“Israel and the Campus: The Real Story”…Not Quite

A recent report by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), “Israel and the Campus: The Real Story,” presents what seems to be a blockbuster finding: only 3% of American universities report any anti-Israel activity.1 Yet we know that a vastly larger percentage of Jewish students are being impacted by anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. Institute for Jewish & Community Research’s (IJCR) national survey of students found 43% of Jewish students reported anti-Semitism during their time on campus.2 Buried further down in AICE’s own study is another disturbing figure; 78% of Jewish students report witnessing or personally experiencing anti-Semitism (not necessarily on campus).3 4

The disconnect between what students are reporting and what AICE found in its study of campuses results from a failure to accurately identify the most pertinent question. The real question regarding campus anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism is one of impact: on campus life, on American public opinion and on American foreign policy.

The misleading 3% finding is answering a different question, yielding very limited information: What percent of all possible campuses in the United States hosted an anti-Israel event? This question does not inform on overall impact because it operates with the mistaken assumption that all campuses are equal. Campuses are far from equal. A variety of characteristics such as the size of the student body, regional location, Jewish student enrollment, institutional prestige and overall level of political activism are extremely important factors if the goal is to assess the level of impact anti-Israel activities are having both on and off campus.

An accurate and informed reading of AICE’s report leaves no question as to whether the authors believe anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism pose serious problems not just for Jewish students, but the campus community in general. While the report included a wealth of other information, the 3% finding has dominated media coverage and defined the outcome of AICE’s study. Whether by happenstance or design, the finding has dangerously defined the problem as non-existent. Consider the following headlines on AICE’s study:

• “The Surprisingly Sunny Story of Israel on Campus,” New Voices 5
• “Study: No Anti-Israel Push on Campus,” Jewish Exponent 6
• “Study: No Anti-Semitism, Anti-Israel Push At Most Colleges,” The Jewish Week 7
• “’Most US college campuses report no anti-Semitism’” Jerusalem Post 8

Contrary to a decade of concern, activism and research AICE’s report erroneously implies that everything is copasetic on American college campuses vis-à-vis Israel and Jews.

What was AICE’s primary goal in its study of campuses? Was it to understand the experience of Jewish students? If so, it would have been logical to look specifically at campuses with a Jewish student body. Was it to assess the potential influence over American public opinion toward Israel, as well as the opinions of future decision makers? If so, then top colleges and universities should have been prioritized. AICE’s methods fall short in accounting for differences by campus, resulting in a surprisingly low number of affected campuses. To further understanding why the 3% number is misleading, lets take a closer look at campuses in context.

There are a total of about 4,500 universities and colleges in the United States 9 (AICE cites over 4,000). However, of the total, only about 2,700 are 4-year, degree-granting institutions. The rest are 2-year colleges that simply do not offer the same kind of platform for political and social activity that is characteristic of 4-year institutions, and necessary for the development of anti-Israel activity. While the numbers are not provided in the report, it would be surprising if 2-year colleges were not consistently less likely to experience anti-Israel or anti-Semitic activity, thus dragging the total percentage of incidents down. It would be unwise to completely discount what is happening at 2-year college campuses, but it is safe to say that these campuses are not the primary venue for anti-Israel activity, nor any other kind of activity for that matter.

Similarly, of the approximately 2,700 4-year institutions, many of these are commuter colleges where students do not live on campus and spend a good deal of their time disconnected from the campus community. While there are commuter colleges that have developed significant levels of anti-Israel activity, many of them can be characterized, like 2-year colleges, as simply not an ideal atmosphere for political activity or other forms of collective action that can result in anti-Israel activism and anti-Semitic incidents. Add to commuter colleges, rural campuses, discipline-specific campuses and others that do not exhibit the full campus life and the target population shrinks even more.

By using a broad target population of campuses, i.e. all possible campuses in the US, AICE is seeking the wrong information. The pertinent question is one of influence. Does the misleading 3% number offer any real sense of the influence or impact of anti-Israel activity on campuses? No. The goal of anti-Israel activists is not to disrupt as many campuses as possible. It is to have the greatest impact upon American support for Israel by degrading the perception of the Jewish State, and in doing so often Jews in America. In other words, they have relatively little interest in 2-year, commuter, and generally uninvolved campuses. They are much more focused on promoting anti-Israelism on campuses with a national and international impact.

Take a look at AICE’s list of the top 10 campuses with the most reports of anti-Israel activity. Included are Harvard, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Columbia University, UC San Diego, University of Maryland, University of New Mexico, Florida State University and University of Pittsburgh 10. About half of the most active campuses are top-tier public and private universities and the rest are major campuses. They represent a significantly higher level of impact than if the list were dominated by, for example, 2-year or commuter colleges. While it is unclear what the exact incidence rate might be if the target population were restricted to 4-year institutions with relatively active student bodies, we can be sure that it increases from the 3% reported.

A variety of other factors can also come into play to further restrict the focus of campuses and provide a more useful depiction of campus activity, such as the size of the student body or distribution of Jewish students. Certainly, it would be valuable to know what percent of total enrolled students and what percent of Jewish students are exposed to anti-Israel events.

The report also fails to account for the transitory nature of many anti-Israel events. The anti-Israel campaign often acts as a kind of travelling sideshow where it migrates from campus to campus. A variety of factors can influence whether anti-Israel activity will develop on a campus in a given year, including the makeup of the student body, the presence of one student activist or the focus of an external anti-Israel organization. Yet, AICE’s study covers only one year. If the same survey was fielded in another year, would the universities reporting activity all be the same? Certainly some campuses will show up every year, but others will be replaced with previously inactive campuses. A more accurate portrait of the campus would take a four-year timeline, which is how long a student typically remains on any given campus, and provide a total of the campuses with activity over the time period. How high the total number of affected campuses rises is up for debate, but it most assuredly does rise.

The defining aspect of the anti-Israel campaign on campuses has been the ability of the minority to dominate the majority. AICE’s report correctly finds that the vast majority of students are apathetic about the Middle East 11. This is true and was born out in IJCR’s National Survey of Students as well12. While this is heartening because we can assume that most students are not being converted into Israel haters, it creates an environment where the relatively small number of anti-Israel students and faculty can dominate any debate on the subject. The same is true on a national scale when talking about college campuses. The vast majority of campuses are inactive. But the most prestigious, the most visible, and the loudest are.

AICE, not unjustifiably, sought to dispel the direst accounts of what is happening on campus. This is understandable. Exaggerations of a problem can be just as harmful to efforts at resolution as ignoring the problem. Nobody benefits from a belief that Jews face a sea of hostility and hatred on campuses. But conversely, where there is a problem, it is not helpful to facilitate ignorance of the problem. Unfortunately that is the primary outcome of AICE’s report, as informative as the complete report may be.

2https://jewishresearch.org/quad/12-11/Alone on the Quad.pdf
3AICE report, p. 25
4Both surveys reveal significant amounts of anti-Semitism reported by students to be intertwined with anti-Israel activity.
10AICE report, p.12
11AICE report, p.24
12https://jewishresearch.org/quad/12-11/Alone on the Quad.pdf

(Tags: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Israelism, Research, Higher Education, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise)