In its 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans, the Pew Research Center found that younger Jews were more likely than older Jews to report being called offensive names because they were Jewish. Specifically, the numbers were 22 percent of those 18-29, 16 percent of those 30-49, and 5 percent of those 50 and older. Did this signify a resurgence of antisemitism in American society?
Struck by the finding, my Trinity College colleagues Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar asked the Jewish college students they surveyed in the spring of 2014 whether they had personally experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the beginning of the academic year. To the researchers’ surprise, fully fifty-four percent said that they had. And it made little difference whether the students were more or less open about their Jewishness, which stream of Judaism they identified with, whether they were male or female, or what grade they were in.
A majority of the reported incidents involved comments from individuals, as opposed to institutional contexts, according to Kosmin and Keysar’s newly released report. The question is: What’s the explanation?
One possibility is the rise in anti-Israel sentiment on campuses. The BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) movement against Israel has gained traction at a number of colleges and universities, and in some cases has led to ugly attacks, verbal and otherwise, on Jewish students. But Kosmin and Keysar find little evidence linking reported antisemitism among American students to hostility to Israel. That, they point out, is much more the case in Britain.
“My own view,” Kosmin told the Connecticut Jewish Ledger last week, “is that part of it is linked to social media in many ways because inhibitions and civility have been eroded in this generation.” Anyone who writes a blog (present company included) becomes accustomed to receiving hostile comments; on the information highway, digital road rage goes with the traffic. But it pales before the free-flow of insult that’s now sweeping colleges and high schools. If you doubt it, take a look at today’s New York Times story on the anonymous social media site Yik Yak.
The disturbing evidence of antisemitism on campuses may, in other words, reflect a larger phenomenon — vituperation generated on-line and sent in all directions: toward Jews and Gentiles, men and women, Asians and WASPS, whomever. It’s a cliche to say that more study is needed — but I’m ready to say so. Whether or not there’s anything that can be done about it, at least we’ll know.