Facts vs. Hysteria: The Truth About Campus Antisemitism
Earlier this year, the AMCHA Initiative produced a study about campus antisemitism that provoked hysterical headlines and articles about skyrocketing antisemitism at US universities. A closer look at their data, however, indicates that this was not the proper conclusion of their study. Several other organizations have also published reports recently about the situation on campus. The picture that all these studies paint is at odds with the conventional wisdom in Israel and in the Jewish community that American college campuses are on fire.
The AMCHA report created a stir when it feverishly reported an “Alarming spike in campus antisemitism during 1st half of 2016.” This conclusion was based on what the group said was a 45% increase from the number of incidents reported in the first six months of 2015. A careful look at the report, however, tells a different story.
AMCHA counted 287 incidents of antisemitic activity from January to June 2016 at 113 schools with the largest Jewish student populations. The figures in their report did not add up, however, as they listed 69 cases of “targeting Jewish students,” 194 of “antisemitic expression” and 131 of “BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] activity,” which would be a total of 394 incidents. If this total is correct, each campus had, on average, more than three incidents.
The AMCHA data is both better and worse than reported. It is better because AMCHA’s director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told me that only 64 campuses had any incidents, which means that 44% of the schools with the most Jewish students had no occurrences. It is worse because that would mean that each of the affected campuses had an average of six incidents.
AMCHA would not release the data used to calculate its results, so its research is difficult to evaluate. Rossman-Benjamin said that all of the information is on its website, so I examined the compilation and discovered that its report was misleading.
My analysis looked at the 68 schools that have the most Jewish students. I used different categorizations, which I believe are more accurate than AMCHA’s. Here are the data:
University-sponsored Events: 19
Guerilla theater (walls, die-ins): 25
Articles/statements/FB posts: 65
Vandalism (swastikas, flyers): 51
Threats/harassment/eviction notices: 11
Divestment/boycott resolutions/petitions: 20
Physical attacks: 0
According to this analysis, 333 events (excluding university-sponsored events, because those overlap with speeches/conferences) were recorded for the entire 2015-2016 academic year, as opposed to the 394 AMCHA counted during the winter/spring of 2016. What I would consider the most serious acts — harassment and threats — are rare. AMCHA recorded only 11 cases (3%) and, consistent with ADL data, there was not a single instance of a Jewish student being physically attacked.
More than one-third of the events were lectures, most of which are echo chambers attended by the like-minded. In the 2011 survey of students conducted by The Israel Project and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, we found:
- Only 13% of all students are aware of groups critical of Israel, compared to 43% of Jews. The overwhelming majority of students pay no attention to anti-Israel groups, but Jews are hypersensitive to them, which suggests that Jews’ fears of their peers turning against Israel are overblown.
- Of those students who were aware of anti-Israel groups, only 14% (17% of Jews) attended an event.
- A majority (54%) of Jews who attended anti-Israel events said that they were more supportive of Israel after the event and 46% were less supportive of the Palestinians.
- The impact on non-Jews attending events was different — 24% said they were less supportive of Israel; only 14% said they were more supportive, while 61% said it made no difference. Depending on the attendance, then, a lecture with 30 people might adversely change the opinions of seven students, whereas a hall filled with 500 students (a much rarer event), might convert 120 students. This also assumes as many as 120 students went to the lecture without prior opinions about Israel.
- Nearly as many students said an anti-Israel event made them less supportive of the Palestinians (25%) as said they became more supportive (27%). This is a reminder that the mere existence of an anti-Israel event does not mean students will all accept the sponsors’ narrative.
The second most prevalent category in the AMCHA study was student newspaper articles, statements by anti-Israel groups and Facebook posts. Articles in the student newspaper or statements are not necessarily indications of the environment on campus or BDS activity. Op-eds are standard fare and simply writing something pro-Palestinian or virulently anti-Israel isn’t automatically an indication of campus antisemitism. As one Hillel director put it, “People on campus pretty much take it in stride that SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] is going to write anti-Israel pieces now and then.”
Those concerned with the anti-Israel activity on campus also ignore the response of the pro-Israel community. Students do respond to hostile op-eds and are often proactive in writing pro-Israel editorials. The one-sided reporting, however, reflects a glaring omission in many analyses of the campus. By focusing solely on anti-Israel activity, groups such as AMCHA distort the campus picture by ignoring pro-Israel activity, which dwarfs that of Israel’s detractors. Thus, for example, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) identified 1,437 anti-Israel events compared with 3,886 pro-Israel activities (they looked at schools nationwide, not just those with large Jewish student populations) during the last academic year. In contrast to AMCHA’s conclusions, the ICC found a dramatic 12% decrease in anti-Israel activity and a 3.5% increase in pro-Israel activity.
Campus monitors also underestimate the intelligence of students. True, most are ignorant about Middle East issues, but those at the top schools usually can recognize BS and propaganda when they see it. For example, an SJP member wrote in a student newspaper about Israel being a “racist, colonialist oppressor.” When a Hillel director showed the article to one student who was not especially active in Jewish or Israel activity on campus, the student read the first paragraph and said, “Rabbi, do you really think anybody reads that s**t? Look at that language. You can see right away it’s just a rant.”
Leaping to Antisemitism Conclusions
Some people, notably David Horowitz, are quick to make the leap from a particular incident to a conclusion that a campus is infected by antisemitism. The AMCHA list, for example, counted as individual incidents 10 different SJP endorsements of an advertisement for an off-campus rally that contained antisemitic tropes. The members of these SJP chapters may indeed agree with the tropes, but they also may have simply supported holding the rally. Either way, their behavior does not translate to the conclusion that antisemitism is a problem on the campuses they represent.
Although AMCHA included instances of Facebook posts it regarded as antisemitic, I suspect they severely underestimated social media activity. We know that social media has become rife with antisemitism, but when it comes to student Facebook pages, the main audience is the like-minded. Thus, while members of SJP may have egregious posts on their pages, the general student body, including Jews, don’t see them. In fact, most of these are closed groups — so only their fellow travelers can see or post on their timelines. If one looks for antisemitic material on social media, it is not difficult to find, but only a small fraction is campus-based.
Some of the “incidents” should not be counted at all. For example, AMCHA included some advertisements for meetings of SJP if they mentioned BDS. These are directed at members of the organization, not at the campus. Yes, SJP promotes BDS, but Jewish students are not traumatized every time the group announces a meeting. There is also a certain amount of double counting in the list of incidents, for example, when a petition for divestment and a vote on it are counted as two separate cases. Furthermore, many incidents may be upsetting, but have little or no impact, such as calls for boycotts that don’t happen.
All criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. Thus, while some guerrilla theater meant to highlight Israel’s alleged abuses may be disturbing, it is not de facto antisemitic. Swastikas painted on campus are often presented as the clearest examples of antisemitism, but they may be simple vandalism. Since the perpetrators are rarely caught, we don’t know their motivations. Are they antisemites or just miscreants who get their kicks by defacing property?
Reports of many campus incidents also fail to follow up when facts are uncovered. For example, a number of sources, including AMCHA, cited swastikas at Tufts as evidence of antisemitism on the campus. It turned out, however, not to be a case of antisemitism at all. The swastika was drawn incorrectly (the “legs” went the wrong way) and the vandal also drew a smiley face in the same paint a short distance away. The Tufts and Medford police caught the high school student responsible and discovered that he had no idea what a swastika meant beyond something negative. This was not an anti-Israel incident; nevertheless, the university condemned the graffiti.
Many of the incidents, such as swastikas, are also one-offs; that is, they happen once during the entire school year. Does a single swastika really indicate a “hostile environment” for Jewish students? Even events such as Israel hate weeks (which were less frequent in 2015-16 according to the ICC) are just that — one week out of 36.
AMCHA claimed the major finding of its analysis was the relationship between BDS/anti-Zionism and anti-Jewish hostility. This should not be surprising; in fact, it’s tautological. If there is an anti-Israel group such as SJP on campus spouting antisemitism, it stands to reason that students would sense anti-Jewish hostility.
SJP has become a bogeyman for all of us concerned about the campus. It is indeed a nefarious group responsible for most anti-Israel activity on campuses today, but let’s not confuse the noise that a handful of nudniks make with the views of the student body or the climate on campus. Campuses with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of students, typically have no more than one or two dozen SJP activists. Their voices have been magnified by their success in building coalitions and convincing the handful of students who sit on student government boards to consider divestment petitions. They’ve been given even greater publicity and credence, however, by pro-Israel organizations and Israelis who inflate their influence and portray the groups as a plague on the Nation’s campuses as opposed to the roughly two or three dozen schools (mostly confined to California) where they have created problems.
For those who may not have read my earlier analysis (“#BDSFail on Campus Part 1,” Jerusalem Post, July 13, 2016), it is important to remember the divestment campaign has failed completely. The number of divestment resolutions shrunk last year and most were defeated. Not a single university has or will divest from companies doing business with Israel.
A study by the ICC argued that the biggest change on campus this past year was a growing trend toward stifling pro-Israel speech. There were a number of protests and demonstrations (a total of 39 by my count on AMCHA’s list), which is troubling, but it is hardly an epidemic. Moreover, this would be less of a problem if organizers of events did a better job preparing for protests and if universities enforced their own rules to protect the rights of the speakers and listeners.
One misconception that the AMCHA data should put to rest (if it hadn’t been ignored by the media) is that Israeli officials are regularly shouted down on college campuses. Many people still talk about the time that Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UC Irvine was disrupted in 2010 as if it were an everyday occurrence. Actually, Oren spoke at many campuses around the country during his tenure and UCI was the only time he encountered this problem. AMCHA listed only two cases last year where Israeli officials’ speeches were disrupted — Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State and UN Ambassador Danny Danon at Florida International.
To assess whether antisemitism is becoming more widespread, it is necessary to have trend data. The ADL has tracked campus activity for many years. The latest data is for 2015 (the calendar year rather than academic year), which indicated that a total of 90 incidents were reported on 60 college campuses (less than 3% of four-year schools) in 2015, compared with 47 incidents on 43 campuses in 2014. Even with the increase, ADL’s figures are a fraction of those compiled by AMCHA. Also, the ADL web site lists only nine examples, five are swastikas. Only one of the examples involved a student directly confronted by antisemites (a Jewish Rutgers University student wearing a yarmulke told by two other students on campus, “Yeah, I’d wear a yarmulke too…If I wanted to burn in Auschwitz!”).
The ADL data can also be interpreted in a misleading way. AMCHA reported a dramatic 45% increase in antisemitic activity when comparing January-June 2016 with the same period for 2015; ADL’s data shows an even more disturbing 91% increase from 2014 to 2015. If these are the only years you look at, the situation appears to be getting much worse. The ADL, however, has data going back to 1999. From that first data point until today, there is no consistent trend — the number of incidents goes up and down throughout the period. The number recorded in 2015 is less than the figures for 2002 (a record 106 incidents) 2005 and 2007. From 2007 on, the numbers are 94, 22, 61, 37, 47 and 90 respectively. You can see how different conclusions can be reached depending on your starting point. The numbers have gone up the last four years, but they were significantly lower in the first four years after 2007.
In its report on the last academic year, the ICC also jumped to conclusions that may not reflect actual trends. They noted a decline, for example, in divestment resolutions and Israel hate weeks, which was a welcome development. I think this reflects the failure of the BDS movement, but we will have to see if it was a blip or a trend. Similarly, the ICC’s findings that disruptive activities increased, that detractors were more active in coalition building (e.g., with Black Lives Matter) and that Chicago became a hub of BDS may be less consequential. Black Lives Matter was a major issue last year but is not likely to continue to be one in the long run. Chicago’s role in BDS may also be a function of those active on area campuses last year, and when they graduate the situation may change.
All Campus Incidents Were Not Created Equal
A serious flaw in the AMCHA, ICC and ADL methodology (as well as just about every organization that counts antisemitism cases) is that they treat all “incidents” equally. For example, one person holding up a sign accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing” is treated the same as someone disrupting a speaker or an anti-Israel conference; a swastika painted on a door is considered comparable to a divestment resolution. Furthermore, the bean counting approach does not measure the impact of any of the incidents.
Just to give one recent example, the Michigan State newspaper had this headline on November 17, 2016: “Palestinian student group protests Israeli cultural event on campus.” The mighty SJP was angry about the annual Israel Fest event celebrating Israeli culture sponsored by MSU Hillel and the Associated Students of Michigan State University. The paper reported that the Israel Fest attendees seemed unfazed. “It kind of happens every year,” chair of Team Israel Programming Committee Jessica Sherbin said. More telling was the accompanying photo that showed the anti-Israel protest consisted of five students. It is also worth remembering that most of the anti-Israel activities are not new. Israel’s detractors did not discover coalition building, guerilla theater or speaker intimidation last year.
The latest study comes from researchers at Brandeis, who made a critical, but often ignored distinction regarding the idiosyncrasy of campuses. The study correctly noted that many schools have little or no hostility toward Israel and that students do not believe the environment is hostile to Jews. They understate the case because they only surveyed 50 campuses. Based on my analysis, roughly 97% of campuses have no anti-Israel activity whatsoever. As the authors note, there are a handful of “hotspots” such as the University of California system, where students perceive a hostile environment toward Jews and Israel.
Like AMCHA, the Brandeis study found a connection between the presence of SJP on campus and hostility toward Israel. This is hardly surprising. If there is no anti-Israel group on campus, there is no reason to expect a hostile environment. It’s a little like Inspector Renault in Casablanca being shocked to discover that there is gambling in Rick’s café.
The Brandeis report also confirmed several of the findings of the 2011 TIP/AICE survey of Jewish college students. As in that survey, Brandeis researchers found that anti-Israel activity on campus did not diminish Jewish students’ connection to Israel. It was also not surprising that the more active Jewish students are the ones most likely to perceive a hostile campus environment. Like pro-Israel media monitors, these students are especially attuned to any slights they detect against Israel.
It is also unremarkable to learn that students are uncomfortable expressing their opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most students, and Jews are no exception, eschew confrontations. Furthermore, we know that most Jewish students are ill-prepared emotionally, or in terms of their knowledge of the issues, to express opinions on Israel or to challenge critics inside or outside the classroom. By definition, activists, such as members of SJP or JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace) are interested in verbal combat. While many of these students are also ill-informed, they substitute vociferousness for knowledge. Jewish students are also at a disadvantage when confronted by “authorities,” such as professors, or Arab students who can claim (factually or not) that they have had personal experience that Jewish students cannot dispute and do not have themselves.
It would be interesting to compare what the most important issues are on campus for the general student body and for different constituencies. Brandeis found that “at most schools, fewer than 10% of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel among the most pressing on campus.” Not surprisingly, the number one issue was cost. I suspect that this would be the case for all students and most, if not all, constituencies. It would also be interesting to see what students chose as the most important issues in general. I would expect grades, grad school acceptance, and jobs would be far higher on the priority list than issues relating to Jews and Israel.
While AMCHA’s research claims that there is a relationship between hostility toward Israel and hostility toward Jews, the Brandeis study found this was not the case. They cite NYU as an example where hostility to Israel is relatively high, but the campus is not considered hostile toward Jews. Coincidentally, the president of NYU, Andrew Hamilton, condemned the BDS movement in a recent interview as “an affront to academic freedom.”
Insights From FBI Data
The FBI’s hate crime statistics are more useful than much of what is published by Jewish organizations, which is sometimes self-serving — because as fundraising is easier when potential donors can be convinced that the sky is falling. Two caveats about the FBI data are still noteworthy: First, the data is national rather than specific to campus and, second, the FBI relies on other law enforcement agencies to collect data and pass it on to Washington. Still, the data has been collected for many years and, if anything, the reporting has improved as the definition of a “hate crime” has become clearer.
According to the FBI, 664 hate crimes were committed against Jews (51% of all such crimes) in 2015. By comparison, 257 were directed at Muslims (22%). If distributed across all 50 states, that would be 13 per state. There were no reports of murder or rape committed against Jews (because they were Jews). The largest category of crimes, by far, was destruction/damage/vandalism, which are crimes against property rather than individuals, and most likely consist largely of swastikas drawn on buildings. A total of 447 incidents (64%) were recorded under this category. The next most frequent hate crimes were directed at persons — “intimidation” (114 cases or 16%) and assaults (100 incidents or 14%). A total of 156 adults were victims. Considering that there are roughly 5 million Jewish adults in the United States, these statistics indicate that one out of roughly every 32,000 Jewish adults has been a victim of some type of hate crime.
The FBI data also provides a better gauge of whether antisemitism is becoming a more or less serious problem (acknowledging that any antisemitism is unacceptable) based on their trend data. Looking at the last 20 years, the 2015 figure is the third lowest. While the 664 crimes reported last year is slightly higher than the past two years, it is 40 percent lower than the high of 1019 recorded in 1996, 1999 and 2000. Based on this data, rather than anecdotal evidence, it appears the situation nationally has actually improved.
Schools Don’t Support Terrorists
Finally, the most hyperbolic report released this year is a subjective ranking of the “top 10 schools supporting terrorists.” This is not a serious analysis; it is an attack on a handful of schools that have had anti-Israel incidents. David Horowitz’s Freedom Center charges them with “supporting an antisemitic, pro-terror campaign, which is hostile not only to Israel and its Jews but to the United States of America as well.” He claims, “This presence of a genocidal, terrorist support movement on elite campuses across America is probably the most under-reported story of our times.”
Put bluntly, this is nonsense.
Are there antisemitic students on college campuses? Yes. Are there students who support Hamas or act like apologists for terror? Yes. But the number of such students is miniscule; moreover, labeling schools as supporting terrorists is absurd. Horowitz presents no evidence whatsoever that any of those on the list are in any way sympathetic to terrorism.
So how did Horowitz come up with this incendiary list, which was obviously designed primarily to attract publicity?
He looked at a handful of anti-Israel incidents on each campus and slapped a label on the entire university.
Let’s examine Brooklyn College, which Horowitz ranked as number one for supporting terrorists. The college is not an elite school, but it has a large Jewish student population. He based his ranking on 12 incidents in 2015-16. They included:
A vigil at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City in support of employees of the Holy Land Foundation who were convicted of funneling money to Hamas. This was not a campus event. Supporters of these people did not claim to be backing them because of their support for Hamas, but because they were seen as unfairly prosecuted for charitable activities.
An SJP poster on its Facebook page calling for a third intifada. This can be seen as a tacit endorsement of terror, but has nothing to do with the college.
SJP held a “die-in,” a bit of guerrilla theater that was on campus but was a protest against Israel, not an endorsement of terror.
SJP invited people to attend a lecture on another campus about boycotting Israeli universities. The event was not at Brooklyn College, but CUNY, and may have promoted the antisemitic BDS movement, but was not related to terrorism.
In fact, not a single one of the incidents Horowitz lists reflect any direct support for terrorism. The best he can do to make a connection is to argue that SJP uses language similar to that used by Hamas, and that, too, is a stretch.
Perhaps the most serious incident, again unrelated to terrorism, occurred when 10 activists called a faculty member a “Zionist pig,” shouted “Zionists off campus” and demanded an end to supposedly “racist” course offerings.”
All of the examples are detestable, but do not justify his accusation that Brooklyn College is the number one supporter of terrorists.
The cases he cites for the rest of the list are similarly weak. They show that during the course of an entire school year, a handful of incidents occurred in which small numbers of students expressed virulently anti-Israel views, expressed support for the Palestinian cause and sometimes engaged in speech that crossed the line to antisemitism. Like AMCHA, Horowitz simply catalogued a few disturbing incidents and then jumped to a conclusion unsupported by the facts. Horowitz also took no account of pro-Israel activity on the campuses. Thus, for example, schools on his list, such as Tufts and UCLA, which have very strong pro-Israel student groups, were still labeled as leading supporters of terrorists.
Publicizing the anti-Israel activities taking place on campuses does have the value of getting universities’ attention. The failure of administrators to take complaints by Jewish students seriously, and the double standard in the way they respond to bigotry directed at other minorities, is a serious problem. It is why college campuses are the only institutions in the United States that tolerate antisemitism.
Sadly, universities often act only if they get negative publicity or donors object to their inaction. Consequently, even exaggerated accusations against universities can have a beneficial impact by provoking them to respond to the hostility directed at Jewish students they would otherwise ignore. Jewish students might help their cause if they were less passive and learned the tools of protest. Note the difference, for example, between the reaction to Jews’ verbal complaints and the takeover of administration buildings by other aggrieved groups. That may not be the best way for Jewish students to get their points across, but Jewish students need to be trained to debate Middle East issues and to exercise their right to demonstrate.
Much of the data in these studies is useful; however, they all ignore the most significant problem on campus, which is faculty. Professors with political agendas influence students inside and outside the classroom, shape the campus environment, sponsor conferences and lectures, publish books that disseminate their views around the world, are asked to be commentators in the media, and remain on campus long after the leaders of anti-Israel student groups have graduated.
Finally, whether you consider the situation better or worse than described by these studies, it is important to note that the actions of Jewish organizations backed by generous philanthropists have made a tremendous positive impact on campus and, without them, the plight of Jewish students on campus would be even more alarming.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.