USA – Study: How do Jewish students experience antisemitism on campuses

American Journal of Qualitative Research

The lived experience of Jewish students experiencing antisemitism on campuses across the United States was recorded in a qualitative research study published in 2023.

The study, which is awaiting peer review and can be found in the American Journal of Qualitative Research, sort to fill a gap in the academic literature on the discrimination Jewish students face.

The study found that Jewish experience four main challenges on campus. Firstly, the experience of disclosing, externalizing, or embodying their Jewish identity. Secondly, experiencing antisemitism. Thirdly, feelings of exclusion in multicultural education. Finally, feelings of exclusion from within the social justice advocacy groups and a detachment from minority status. 

There are 5.7 million Jews within the United States, according to the study, which is the largest concentration of Jews globally. 

However, the study cites the Pew Research Center’s statistic that by 2050, the majority of Jews will make aliyah to Israel. 

The study suggests that one of the reasons for the expected mass immigration is because the apprehension of antisemitism has a stronger hold over Jewish individuals than their established social ties.

In the early 2000s, a new type of antisemitism developed, according to the study. This new type of prejudice changed from the Nazi-affiliated race affiliation theories to animosity toward Israel and insensitivity toward Jews.

Under the new form of antisemitism, crimes against Jews are often seen as generic crimes against human beings. Historic incidences of antisemitism are being racialized as divisions between white Jews and BAME Muslims.

A further issue is added because there is no universally recognized definition of “hate speech.” This has allowed coded antisemitic language to plague online spaces. The researchers make a point to draw a comparison between 14th-century conspiracies relating to Jews and the bubonic plague to conspiracies in the modern era relating to Jews and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers cite a statistic from the American Jewish Committee’s poll in 2021 which found that 24% of American Jews had experienced an antisemitic attack in an educational institution. Half of the poll respondents answered that they felt that antisemitism increased on campuses over the last 5 years.

The researchers collected qualitative data from four Jewish masters students from the “Counseling and Couple and Family Therapy” program. 

The researchers, who both teach on the campus that they collected data from, both witnessed Jewish students experiencing antisemitic attacks which prompted their study. One researcher, who is the Jewish descendent of a Holocaust survivor, wrote that she was also inspired to write the study after feeling that she was a victim of institutionalized antisemitism.

In a semi-structured interview, the researchers asked the participants the following questions:

  1. Tell me a bit about yourself and what your Jewish identity means to you?
  2. Have you experienced any anti-Semitic or anti-Israel encounters on campus within classes or among peers? If so, please provide examples.
  3. What have your experiences been communicating your needs as a Jewish-identifying student to campus personnel, professors, or peers? Please provide examples.
  4. Do you feel campuses and university personnel could improve on addressing antisemitic and anti-Israel concerns on campus, and if so, how?
  5. Anything else you’d like to say or add?

All four participants expressed that they didn’t feel safe expressing their Jewish identity because they feared discriminatory reactions from university personnel. The students spoke about when and how they decided to present their Jewishness.

One student said, “I think for Judaism, there’s such a thing as being in the closet…” Another noted how Jewish people must censor or minimize their Jewishness to be somewhat accepted by the dominant culture in the following statement: “…We have learned that to fully…participate in society you cannot be too Jewish.”

Each student expressed that antisemitism had touched their lives in some way. One student spoke of her grandparents, who survived the Holocaust. Another student recounted watching their mother being physically assaulted for being Jewish. He described his early realization of antisemitism and told the researchers “Because I knew…you know, my Mom has stitches in her head from rocks being thrown at her… because she was Jewish”.

Three of the participants felt that Judaism as a culture or ethnicity was invisible, as Judaism was only seen as a religion.

Three participants had begun experiencing antisemitism in the form of microaggressions when they were children. They had received consistent messaging that Jews were not liked by society.

One participant said, “…And it also started when I…really understood that people hate Jews …when I became…an old enough kid to understand…what hate speech was.”

A second participant told the researchers that “the message that you get is like, this is a part of you that you don’t really share because it gives a reason for people to, not only just not like you, but actually want to hurt you.”

Confirming the sentiment, another student described an encounter he had in a graduate-level classroom, telling researchers “I have had some students…say things like…Jews are good at math…at finance…things like that. Like, ask him…he’s Jewish…I’ve heard that come up in a class…that’s the kind of comment that I go along with but it…just increases my tension and wariness of everybody.”

A participant also recounted the slurs that she had been called within academic institutions and in wider society. “So, in the academic world, stuff like that…happened. I…experienced micro-aggressions my whole life in terms of being called slurs…”.

“I remember one time in college there was one girl who always would take it to the next level with me…and…would…call me stupid Jew. We were…friends and I said to her…that’s not OK…”

The participants expressed that prolonged exposure to antisemitism had led to differing degrees of internalization of antisemitic ideals and normalization. The researchers came to this conclusion based on the lack of reactiveness of the participants to inappropriate comments by staff.

“I certainly was feeling quite fragile…but I think that I was also mistreated”

Another participant told researchers “…I say it with a laugh because…this was the experience. It’s not weird for me, this is what my parents experienced, this is what I experienced, and it was normal, it was common.”

The researchers attributed reactions to antisemitism as relating to transgenerational experiences of hate and discrimination.

Participants also reported having experienced being socially marginalized based on their Zionism or perceived Zionism.

One participant said that a former friend had told them “I saw that you support the IDF, and um, we can’t be friends.”

When students were confronted with misinformation about Israel or confronted with what they perceived as antisemitism, they were often met with a lack of understanding. The participants reported that their peers and superiors felt they knew better than them on what constituted as antisemitism.

A participant said “ …But to come to a master’s program with educated people, who…that’s the problem- they’re so educated that they know so much better than I do about my own culture!”

All the participants felt that Jewish perspectives were not recognized, acknowledged, or taught within their course. They all expressed discomfort at feeling they were lumped into the oversimplified racial category of ‘white.’ 

Explaining the situation further, a participant recalled “…It’s never included. …when we talk about micro-aggressions, I…lose count of the micro-aggressions I face on a daily basis in the workplace, from peers… but it’s never talked about in our classes”

Another said that “the message that is communicated by that absence is that, you know, my Jewish identity was not a legitimate or valued part of the conversation”.

The participants said that while they would like to discuss issues surrounding antisemitism with university staff, they are hesitant to do so.

“I feel nervous that I don’t feel like the university necessarily has my back,” one of the participants explained.

One student felt that exclusion from their experience was …“So deeply engrained in this, like no education around Judaism, no idea, and not only no education around Judaism but not caring to learn more”.

The lack of understanding was echoed by another participant who said “…I just said…being Jewish is not safe. It never was, it never will be and his answer to me was, “You don’t know what it’s like to be Black”. I feel like there is a reluctance to legitimize the Jewish experience of oppression in the United States.”

The Jewish students discussed the pervasive and harmful belief that Jews are white and have all the privileges that come attached to that racial label.

“This is bullshit! This wheel does not at all talk about my experience because you are downplaying it to say that, yes, I’m a woman, yes, I’m essentially white, but I’m not white. I never was white, and I’ll never be white because no one who hates me ever saw me as white.”

“I shouldn’t have to sit here and explain to you how horrible it is. You should just have the empathy to recognize that being a minority in whatever capacity is difficult…without me having to quantify.”

The participants all unified in describing the difficult feelings that arose when they felt the need to advocate for themselves and other Jews.

“…in the United States, Jews have been very passive…and that is not my nature even though it was around my Judaism for a long time”.

“…So if no one’s gonna say something, I’m gonna say something…the absolute …worst. Oh God, on the list of worst things, like things that I would hate to do, that’s, that’s, the top…I hated that!” 

The authors finalize the study with a personal conclusion, where they write “It is difficult to quantify the level of attunement that I (the first author) gained from bearing witness to the participants’ stories.”

“Though my heart ached when I learned of silencing and exclusion, I am grateful to now hear unheard voices. I hope the study findings permeate the reader’s mind and make space at the social justice table and on campus for Jewish students. In my commitment to respond to institutional Anti-Semitism, I am reminded of Elie Wiesel’s (1986) famous words, ‘What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander’.“

“As a wounded researcher and a fellow Jew, I stand in solidarity with marginalized communities and use my voice in scholarship to reduce the suffering of systemic oppression.”

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