Eitan Hersh speaks in Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts, February 21, 2018. (Anna Miller/Tufts University)
Eitan Hersh speaks in Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts, February 21, 2018. (Anna Miller/Tufts University)
Interview'15-20% hid their Jewish identity before. Now it's doubled'

Prof. Eitan Hersh answers the $64,000 question: Are Jewish kids safe at US colleges?

The political scientist at Tufts began a far-reaching student survey in 2022 amid rising antisemitism. After October 7, his data-driven mission has become pivotal for American Jews

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Eitan Hersh speaks in Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts, February 21, 2018. (Anna Miller/Tufts University)

NEW YORK — Upon being told that nearly every parent of a would-be or current American Jewish college student would want him to answer the question, “Is it safe for my Jewish kid to go to college in 2024 America,” Tufts political science professor Eitan Hersh laughs understandingly.

That’s the $64,000 question facing American Jewry (a sum that would be a bargain for tuition at many American private universities) in light of antisemitic and anti-Zionist incidents occurring on campuses nearly daily across the country. And while many parents might seek to answer that question through anecdotal evidence, Hersh believes in the power of data — which he is accumulating by surveying American college students.

When Hersh began the project in 2022, his goal was to gauge Jewish students’ concerns. But after the October 7 Hamas onslaught on Israel and the resulting war in Gaza, Hersh’s goals widened and changed, effectively making his survey a barometer for what American universities are now like for Jews.

The survey, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, scrutinizes how American Jewish college students have experienced social tension as well as changes in their Jewish identity and involvement on campus, both before and after October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists massacred 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted 253 more to the Gaza Strip. Additionally, the survey incorporates non-Jewish student respondents who describe their feelings about Israel and socializing with Jews.

Hersh contrasts responses from Jewish college students who participated in his 2022 survey with those from November and December of 2023, following the massacre. In the spring of 2022, Hersh’s team surveyed approximately 2,000 Jewish students and 1,000 non-Jewish students from across the country attending four-year American colleges and universities. One hundred fifty-five of the Jewish students surveyed in 2023 were among the students who were surveyed previously.

The Times of Israel spoke to Hersh about the survey and what it does and doesn’t reveal about the current volatile campus climate for Jewish students. The conversation, edited for length, explored the differences between Hersh’s results in his initial foray into taking the temperature of Jewish life on campus in 2022 and the new post-October 7 era.

It also highlighted ways in which the political “hot takes” on where antisemitism comes from may be more nuanced than previously acknowledged, as well as ways the American Jewish university student community might move forward from here.

From left to right: Tufts University Professor Eitan Hersh, Cambridge Analytica former employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie, and American Enterprise Institute Visiting Scholar Mark Jamison are sworn in before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Cambridge Analytica and data privacy in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 16, 2018. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP)

The Times of Israel: Can you elaborate on your macro point that surveys are more truthfully indicative of the reality on the ground on these campuses than, say, following people on Instagram or TikTok, or watching viral videos?

Eitan Hersh: Honestly, even if you’re inside a university, it’s very hard to gauge reality. Students are marching by [my office at Tufts University in Massachusetts] here all the time, chanting “intifada,” yet I don’t know what the typical student experience is. There was a big flareup here at Tufts — I teach a class Monday at 9 a.m. and some of the students had been up all night at a heated event the night before — but yet, the median student might have no idea what people were talking about if they mentioned it.

‘There are so many different experiences — kids for whom Jewish identity is central, and those for whom it isn’t, and we want to know the experience for both’

What the survey does is give a sense of is, What’s the typical, Jewish-identifying student saying about life on campus? And that includes students who are really tangentially connected to Jewish life: they don’t go to Hillel, maybe they grew up with one Jewish parent, or with very minimal educational background — how are those students feeling about this? How are the ones that are more engaged feeling about this? There are so many different experiences — kids for whom Jewish identity is central, and those for whom it isn’t, and we want to know the experience for both.

Can you talk about some of the changes you witnessed from the 2022 to the 2023 survey?

I don’t know if I had a strong view of what differences we would find. In some ways, in the 2022 report, when we were measuring that 15-20 percent of people hide their Jewish identity, I thought that was high. Now those answers are doubled. It’s quite widespread. You can’t get a result like this if the phenomenon was affecting just the 10 kids on campus who are the gung-ho Israel advocates. If you look at Jewish populations of campuses, it’s mostly kids from a very wide range of backgrounds, including those who don’t think much or have fully formed views about Israel. Many of them are learning about their Judaism for the first time. And yet a high number of them are experiencing the social tension.

I want to give a bit of a caveat — are we measuring a high point of social tension in December, and then in April and May it will revert? Or is this the new normal? Stuff on our campus is persistent. The issue hasn’t gone away. The other reason is that [at Tufts], on October 10, 11 and 12, the Students for Justice in Palestine wrote a celebratory message about October 7 and other student groups didn’t isolate them. In fact, many student organizations are now in community with that organization, with ceasefire and intifada chants.

To my mind — and I think to some students — the initial reaction of students to October 7 will leave a searing memory. At the same time, college is kind of short. I don’t know what happens next year or the year after. You teach politics and you realize they have no memory of Obama — you’re always in a new crop of students.

Illustrative: A pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel student protests at the University of California, Berkeley’s Sather Gate October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Liedtke)

I’d love to talk more about the political left-right divide you saw in your findings, especially your findings on “liberal-seeming” minorities like nonbinary and Black Americans, and how they actually sound rather conservative on many issues relating to Jews.

The race part of that question is long-standing, by which I mean how Blacks and Latinos answer questions about Jews. Even though, of course, Black and Latino Americans tend to vote Democratic, about one-third of them, even younger people, identify as conservative, and they’re pretty well distributed along the ideological spectrum. And although less work has been done on this, it’s also true for nonbinary identifiers. It’s not a proxy for being far left.

When [four years ago my colleague Laura Royden and I] surveyed, for an academic paper, young people aged 18-30 asking do Jews have too much power, the far right said yes — but the results were just as high among Black and Latino populations as the alt-right. This is not new, that African Americans in particular consistently have much more negative views toward Jews than white Americans.

We see it here [in these survey results] as well. There’s a lot less written quantitatively about nonbinary identifiers, but we see something similar — controlling for ideology, there is a clear and consistent relationship where nonbinary identifiers are supportive of ostracizing Jews, and Jews who support Israel or the existence of Israel, more than their male and female peers.

What I always try to do in my academic work is stay close to the data, and explain what we see and why — but usually, the lesson when you take a political science class is that things are much more complicated than we thought they were. That’s true here.

Students for Justice in Palestine project a message proclaiming ‘Glory to our martyrs’ on the Gelman Library at George Washington University in Washington, DC, October 24, 2023. (Courtesy)

There is an ideological dimension of views toward Jews and Israel, and something that looks more like group conflict around race or other kinds of identity. It’s hard sometimes to know what “left” and “right” are. I take it that most people would, I think, consider a pro-peace position to be left-wing — but then, what to make of the pro-Palestinian group that advocates for armed resistance and supports the attack on October 7? It’s left-adjacent. I think most of the students involved in that kind of activity consider themselves of the left rather than of the right, but it’s not a liberal position. It’s all very confusing.

In our campus coalition of all the organizations that have been supportive of Students for Justice in Palestine according to the Tufts Daily [are groups such as] African Students, Asian Coalition, South Asians, Labor groups, Muslim groups, an Arab group, an Ethiopian group, a Panafrican group, the Tufts Pole Dance Collective, a bhangra dance group, a Bengali group, et cetera. But notice: there is a Tufts Democrat group, and they’re not on the list. What you see is affinity groups for some minority group, and that’s a different story from a Democrat versus Republican or left versus right. That seems like a racialized form of politics.

Can you elaborate on what racialized politics look like on campus?

If we were putting ourselves in the headspace of a student who is really opposed to Israel’s existence, they might hold a view that “most Jews, including young Jews, support Israel, I just better avoid them — this is a litmus test for my friendships and it’s just best to avoid them.”

If you were a student who was Republican, and you just hated hanging out with Democrats, and you know from surveys that 90% of African Americans vote Democratic, maybe you say, “I’m not socializing with African Americans — not because they’re Black, but because they hold a position I find distasteful.” Very few students actually say that. Many more students agree that if they know the student does support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state — which was 80% of Jews in our sample — that’s the litmus test.

Avoiding students who support Israel as a Jewish state is very clearly higher on the left than the right. It was true of 50% who identify as very liberal or socialist — among everyone else, more like one-quarter of students say that.

But students on the right tend to agree with statements that are more extreme. When we surveyed students three to four years ago and asked, do you think Jews should be held accountable for Israel’s actions by boycotting Jewish businesses — you’d get the answer “yes” more on right than left.

‘We ask them, are Israeli civilians legitimate targets of Hamas? And we still get more ‘yes’ answers on the right than the left’

Here we ask them, are Israeli civilians legitimate targets of Hamas? And we still get more “yes” answers on the right than the left. For the questions that hinge on agreement on targeting Jews as an identity group, or that hint at violence, we saw more agreement on the right than on the left. Not like it’s high — most students on the right are not agreeing with these kinds of statements. But those that are, have a higher inclination to say something that’s anti-PC, like “I don’t like a lot of these groups and I’m willing to say so.” There’s more of a willingness to publicly declare these views or express countercultural views.

Members of Columbia University’s faculty hold a protest in support of Palestinians and for free speech on the Columbia University campus on November 15, 2023, in New York City. (SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA via AFP)

Do you think there’s going to be a potential bounce back of feelings towards Jewish students?

I guess I don’t know. My read of the data within and across campuses is the tensions are really social. I don’t think anyone believes that a new statement from a university president or a new program from Hillel will address the problem once and for all. The problem is what is socially acceptable or not acceptable, what is praised and not praised, at a social level — and I don’t think that’s a problem that gets easily solved. Let’s say a very popular group on campus is calling for another October 7. That’s not a position that’s treated like some kind of deviant position — I think that’s considered a “social justice” position. I don’t know what changes to change that. But I have to say that certainly, most non-Jewish students could go through life [at a university] and not know anything about this and not be engaged one way or the other.

So what’s the answer here? Are things going to get better? Can they get even worse? What would you tell all the Jewish parents wondering if American universities in 2024 are safe for their kids?

I think one thing is that these moments of crisis are times of personal development — learning more, feeling more connectedness, attending more events — across the age spectrum. You see it in our data that there is a big shift in more students feeling a sense of connection [to being Jewish]. I think for parents, or for incoming students, that’s an opportunity. But it also comes with a downside. I think in some ways, I’d offer a positive spin. I think one reason why Israel is such a conflictual issue on campuses is that on many elite liberal campuses, the universities have created very homogeneous student bodies [ideologically]. [Israel-Palestine] is an issue where there is clear disagreement, and many students are not very well equipped at having a nice conversation with people they disagree with. So I think that for Jewish students, there is, even among the Jewish students themselves, a very wide range of views about Israel and the conflict, but an opportunity to live with disagreement and ambiguity and grow from that.

Activists with the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow hold a rally demanding a ceasefire in Gaza on October 18, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

That’s the upside. I think the downside is that it really kind of depends where in the Jewish community someone is coming from. Folks coming from engaged Jewish backgrounds — day school, and/or Jewish camp — when they come to campus, they’re thrust into a position of leadership whether they like it or not, and that’s because they feel a sense of obligation to the Jewish community and they have a strong identity. Some 18- and 19-year-olds really don’t want to be out front on something. I think that’s a hard thing, because some of these students probably don’t want that, or would be better off without it. Also, you have to note that a campus without any social conflict might not have any Jewish community. If you send your kid to Columbia, it’s the densest Jewish life possible, but maybe the most exposure to social tensions and antisemitism.

‘Folks coming from engaged Jewish backgrounds… when they come to campus, they’re thrust into a position of leadership whether they like it or not’

Parents and kids need to get a sense that it’s not just a question of what the campus is like, but what the student wants it to be like. Do they want Jewish life to be easy and calm, or nonexistent, or highly politicized? It’s kind of a crazy thing — students are at this crazy decision point, making all kinds of life-changing decisions, so think through how this fits into that. And there’s an additional dimension of how lonely an endeavor you want that to be. It’s a difference if you’re going to a place with a Hillel and there’s 100 Jewish kids, or if there’s five, or whether you have a community of people who are like you. That’s something these schools vary on a bunch.

What do you say to the parents who say, “Oh, there’s a lot of tension at that school, even though it was historically a ‘great place to be a Jewish student,’ so now no Jewish students should apply there”?

I think basically we may be learning that what is the right outcome for a lot of families — especially families who are very engaged in the Jewish world — might lead to a bad outcome for the universities and the Jewish world writ large. Those are the kids who would have so much to offer the Jewish community at, say, the University of Pennsylvania, and would strengthen it if they went there. And if they evacuate those spaces, what is left is a leadership vacuum. I don’t think it’s a great outcome for the Jewish people if there are 10 “acceptable” Jewish schools in the rotation instead of 50. If you’re advising individual students, however, it might be a different answer.

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