Anti-Israel and anti-Jewish: Not the same thing

Operation Swords of Iron, initiated in response to Hamas’ brutal attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, ignited a firestorm of anti-Israel rhetoric and action on college campuses. The Jewish blood libel recently invoked at Columbia University is only one example of the unabating hate on college campuses and the harsh world Jewish students must now navigate. 

In order for the Jewish community to effectively address antisemitic and anti-Israel hate, it needs to establish a clear understanding of its presence. Data from the 2024 College Free Speech Rankings — a massive survey of 55,102 students across 254 campuses, conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — provides insight into attitudes on college campuses nationwide.

In the FIRE data, there is a simple but illuminating survey question: “Which of the following groups on your campus should be able to register as student organizations and receive student activity fees?” Setting aside the 1,836 respondents who identified their religion as Jewish (3.3% of the unweighted sample), the data revealed that almost half (49%) answered that pro-Israel student groups should be able to register and receive funding as official groups on campus, almost as many as those who approved allowing the recognition and funding of pro-Palestinian student groups (54%). Using overlap between rejection of the idea of officially recognizing and funding pro-Israel groups but approval for officially recognizing and funding pro-Palestinian groups as an indicator of anti-Israel attitudes, 7.2% of the respondents qualify as anti-Israel.

A parallel measure can be created to see whether the anti-Israel students harbor anti-Jewish attitudes. 

In response to related questions about which student groups should be able to register as student organizations and receive funding, about the same number of respondents indicated they would deny recognition to Jewish student groups (37%) and Christian groups (38%). If we define anti-Jewish in the context of this survey as a respondent who would deny official recognition and funding to Jewish groups but be okay with recognizing Christian groups, then 4.7% of respondents qualify as anti-Jewish.

When we analyze the data using these operational definitions of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, the statistical correlation between being anti-Israel and anti-Jewish is close to zero: Of the anti-Israel respondents, just 5.4% are anti-Jewish (and of the respondents who would be okay with official pro-Israel groups on campus, 4.6% are anti-Jewish). In other words, being anti-Israel does not predict being anti-Jewish.

Not only are the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish measures unrelated to each other, but they also have very different relationships with political and cultural identities. According to the FIRE survey, politically left-identifying students are more anti-Israel than those on the right, but the right-identifying students are more anti-Jewish than those on the left. Specifically, anti-Israel sentiment reaches 14% among those who call themselves “very liberal” and drops to just 3% among “very conservative” students. For anti-Jewish attitudes, the numbers are reversed: 2% for very liberal versus 14% for very conservative. The widest gap is associated with Democratic Socialists, a separate answer category, where 17% qualified as anti-Israel and just 3% as anti-Jewish, further testifying to the lack of correlation between the two attitudes.

The data also show that several social identities score high on the anti-Israel measure but just average or even low on the anti-Jewish index. Among the most anti-Israel are: people who identify their gender as other than male or female; students who identify their sexual orientation as anything other than straight; and those who identify as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious affiliation. Notably, of all of these groups, often seen as elements of the variegated progressive camp in America, none were particularly anti-Jewish by our operational definition. 

What is imperative here is that when these findings are taken together, they suggest that anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes are distinctive phenomena. The two sentiments, as measured here, are not at all correlated; rather, they belong to contrasting political profiles and are found among different social groups.

Not a few commentators have cast anti-Israel actors as Jew-haters. While such may well be the case for Hamas terrorists, and an assortment of figures and groups in America and around the world, the anti-Israel constituency among rank-and-file American college students is not particularly motivated by animus toward Jews, indicated by the fact that the same students who want to ban pro-Israel groups have no particular interest in banning Jewish student groups on their campuses.

To be sure, we must treat these survey results with a good measure of caution. After all, we have only one measure of anti-Israel sentiment and one measure of anti-Jewish sentiment, which cannot possibly capture the complex issues surrounding Israel and Jews. A richer data set would possibly uncover more about relationships between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes. 

That being said, findings supporting that the two attitudes are almost independent of one another among college students certainly demand further investigation, because organizations working to defend Israel and to defend Jews might need to do more to differentiate their work to address two distinct challenges. They’ll need to see the individuals with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes as falling into separate camps with distinctive identities and motivations, demanding differentiated strategies and tactics. 

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.