Understanding and Addressing Anti-Semitism on College Campuses

A 2015 report from the Louis D. Brandeis Center and Trinity College found that more than half of self-identified Jewish students had witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism in college. Learn some strategies to effectively deal with these situations.

Anti-Semitism is a combination of religious, ethnic, and racial prejudice aimed at those who are or are thought to be Jewish. It can take many forms, including bigotry, bullying, defamation, stereotyping, hate crimes, acts of bias, or scapegoating.

Throughout history, anti-Semitism has been used to blame all kinds of evil on the Jewish people. It has many cultural references and uses deeply rooted, sometimes contradictory, tropes.

The Current State of Anti-Semitism

A recent survey I worked on, in collaboration with The Louis D. Brandeis Center and Trinity College, surveyed 1,157 self-defined Jewish students across 55 college campuses. We found that more than half of them had personally witnessed or experienced an anti-Semitic incident during the first six months of the 2013–14 academic year.

Though consisting primarily of minor incidents, the patterns and high rates of anti-Semitism reported are surprising. What is likely to disturb prospective parents of Jewish college students is that, rather than being localized to a few campuses or restricted to politically active or religious students, this problem appears to be widespread. Jewish students are subjected to both traditional prejudice and the new, political antisemitism related to Israel. The majority of reported incidents occurred in interpersonal interactions — that is, encounters between students — for which Jewish women reported higher rates of anti-Semitic experiences than men.

Many survey participants expressed concern because these experiences created an uncomfortable campus climate. In practice, anti-Semitism hurts the individual Jew who experiences it directly, but it also hurts other Jews emotionally when they witness an incident. That said, defining a particular event as anti-Semitic may be open to interpretation and, consequently, can be felt differently by those involved.

Just as people have different thresholds for physical pain, sensitivity to hostility also varies among people. Whereas some Jews will ignore ethnic jokes, others may feel highly offended. While this is a matter of subjectivity, it’s important to be sensitive to those who feel harmed by such experiences.

What Students Can Do

Starting college means moving from a familiar home surrounding to a new community; former high school students will encounter people from different backgrounds who hold varied points of view. It’s possible that this will mean interacting with people who may have never met another Jewish person before. Some members of the college community may be curious about their Jewish peers’ heritage, while others may be uninterested or have preconceptions.

Sometimes, Jewish students will receive questions about their identity, community, and religion. If they are interested in learning more about these subjects, Jewish students can do research to feel more prepared to respond to questions. Complex Jewish subjects, such as the Holocaust or Israeli history, may be a good place to start to familiarize themselves with the facts in these areas. Students who are particularly worried about anti-Semitism can research its history to better understand common expressions of anti-Semitism.

Jewish students need not feel ashamed if they don’t know an answer to a question or do not feel comfortable engaging in a discussion; it is up to each person to decide whether or not she wants to have these conversations.

The issue of Israel and the Middle East is hotly debated on many campuses. Israel is often referred to as “the Jewish state,” so others may assume it is an important part of all Jewish students’ identities. Again, it is helpful for students to learn relevant history in order to answer both curious inquiries and hostile remarks.

Jewish students interested in learning more about Israel firsthand can take advantage of the Birthright Israel program, which offers a free, one-week fact-finding trip to Israel during vacations. This is a wonderful opportunity to experience the country and become more informed about the issues faced by those living in the region.

Jewish students can ask their parents and grandparents how they have dealt with anti-Semitism throughout their lives. Older generations of American Jews were raised with fewer legal protections and more prejudice, and may have faced similar issues at work and in the military as those faced by children and grandchildren at college.

Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, every federally funded institution of higher learning has an obligation to ensure equal educational opportunity for its students. This includes, among other requirements, promptly and effectively addressing certain hostile environments for which it is placed on notice. In light of the protection this Act affords, Jewish students may choose to report anti-Semitic incidents to university officials to give them the opportunity to remedy the situation. Students may also want to read the recommendations in our “Anti-Semitism Report 2014” mentioned earlier.

Confronting discrimination can be painful. Thankfully, the diversity on college campuses yields all sorts of viewpoints. While some students may discriminate against their Jewish peers, university communities are generally broad enough to find students — whether they are Jewish or not — who do not share these negative feelings. Students can reach out to sympathetic faculty, friends, family members, or campus organizations to receive support through these upsetting situations.

Further Reading: "How Colleges Can Foster Inclusion on Campus"

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