Harvard students and Palestinian supporters rallied in the fall at Harvard.

As anti-Israel furor escalates, Jewish students face crisis of faith on campus



As anti-Israel furor escalates, Jewish students face crisis of faith on campus

Harvard students and Palestinian supporters rallied in the fall at Harvard.

Among non-Jewish students on American college campuses across the country, 29 percent do not want to be friends with students who support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

This is one of many findings from a new study by Eitan Hersh, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. Hersh, with the survey and analytics firm College Pulse, surveyed about 1,000 Jewish students ranging from religiously affiliated pro-Israel activists to secular/unaffiliated and unpolitical self-identifying Jews, as well as about 1,500 non-Jewish students on those same campuses. The colleges represented a range in size, location across the country, and public or private.

Hersh found that a significant number of college students today are very likely to be exposed to peers who believe that even just supporting the existence of Israel is problematic.

“It’s not a rarity,” said Hersh, who is a professor of political science at Tufts University. “If it were [1 percent of] non-Jewish students who were saying that, then most likely on a campus, a student wouldn’t necessarily encounter that. But when it’s a third – or among the far left, a half – that means Jewish students are definitely going to be exposed to people who hold this view.”

This study, which was conducted in November and December of this year, is the second produced by Hersh with the Jim Joseph Foundation, which supports Jewish education of youth and young adults in the United States. The first study took place in 2022, and was geared toward learning about the identities and beliefs of Jewish students on college campuses. Some of the students from the first study also were surveyed in the second, giving the research the additional value of collected data over time.

Earlier this month, Hersh published three essays on his interim findings, using both the 2022 and 2023 data sets. Each essay examines a different piece of his research. Part one explores the social costs of being Jewish and supporting Israel on campus; part two offers seven insights on how campus life has changed for Jewish students since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war; and part three examines the connection between antisemitic beliefs and non-Jews’ political, religious, racial, and gender identities.

“I think it’s useful for people to have these numbers, because it gives people a more accurate understanding of what’s happening,” Hersh said. “Are whole campuses taken over by a super-committed anti-Israel environment, anti-Jewish environment? No. I don’t think there is evidence for that. But are there a lot of students on campus who have that position? Yes.”

The main findings of the research are that Jewish students’ experiences of antisemitism on college campuses – measured through questions about whether they feel the need to hide their identity in order to fit in and whether they are being judged if they engage Jewish activities – is about 33 percent, and this figure doubled from the 2022 survey.

“Both in scale and depth, the research goes beyond anecdotal stories many of us have heard,” said Stacie Cherner, director of research and learning at the Jim Joseph Foundation. “Jewish students feel more isolated and ostracized, and they feel this from peers of all political perspectives.”

Some of the findings are perhaps expected, if more notable from quantitative standpoint: four out of 10 Jewish students reported being targeted by antisemitic comments, slurs, or threats since Oct. 7; Jewish students, including those unaffiliated, feel a heightened sense of Jewish identity from 2022 to now; and Jewish students indicate more support for the state of Israel now than they did in 2022.

Hersh also found that there has been an increase in Jewish students feeling a need to hide some of their opinions in order to fit into Jewish activities on campus – both from those involved in Israel activities/ Jewish life on campus and those unaffiliated.

Both Jewish and Muslim students report experiencing negative impacts to their mental health since the onset of the war.

Hersh also found that while progressive-leaning non-Jews endorse “social stigma against students who believe Israel should exist as a Jewish country” and “deny the historical relationship between Jews and the land of Israel,” politically conservative-leaning non-Jews were more likely that their left-leaning counterparts to agree with statements framed around targeting Jews based on identity (“Jewish Americans should be held accountable for Israel’s actions”).

“People bring very strong agendas and ideological commitments to this research, or to their understanding of what’s going on,” Hersh said. “If I’m doing my job, then everyone has a deeper understanding – they don’t just pick up the one statistic that’s consistent with their worldview when there’s probably five other statistics that challenge their worldview. That’s the angle that I try to bring to this, I hope.”

The essays are available on the Jim Joseph Foundation site, jimjosephfoundation.org. After conducting follow-up surveys later in the semester, Hersh plans to produce a full report, compiling all the data, this summer. Θ

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