New research on U.S. College Students and the War in Israel: Jewish Engagement and Social Tension on Campus

March 6th, 2024

Students survey pre and post Oct. 7th say they pay social penalties for being Jewish and supporting Israel; data also show how non-Jewish anti-Israel and antisemitic statements breakdown by political ideology

March 6, 2024 — Jewish college students are experiencing and exhibiting significant changes on college campuses since October 7th regarding their Jewish identity, participation in Jewish programming, and increased social tension on campus, according to new findings from research conducted by Eitan Hersh, PhD, and College Pulse, and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. The research provides key insights on the impact of October 7th and subsequent rise in antisemitism on Jewish college students on campus. The study also asked questions about their views on Israel and the extent to which their own mental health has been affected in recent months.

The research, “U.S. College Students and the War in Israel: Jewish Engagement and Social Tension on Campus,” is unique because it includes survey responses from Jewish college students who also participated in a study conducted by Dr. Hersh in 2022.

“The students from both surveys are a direct link between pre-October 7 Jewish life on campus and post-October 7 Jewish life on campus,” said Dr. Hersh, professor of Political Science at Tufts University. “The data show a campus environment that is a much different place for Jewish students. They felt a big social change. Many of their non-Jewish peers of all political perspectives act differently toward them.”

One set of findings, The Social Costs of Being Jewish and Supporting Israel on Campus: What a Before/After Survey Can Tell Us , notes that more than a third of Jewish students report they are hiding their identity in order to fit in and are being judged if they participate in Jewish activities. Those numbers have doubled from before the conflict. Additionally, Jewish students overwhelmingly perceive a social penalty for supporting the right of Israel to exist. Non-Jewish students in the survey corroborate this, with the highest agreement (50 percent) coming from those on the far left or who identify as socialist.

Another set of findings, A Survey Portrait of Jewish Life on Campus in the Midst of the Israel-Hamas War: 7 Key Findings notes that Jewish students feel a heightened sense of Jewish identity; 35 percent say they feel very close to a Jewish community, double the amount who said so in April 2022. Relatedly, there appears to be a substantial increase both in students who occasionally attend Jewish activities and programs on campus and those who attend events weekly or more. However, the increase in participation does not mean that these spaces were always comfortable for all Jewish students.

“Amid stronger Jewish identities and engagement, a major change from our survey just two years ago is that more of these young people have formed opinions and have increased their support for the state,” added Hersh. “Jewish students, and essentially only Jewish students, are attending Pro-Israel events.”

Additional findings, covered in The Complicated Relationship between Ideology and Attitudes about Jews and Israel, break down views among students by ideology, finding that “Young people on the left are more likely to exhibit extreme negative attitudes when it comes to Israel, whereas young people on the right, as well as some minority identity groups typically associated with the left, are more likely to endorse ominous and prejudicial statements about Jews.” These minority identity groups are “far more likely to say that Israeli civilians are legitimate targets of Hamas than White students are. In other words, these students answer the Israel-focused questions like liberals and Jewish-focused questions like conservatives.”

“For anyone looking to support and meaningfully engage Jewish college students, the data show both immense challenges and opportunities,” said Stacie Cherner, Director of Research and Learning at the Jim Joseph Foundation. “Both in scale and depth, the research goes beyond anecdotal stories many of us have heard. Jewish students feel more isolated and ostracized, and they feel this from peers of all political perspectives.”

These findings represent a mid-point in the research. A series of focus groups will be conducted in the spring, as well as another survey. Both of these data collection efforts will allow for continued examination of change over time, and a full report will be available in summer 2024.




Study Background:
The study was funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. The survey itself was administered by College Pulse, a survey and analytics firm specializing in the college student population. Dr. Hersh, who has conducted a number of studies on civic engagement, young adults, and antisemitism, worked with the Foundation and College Pulse to organize this research project and analyze the results. The Methodology is explained in the report:

Back in the Spring of 2022, our team surveyed approximately 2,000 Jewish students and 1,000 non-Jewish students across the country who were attending 4-year colleges. I published a report in 2022 that details the methodology and results. That report analyzed several questions related to Israel and antisemitism that have become especially relevant in light of the recent turmoil on campuses.

Because there are no official benchmarks of what the true population of Jewish American students looks like in terms of demographics or attitudes, it’s hard to know whether a sample of this kind is truly representative. However, as explained in my 2022 report, the basic demographics of the students who were sampled look similar to other studies, such as the young adults surveyed in Pew’s 2020 study of Jewish Americans, which gives us some confidence in the sample.

Between November 16 and December 21, 2023 – 40-75 days following the October 7th attack – we fielded a second survey. This survey was completed by about 1,000 Jewish students and 1,500 non-Jewish students. The Jewish students include those who consider themselves ethnically or culturally Jewish even if not Jewish by religion.

155 of the Jewish students surveyed in 2023 were among the students who were surveyed back in 2022. Back then, they were freshmen and sophomores. Now, they’re juniors and seniors. This is called a panel design, and I’ll refer to the students surveyed both years as “the panel.” The full set of respondents in each year I’ll refer to as the “cross-sections.”

The panel of students surveyed both years provides a link between pre-October 7 Jewish life on campus and post-October 7 Jewish life on campus. If we observe attitudinal changes in the panel, we know it’s not because of sampling variation but because students felt differently in 2023 than 2022. It turns out that the changes we measure are so big that they are highly statistically significant, even with a relatively modest sample size of 155 students in the panel.

One last note on the methodology. In the 2022 survey, the sample of non-Jewish students was designed to be representative of four-year college students across the country. In the 2023 survey, we made an adjustment. We focused the non-Jewish sample on schools that have substantial Jewish populations. To really understand social tensions and the campus climate as experienced by Jewish students, we didn’t need to survey non-Jewish students in schools that have very few Jewish students.

Instead, the 2023 survey pulls non-Jewish students mainly from 21 specific campuses. Those campuses are quite diverse. They include public schools (e.g., Binghamton, University of Michigan) and private schools (e.g., Columbia, Tulane); they are in northeast (e.g., Dartmouth, Northeastern), the south (e.g., Emory, University of Central Florida); the midwest (e.g., Washington University-St. Louis, Ohio State), and the west (e.g., University of California, San Diego, University of Arizona). But they are all campuses with sizeable Jewish populations.

About the Researcher:
Eitan Hersh is a professor of political science at Tufts University. His research focuses on US elections and civic participation. Hersh is the author of Politics is for Power (Scribner, 2020), Hacking the Electorate (Cambridge UP 2015), as well as many scholarly articles. Hersh earned his PhD from Harvard in 2011 and served as assistant professor of political science at Yale University from 2011-2017. His public writings have appeared in venues such as the New York Times, USA Today, The Atlantic, POLITICO, and the Boston Globe. Hersh regularly testifies in voting rights court cases and has testified to the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the role of data analytics in political campaigns. In addition to work on elections and civic engagement, Hersh has written on topics ranging from antisemitism and the political consequences of terrorist attacks to politicization in health care delivery and the opioid crisis. His next book is about the civic role of business leaders.