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Anti-Semitism After Charlottesville

Matthew J. Mayhew, Benjamin S. Selznick, Kevin Singer and Alyssa N. Rockenbach provide data and advice on improving attitudes toward Jewish students on college campuses.

June 27, 2018
 
 

As white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, they shouted, “Blood and soil!” (a Nazi slogan) and “Jews will not replace us!” Some carried Nazi flags and wore T-shirts with Adolf Hitler quotes. Such expressions and sentiments, wrote staff writer Emma Green in The Atlantic, are physical reflections of a white supremacist ideology, one in which Jews “hover malevolently in the background, pulling strings, controlling events, acting as an all-powerful force backing and enabling the other targets of their hate.”

Although the anti-Semitism in Charlottesville was shocking to many Americans, it was anything but for American Jews. A 2013 Pew Research study found that 43 percent of Jewish Americans agreed that Jews face a lot of discrimination, while 15 percent reported being called offensive names and facing social rejection for being Jewish in the year prior. The Anti-Defamation League reported that, in 2017, 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents took place across the United States -- a 57 percent increase from 2016. And after the events in Charlottesville, anti-Semitic acts spiked by 182 percent across the country, according to a November 2017 report.

American colleges and universities in particular saw an 89 percent increase in anti-Semitic acts last year, according to the ADL. People drew swastikas at numerous campuses, while Jewish students reported incidents of harassment, bullying and assault. The issue became so prevalent that the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss it. They recommended the U.S. Department of Education adopt a clearer definition of what constitutes harassment toward Jewish students, to ensure that future investigations into anti-Semitic acts are easier to conduct.

Given such increasing reports of anti-Semitism on campuses, it is time to better understand the attitudes that non-Jewish students have toward their Jewish peers, and how such attitudes might be improved.

Enter the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study, or IDEALS, a national investigation of how experiences with worldview diversity (i.e., interactions with other religious, spiritual or nonreligious beliefs) are shaping students’ attitudes about their campus climate, their own spirituality and other worldview groups. Research teams led by Matthew Mayhew at Ohio State University and Alyssa Rockenbach at North Carolina State University are conducting this multiyear study in partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core. Through IDEALS, we have surveyed the same cohort of students across 122 colleges and universities at the beginning of their first year (fall 2015) and the end of their first year (spring 2016), and we will sample those students again at the end of their senior year (spring 2019).

Findings from students’ first-year experiences revealed that those who described themselves as being “highly appreciative” of Jews rose 11 percentage points from the start of college (53 percent) to the end of their first year (64 percent). A highly appreciative attitude, according to the study, suggests an understanding of the positive contributions that the group in view (in this case, Jews) makes to society. That understanding, in turn, strengthens students’ goodwill and respect toward that group and improves the likelihood that students will continue learning more about it.

The study also raises the question of what college experiences contribute to appreciative attitudes. Previous research revealed that having educational experiences that provoke self-reflection on one’s assumptions, interfaith engagement with students of other beliefs and informal experiences interacting with diverse peers all contribute to students’ appreciation of Jews. Additionally, the presence of a Jewish student organization (e.g., Chabad, Hillel) also positively influenced appreciative attitudes toward Jewish students. The research further found that campus climates perceived as divisive and insensitive toward religious differences can lead to less appreciative attitudes toward Jews, suggesting the power of campus climate to promote or hinder perceptions of worldview others.

These findings dovetail with a promising report from Pew Research in February 2017, in which participants were asked to rate religious and nonreligious groups on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from zero to 100. Warmness toward Jews rose four points, from 63 to 67, from 2014, making them one of the most highly rated groups in America. For those who said they had personal connections with Jews, their rating was even higher at 72, compared to 58 for those who did not. Those findings strike general agreement with the 78 percent of students in the IDEALS sample who perceived their campus as welcoming toward Jews.

How, then, do we reconcile startling neo-Nazi hatred with findings reflecting increasingly positive and welcoming attitudes toward Jews? It depends, perhaps, on how one interprets these data. Some people may frame the findings as more positive, choosing to interpret increasing anti-Semitic behavior as a series of isolated incidents. Others, however, see these trends and wonder: What social conditions would need to change for Jews to be rated higher on the feeling thermometer? What about the one in five students who didn’t see their campus as welcoming toward Jews? Carefully considering such conflicting narratives, we hope, can illuminate pathways toward productive action -- especially among those charged with leading productive exchanges concerning religious and worldview diversity. As IDEALS research continues, we hope to uncover the practices and mechanisms responsible for helping students move from curiosity to interest, from tolerance to appreciation, and ultimately from thought exercise to responsible action.

Such action is not trivial. Given their small numbers in the United States and historical persecution on a global scale, Jews are highly vulnerable to the attitudes and behaviors of others. Encouragingly, our research presents an overall picture of colleges and universities as educational spaces where students from all worldview backgrounds can explore the beliefs of others, including Jews. Though religion and worldview are often forgotten about in diversity initiatives, IDEALS is finding that consciously and intentionally addressing worldview diversity in productive ways can have a significant impact on how different groups in American society feel about one another. We hope programmatic and policy responses to such findings contribute to a future in which anti-Semitism is no longer tolerated on campuses or, indeed, in American society.

Bio

Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at the Ohio State University. Benjamin S. Selznick is assistant professor at James Madison University, School of Strategic Leadership Studies. Kevin Singer is a Ph.D. student in higher education at North Carolina State University. Alyssa N. Rockenbach is professor of higher education at North Carolina State University.

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