Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies

Drawing the Line: How US Jewish College Students Think About Antisemitism

Graham Wright, Sasha VolodarskyShahar Hecht, and Leonard Saxe

April 2024

In our December 2023 report, we documented the level of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hostility on 51 US campuses since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. One question prompted by our findings was how Jewish students “draw the line” between acceptable political discourse and antisemitism. Guidelines developed to define antisemitism (IHRA, NEXUS, JDA) agree that while criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic, particular statements can be, depending on the broader context. This report explores which forms of anti-Israel sentiments are viewed by Jewish college students as “crossing the line” into antisemitism, including critical statements about Israel that have received attention during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The findings are based on survey data collected in November-December 2023 from more than 2,000 Jewish undergraduate students at 51 US colleges and universities with large Jewish student populations. 

Drawing the Line report cover

Key Findings

  • Even in the intense period soon after October 7, Jewish college students had relatively nuanced views about what constituted antisemitism. There was near universal agreement that claims that “Jews have too much power” or that “Israel has no right to exist” were antisemitic. At the same time, most of our Jewish respondents did not consider the claim that Israel violated the human rights of the Palestinian people to be antisemitic.
  • Similarly, the vast majority of respondents felt that a popular phrase used by protest groups, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” was at least “probably” antisemitic, and most thought it was “definitely” antisemitic. Far fewer felt the same way about other provocative criticism of Israel, such as that it is an “apartheid state” or is committing “genocide.”
  • Respondents who were more favorable toward the Israeli government, or who had a stronger emotional connection to Israel, were more likely to consider these statements antisemitic. However, even among respondents with unfavorable views of the Israeli government and/or limited emotional connections to Israel, many viewed some of these statements, such as the slogan “from the river to the sea,” as antisemitic. 
  • By and large, these Jewish students’ strong ties to Israel did not preclude them from having unfavorable views toward the Israeli government, nor did their negative view of Hamas spill over into apathy toward the lives of the Palestinian people. Respondents expressed very high levels of concern about the lives of Israelis and the lives of Palestinians in Gaza.

Takeaways and Implications

  1. The vast majority of Jewish students view denying Israel’s right to exist as antisemitic. Campus administrators should be aware that statements calling for Israel’s destruction are seen as calls for the murder of Israelis and considered antisemitic by the vast majority of Jewish students, including those who are critical of Israel’s government.
  2. Most Jewish students see the slogan “from the river to sea” as antisemitic. Although many critics of Israel who use this slogan view it as a call for equal rights, most of the Jewish college students in our study appear to understand the statement as reflecting a de facto call for the elimination of Israel, or as reflecting solidarity with Hamas’s attacks on Jewish civilians.
  3. Jewish students differ among themselves about whether calling Israel an “apartheid state” or accusing it of "genocide" rise to the level of antisemitism.  Understanding why Jews might see these statements as being antisemitic in certain contexts (but perhaps not in others) is important for facilitating productive dialogue.
  4. Variations in the campus climate with regard to antisemitism is not merely a function of Jews at certain campuses being especially “sensitive” to antisemitism. Regardless of their own views about Israel and their own operational definitions of what constitutes antisemitism, Jewish students see antisemitism related to criticism of Israel as a serious problem.
  5. For most Jewish students, there is no inherent conflict between being emotionally connected to Israel and being critical of the Israeli government. It should be possible to facilitate respectful discussions about Israel that leave space for intense criticism without causing serious offense to Jews who see Israel as an important part of their identity. Inhibiting students’ ability to express criticism of Israel and its actions may further isolate Jewish students from one another and from their non-Jewish peers.

This report is the second in a series aimed at identifying evidence-based strategies for effectively responding to antisemitism on campus.