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Trivializing Anti-Semitism

Following the publication of a study from Brandeis University—“Antisemitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities” – Ha’aretz reported that “Three Quarters of US and Canadian College Students Exposed to Antisemitism.” Strangely, although I have been living and studying in two different states of the US for over four years now, I have never heard of any case of antisemitism. In Israel, the depiction of antisemitism as a rapidly increasing phenomenon is circulated by cynical politicians, mainly from the political Right. Unfortunately, rather than expose the true scope of antisemitism, the Brandeis research similarly participates in an orchestrated campaign aimed to silence critics of Israel.

Its methodology, for one, is fundamentally flawed. One assumes that a report on antisemitism in North American campuses would be based on a diverse sample of Jewish college students. Instead, “the survey targeted a sample of applicants to summer 2015 Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.” A more proper sample that would reflect the seriousness of the issue would poll Jews of a variety of backgrounds, including those critical of or indifferent to Taglit.

An even bigger issue from which the research suffers is known as the self-selection bias. The study itself concedes that “Political conservatives were also more likely to see hostility toward Jews as a problem than moderates or liberals.” The results come as no surprise then, since the sample set proves conservative. Of those polled, only some 13% believed Israel violates Palestinian human rights. But within academia, as opposed to the Israeli public discourse, the violation of Palestinian human rights is an undeniable fact, documented even by ultra-Zionist scholars. The report claims to represent the experience of Jewish students in North America. However, with all its statistical pyrotechnics, it actually studies the views of a minority of respondents (25%) among a self-selected group of highly un-critical supporters of Israel, thus greatly skewing results from the outset. The report admits that “Connection to Israel is the strongest predictor of perceiving a hostile environment toward Israel and Jews on campus.” According to the respondents’ unawareness of the reality in Palestine, we can assume that connection with the Israeli Right was the strongest predictor of replying to the survey.

Despite the title of the report, in several notable instances the researchers conflate “hostility toward Jews and Israel”—as though they are synonymous, thereby contributing to the most prominent feature of Israel’s “public diplomacy.” Even the image on the report’s front cover depicts a protester with an “Israel” sign. But the attempt to collapse the categories “Anti-Israeli” and antisemitic does not hold water. The researchers acknowledge the differences between Anti-Israelism and antisemitism but fail, or refuse, to address these differences properly. As is the case on page 15 of the report, the researchers state that “Canadian universities, schools in the California state system…are over-represented among those schools with the highest average levels of hostility toward Israel.” But the words “and Jews” were mysteriously added to this finding regarding California and Canadian universities when placed on the first page of the report summary.

The research’s findings ultimately contradict its most basic assumptions. For example, only a minority of the respondents (27%) “defined criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic.” But the research measures antisemitism by asking students whether they have been exposed “at one time during the past year to at least one of six anti-Semitic statements,” which includes the following statement: “Israelis behave ‘like Nazis’ toward the Palestinians.” It is without question that such a statement is ugly and ludicrous; however, it addresses Israel, and hence, according to the students themselves, has little to do with antisemitism.

While the report claims to “explore the extent to which criticism toward Israel evolves into antisemitism,” it does not successfully differentiate between the two phenomena and thus plays into the hands of Israel’s far Right discourse. Of course, governments like to wage wars without having to deal with anti-war protests, may it be Kent State in 1970 or UCLA in 2014. But the Israeli government’s wish to censor protests against its actions should not dictate the scholarly measuring of antisemitism. Unfortunately, the study follows the cynical and paranoiac logic of Israel’s current leaders. It is aimed to silence condemnation of the Israeli government as antisemitic in nature. The marriage of Israel’s Right and the supposedly unbiased institutions of academic research has produced a dangerously distorted narrative of rampant antisemitism, evinced in reports like this one. It ultimately trivializes the rare but real acts of antisemitism for the benefit of the most extreme government in Israel’s history.

Most students I have met and taught know better. Many support Israel but are aware of its ongoing occupation and its violations of Human Rights. And most importantly, as the study itself finds, they refuse to be blamed for Israel’s actions. The “75%” study is a scholarly debacle that reminds us that there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The Brandeis report may gain headlines but draws a hysteric portrait that does not reflect the real situation in North American campuses. Instead, it strengthens a cynical hasbara campaign, Israel’s only reply to its critics.

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Robert Eisinger received his BA in Philosophy and Literature from Tel-Aviv University and MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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