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October 4, 2017 11:11 am

Despite Flaws, Stanford Study of Jewish Students Gets It Mostly Right

avatar by Mitchell Bard

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The Stanford University campus. Photo: Stanford University.

When you see the name Stanford attached to a research project, it’s usually worth taking seriously. Therefore, I was interested in a recent report put out by the Research Group of the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.

The study, titled “Safe and on the Sidelines,” challenges the conventional wisdom that college campuses have become unsafe for Jewish students. Despite using surprisingly shoddy methodology for a program of Stanford’s stature, the authors manage to stumble onto certain truths about Jews on campus.

The researchers drew their conclusions based on interviews with only 66 students from just five California campuses. Others had identified those five schools as “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” The researchers also intentionally chose Jewish students “who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” They did this based on the assumption that this group represented most Jewish students.

It is hard to imagine how the authors got anyone at a graduate school to approve such an unscientific study. Among the obvious shortcomings: the sample is not random, it has both a small number of subjects and locations, and the interviews appear to have been poorly structured (the study refers to a “semi-structured script” and a series of “think alouds”). The fact that the methodology is shoddy maybe be reason to question the results; but this does not, however, necessarily mean that those results are wrong.

First, as the study concludes, most Jewish college students are indeed unengaged or minimally engaged. It is easy to prove that by looking at the number of students who go to Hillel, join student groups or attend an average pro-Israel event. This typically has less to do with student attitudes toward Israel than their priorities, which are often friendships, sex, drugs, social activities, getting into graduate school and finding jobs.

Second, the study’s finding that students feel safe and don’t see their campuses as antisemitic is also likely correct. Based on my experience and research, Jewish students do not face any danger on campus from antisemites. This isn’t to say that there is not plenty of unpleasantness on a small number of campuses (historically about 2-3%) — but that does not make the campus unsafe.

The authors cite a study by Leonard Saxe, who found:

It is more likely that those who are highly connected to Israel become a target of anti-Semitic or anti-Israel sentiment because they make their support for Israel known. It is also likely that those who are more connected to Israel are more sensitive to criticism of Israel, or more likely to perceive such criticism as anti-Semitic.

These are the students that Jewish organizations respond to — and, by extrapolating their views as representative of an entire campus, create their own biased sample to argue that campuses are unsafe.

The Stanford study found that unengaged students blame both supporters and critics of Israel for creating an environment that they find uncomfortable. Hearing the opposing sides shout at each other understandably breeds a “pox on both your houses” attitude, but it also reflects a degree of ignorance about the difference between the merits of the two sides.

Students told the Stanford interviewers that what they really wanted was a reasoned, productive debate; yet they do not appear to recognize that one side typically is anti-Israel rather than pro-Palestinian, and often crosses the line into antisemitism (as in the case of advocating BDS or supporting Hamas), while the other side is fundamentally pro-Israel rather than anti-Palestinian (Jews, for example, are often vocal proponents of Palestinian rights).

No doubt, as the Stanford researchers found, many uninvolved Jewish students are conflicted about Zionism and Israel. This is sometimes a function of ignorance — but their feelings are nonetheless authentic. It should also not surprise anyone that these students resent being expected to support the Israeli government’s policies, or the fact that their political views are at odds with those of many pro-Israel advocates.

It is equally unremarkable to learn that Jewish students do not become involved in Jewish activities because they dislike debates. Some students do not feel knowledgeable or articulate enough to engage in verbal jousting, especially when it can become hostile or tense — as many discussions about Israel do. Most students prefer to avoid confrontation, whether in a political discussion or an interpersonal interaction.

The Stanford study is also correct in describing the views of students who don’t feel that there is a place for them to be heard. This frustration is one reason for the emergence of J Street U. Some pro-Israel groups are perceived as right-wing, and many students do not feel comfortable with them. The authors are correct about the need to create greater opportunities for students with a diversity of views to express themselves when it comes to Israel.

But while it is healthy to wrestle with Israel, the desire to create more open dialogue should not erase all boundaries. Off-campus organizations have a wide diversity of views, but their members agree on certain fundamentals, starting with the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their homeland (which is the definition of Zionism). Hillel has sometimes taken some heat, primarily from one-sided critics of Israel, but I believe that the organization got it right when it created guidelines that bar speakers and groups that:

  • Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, with secure and recognized borders;
  • Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel;
  • Support a boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel; [and]
  • Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers, or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

The first three points represent a reasonable prohibition against antisemitism within Hillel. These standards should not be a deterrent to any of the students in the Stanford study. In fact, Hillel’s Israel guidelines specifically instruct Hillel leaders to provide the type of environment that the study’s authors say that students want:

Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensable partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.

Certainly, efforts should continue to be made to engage the silent majority of Jewish students, who posses the views documented in the Stanford study; yet no one should expect that taking a more “Kumbaya” approach to discussing Israel is a silver bullet.

Many of these students are largely uninterested in Middle East politics, and have other priorities. The best chance of reaching them may be to identify their interests — whether it be law, the environment, business, social work, education, etc. and show them how Israel is relevant to those interests. This type of work is done well by some off-campus groups that routinely take lawyers, first responders, teachers and other professionals to learn about what their counterparts in Israel are doing (even if many of those professionals are not Jewish).

Some Jewish campus organizations have also adopted this approach, and it should be encouraged — not at the expense of advocacy training and education, but as a complementary component of a comprehensive strategy for creating greater identification between college students and Israel.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” “The Arab Lobby,” and the novel “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”

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