits of the relationship.

The results add data and texture to the picture of Jewish life on campus that has been built in recent years in large part on anecdotes and firestorms. They suggest that the majority of Jewish students at American colleges feel safe and supported on campus — but that a significant minority have experienced anti-Semitism or obscured their Jewish identity out of fear of anti-Semitism.

The survey offers a “strong validation of the reality that Jewish students are facing, which is a significant and unacceptable level of anti-Semitism and other anti-Jewish bias,” Hillel International CEO Adam Lehman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Fifteen percent of students who responded to the survey said they had “felt the need to hide” their Jewish identity and 6% said they had felt unwelcome in a campus organization because they were Jewish.

Often, the survey found, students reported being or feeling excluded because of their actual or perceived support for Israel. Conducted online in July and August, the survey captured sentiment shortly after the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in May contributed to a spike in pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses and beyond.

The survey included 756 self-identified Jewish college students on 220 campuses and had a margin of error of 4%. It drew from a national sample of college students, meaning that students surveyed were not all engaged with Hillel or other aspects of Jewish life on their campuses. Those that did engage with activities were more likely to say they have experienced anti-Semitism, the survey found, but they were also more likely to report feeling safe on campus as Jews.

Hillel has made one key finding — that while 80% of Jewish students say they are proud to be Jewish, only 62% of them say they are comfortable telling people about that pride — the centerpiece of a social media campaign that launched earlier this month. The #OwnYourStar campaign has been seen more than 1 million times since it began, according to Lehman.

In many of the posts associated with the campaign, Hillel professionals, student leaders and their supporters have been sharing their campus experiences. One wrote this week about her fear upon seeing a Star of David etched into a bulletin board and not knowing the intention of the person who left it there. The director of Hillel at Miami University in Cincinnati, Ohio wrote, “Our students are constantly being asked where their horns are (don’t have any!), why they killed Palestinian babies (they don’t), or have their mezuzah dropped from their dorm doors.”

Lehman said Hillel’s student cabinet, a group of 22 Jewish student leaders from campuses around the world, had made a conscious decision to make combating anti-Semitism the focus of their social media advocacy.

“We know we cannot simply bury our heads in the sand in the face of rising anti-Semitism and hope it will disappear,” he said. “We feel a responsibility to take these issues on.”

The Hillel-ADL findings dovetail with another major report about anti-Semitism in the United States released this week. The American Jewish Committee’s annual anti-Semitism study found that 20% of American Jews said that over the last five years, they or someone they personally knew had experienced anti-Semitism on a college campus.

They also dovetail with a slew of reports about challenging conditions at individual campuses. Some of those reports have emerged through Jewish on Campus, an Instagram account that launched last year to let students share anonymous stories about anti-Semitism and has quickly become emblematic of efforts to combat anti-Semitism taking place outside of the traditional infrastructure of Jewish life on campus.

Hillel and the ADL say the survey’s findings point to a number of steps that colleges and universities should take, including incorporating instruction about anti-Semitism into any diversity training that students and faculty receive and making it easier for students to report anti-Semitism that they experience. The vast majority of students experiencing anti-Semitism said they did not report it, and 40% of those who did report incidents to campus staff said they felt their reports were not taken seriously.

Lehman said the formal reporting structure that Hillel is establishing with the ADL, which has for years chronicled anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, is an important step.

“The more venues for students to report the better, particularly given the content of massive underreporting,” Lehman said. But he added, “The more that we can have students doing reporting through official channels, the better because then we end up with a clear ability to track issues and incidents over time and a more simplified and credible set of data to take to our administration partners.”