Misunderstanding antisemitism in America
Culture war spin, unfortunate media tendencies and social research biases produce a badly distorted understanding of the world
is a sociologist in the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University and a research fellow at Heterodox Academy.
According to many popular contemporary narratives, American society is rife with antisemitism. Institutions of higher learning are purportedly hotbeds of anti-Jewish animus, indoctrinating impressionable young people into a leftist ideology that paints Jews as extraordinarily privileged, Israelis as oppressors, Hamas as brave freedom fighters and Palestinians as blameless victims. Many people I deeply respect have embraced claims like these in recent weeks. However, I believe these narratives are demonstrably mistaken.
This is an issue that is near to my heart. As a Muslim who has done a lot of work on interfaith engagement, I view it as an imperative to stand with other “people of the book” — especially when they face persecution on the basis of their identity as Jews or Christians. On a more personal level, I have been supported throughout my intellectual journey by Jewish scholars who saw something in me that others did not, who helped me flourish as an academic and human being. I would not be where I am today, indeed, I would not be who I am today, were it not for Jewish mentors and colleagues who stood with me every step of the way.
As a consequence of these experiences, relationships and commitments, I take antisemitism very seriously. As a sociologist of knowledge, however, I am acutely aware that fighting any problem requires an accurate picture of what’s actually going on. And surveying the best available nationally representative data, we can see that while antisemitic sentiments and behaviors do appear to be on the rise, there does not seem to be a major antisemitism epidemic in the United States, on colleges campuses or on the left. In fact, in all of these are contexts, antisemitism is exceptionally rare relative to the alternatives.
Let’s start by looking at higher ed.
College campuses are not hotbeds of antisemitism
Contrary to widespread narratives, students do not internalize the views of their professors very often. Young people’s attitudes tend to be fairly stable throughout their college careers, and the limited change that occurs seems to be driven much more by peers than professors.
And far from pushing politics in the classroom, surveys suggest that more than 80 percent of scholars who work on Middle East issues self-censor on the topic of Israel and Palestine. Overwhelmingly, this self-censorship entails refraining from criticism of Israel, typically out of fear of retaliation by external stakeholders, university administrators or student mobs.
Moreover, rather than education pushing people to hold antisemitic or anti-Israel views, college attendance and completion are inversely correlated with antisemitism. The overwhelming majority of college graduates embrace one or fewer of the Anti Defamation League (ADL)’s fourteen antisemitic attitudes. And even people who just attended some college but didn’t graduate tend to be significantly less antisemitic than those who didn’t go to college at all:
Higher education also corresponds to greater knowledge about the Holocaust and lowered propensity to engage in Holocaust denial.
And although this question is importantly distinct from antisemitism per se, the more college Americans get, the more likely they become to express positive views of Israel (and the less likely they become to view Israel unfavorably).
Why are so many people convinced that the opposite is true?
In part, it’s because, as has chronically been the case in “campus culture war” discourse, narratives about colleges and universities after October 7 have been driven heavily by sensationalized events at a small number of elite schools whose culture, policies and students are deeply unrepresentative of higher ed writ large.
Exacerbating this problem, many inappropriately conflate trends among young people as a whole with trends among college students in particular and then inappropriately blame institutions of higher learning and “radical professors” for trends that are common among young people writ large, even those that did not attend college.
The widespread tendency to conflate opposition to Zionism, criticism of the Israeli government, or support for the Palestinian cause with antisemitism reinforces these misperceptions.
“Kids these days” and views of Israel vs Jewish people
Let’s unpack all this a little.
Whether they graduated from college or not, young people are significantly less supportive of the Israeli government than older generations. Moreover, by a more than 2:1 ratio, Americans under 30 disapprove of Biden’s handling of the current conflict in Gaza. Critically, however, disapproval of Israeli policies or the US posture towards Israel is not the same as antisemitism.
In fact, many Jewish people in the US and Israel itself are deeply critical of the Israeli government and its policies, both in this particular conflict and more broadly. For instance, a 2021 Pew Research poll found that only one-third of American Jews believe the Israeli government is making a sincere effort towards peace with the Palestinians.
A 2021 survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that roughly a quarter of American Jews view Israel as an apartheid state and more than a one in five agree that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” Among Jews under 40, more than one-third hold these views. Across age groups, and irrespective of whether they personally endorse them, Jewish Americans overwhelmingly reject labeling any of these positions as “antisemitic”:
Contemporary efforts to define criticism of Israel or Zionism as “antisemitism,” not only defy the express preferences of most US Jews, but could also lead to the censorship of large numbers of Jewish Americans who, themselves, subscribe to these positions (and, as it happens, many of these rules would likely end up censoring pro-Israel views eventually too, while potentially exacerbating actual antisemitism).
The erroneous tendency to characterize anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel as inherently antisemitic also leads to an exaggerated view of how pronounced anti-Jewish animus is among young people, Democrats and many other populations.
The ways polls and surveys are sliced can further distort how Americans view Israel, Israelis, and Jews more broadly. For instance, media organizations often frame support for Israel or Palestine as an implicit zero-sum matter by emphasizing metrics that subtract the share of Americans who support Israel from those who support the Palestinian cause:
Looking at a chart like the one above, it would be easy to believe that most Democrats today have a negative view of Israel. But that is not what the chart shows at all. In fact, the exact same poll shows most Democrats have a favorable view of Israel, and Israel’s current favorability among Democrats is only marginally lower today than it was in 2001.
The dramatic change in relative sympathies (reflected in the first chart in this series) seems to be driven not by anti-Israel animus but, rather, increased sympathy for Palestinians over the last decade. This trend seems to have been kicked off by the 2014 Israeli-initiated war in Gaza, which occurred during a period of heightened concern about the fate of the marginalized and disadvantaged among highly-educated white liberals.
Moreover, although young people hold more negative views of the Israeli state and its politics compared to older Americans, most nonetheless hold positive views of the Israeli people. Only 17 percent of Americans under 30 hold unfavorable views of Israelis but positive views of Palestinians. Everyone else (i.e. 83 percent of young Americans) either viewed both groups positively, held negative views about both groups or viewed Israelis positively but Palestinians negatively.
Additionally, although heavily supportive of a ceasefire, 18-29 year olds are more likely to say Hamas deserves “a lot” of blame for the current conflict than they are to blame Israel for it (though older Americans are skewed much farther in this direction).
And when we look at antisemitic attitudes directly, we can see that even though young people are especially critical of Israel or Zionism, they are also less likely to endorse antisemitic tropes than older Americans.
Again, views towards Israel and Zionism are poor proxies for anti-Jewish animus. To measure antisemitism, measure antisemitism.
Critically, there has been a slight uptick in actual antisemitic beliefs among young people in recent years (which has narrowed the gap between younger and older Americans, as reflected in the chart above). Nonetheless, Americans under 30 remain less antisemitic than everyone else. And far from being a product of “kids these days” internalizing leftist ideology, the observed increases in antisemitism are driven almost exclusively by shifts among young people on the far right.
All said, anecdotal and culture war-oriented narratives tying antisemitism in the US to left ideology are out of touch with patterns observed at the macro level.
Ideology and antisemitism
Since 2011, there has been a significant shift in the ideological alignments of knowledge economy professionals and institutions: they’ve grown far more concerned with “identity politics.” If it was true that left identitarian commitments lead people to discount antisemitism and view Jews as oppressors, the “Great Awokening” should correlate with decreased attention to antisemitism and reduced concern about antisemitism. In fact, as colleagues David Rozado, Jamin Halberstadt and I show in a recent paper, the opposite is true. Public discussion of antisemitism increased in both print and television media, just like other forms of identity-based prejudice. Public concern about antisemitism rose in tandem.
Identity politics was not antithetical to concern about antisemitism, but complementary. Why does it feel to many like the opposite is true? There is a straightforward explanation.
Most aligned with the left in the US do believe Jews face a lot of discrimination — albeit less so than Black people, Muslims, Hispanics, Asians or LGBTQ Americans. As liberals became more concerned about prejudice and discrimination writ large after 2011, they also became more concerned about antisemitism in particular. However, the rates of increases and absolute levels of concern about the challenges that Jews face were less dramatic than for many other groups. And so even though liberals are objectively more concerned about antisemitism than they were prior to the “Great Awokening,” this increase in discussion and concern about antisemitism seems largely drowned out by an even larger focus on, say, the agendas of the #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter movements.
Conservatives don’t think any group in US faces a lot of discrimination – irrespective of the reference group, their judgements are pretty consistent. Liberals, however, have a clear hierarchy of perceived victimhood.
Among Democrats, for instance, Jews are perceived to be less victimized than pretty much any other group that liberals tend to feel warmly towards.
But critically, Democrats still perceive much more discrimination against Jewish people than Republicans do. Democrats may be less concerned about antisemitism than they are about anti-Black racism, homophobia or Islamophobia, but Republicans tend to think virtually all “isms” and “phobias” are grossly exaggerated.
However, most college students aren’t regularly encountering the perspectives of Republicans. Both their classmates and professors tend to be overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party. Antisemitic attitudes of people on the right, regardless of their baseline severity or prevalence, are largely irrelevant to college students’ daily lives. As a consequence, Jewish students, regardless of their own ideological leanings, tend to be concerned about antisemitism on campus from the left more than the right:
Moreover, within left-dominated spaces, even if there is greater sensitivity about the challenges Jewish people face than would be present in right-dominated spaces, it nonetheless doesn’t feel great to have one’s own group victimhood rank low compared to the victimhood of others.
Essayist Jay Caspian Kang once described Asians in the US as “the loneliest Americans” because, although they face significant and unique challenges in virtue of their race, ethnicity and culture, it’s hard to get anyone to care about those issues. By most metrics, Asian Americans are doing better on average than most other Americans, and people’s sympathies tend to be far more focused on those who are experiencing the most severe forms of exclusion, oppression and hardship. Worse, institutions often seek to ameliorate these other inequalities in ways that come at the expense of high-achieving Asian Americans (for instance, through de facto racial quotas or the elimination of standardized meritocratic decision criteria at elite schools). However, to complain about these realities, especially to non-Asians, seems gauche. So instead, the challenges faced by Asian Americans become something that most people recognize on some level but typically politely ignore.
This “loneliness” Kang describes is something that Jewish Americans understand all too well.
Indeed, even in the face of a brutal massacre against Jews in the Middle East, college students and faculty appear to be more concerned about the much larger numbers of Palestinians being slaughtered in retaliation – and it seems difficult for many Jewish students to express their grief about, or seek recognition of, Hamas’ atrocities without implicitly justifying or seeming insensitive to the suffering of Palestinians.
The stakes in these conflicts over relative recognition can seem especially high at colleges and universities in virtue of the moral culture that prevails in many knowledge economy spaces, wherein victimhood serves as a form of social currency (leading highly-educated Americans to perceive or describe themselves and members of their in-group as having been victims of “phobias” or “isms” at far higher rates than everyone else in society). In these contexts, it isn’t just emotionally unfortunate when people prioritize others’ victimhood over one’s own, it can be socially consequential.
In order to push others to take their victimization claims more seriously, Jewish students, faculty and advocacy groups have more aggressively embraced “safetyist” discourse that other groups have long relied upon, or have attempted to co-opt DEI policies and training to coercively sensitize others to their feelings and concerns. Others have pushed institutions towards adopting extremely broad definitions of antisemitism that could muzzle criticism of Israel. Still others have attempted to suppress pro-Palestinian views and punish those who express them by mobilizing outrage mobs.
However, amidst these struggles over relative victimhood, it’s critical to bear in mind that there’s a vast difference between deprioritizing the challenges Jewish people face compared to other groups versus actually wishing misfortune upon Jewish people in the US or abroad. The latter is antisemitism, the former is not. As Matt previously noted, collapsing these distinctions is an Ibram X. Kendi-style move that invites “bad thinking and misunderstanding,” tends to “stifle debate” and is an “all-around bad intellectual trend” that Jewish students and their allies should resist rather than try to emulate.
In any event, it is simply false to assert that liberals and progressives are especially inclined towards antisemitism. In fact, a majority of Jewish Americans, themselves, identify as liberal. Jewish Americans are far more likely to self-identify as “liberal” than Asians, Blacks, Hispanics or non-Jewish whites. In terms of partisan lean, nearly three quarters of US Jewish voters typically cast their ballots for Democrats. This is likely not because an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters completely misperceive their own interests or are otherwise drawn to an ideology oriented towards their own destruction.
Quite the opposite: Across racial and ethnic lines, liberals are consistently the least antisemitic ideological group in the US, and white liberals — the Americans most likely to embrace “woke” ideology — are the least antisemitic people in the country by far:
On the flip side, across racial and ethnic lines, conservatives are consistently more likely than moderates or liberals to embrace antisemitic views.
And as right-aligned antisemites consistently emphasize, many ‘cultural left’ frameworks like critical theory were, in fact, created by Jewish scholars. They are not the core driver of antisemitism in America.
Uncomfortable truths about drivers of antisemitism in America
It’s easy to explain why so many seem to misunderstand the relationship between ideology and antisemitism in America. The confusion is driven almost as much by what we avoid talking about as what we overfocus on.
Antisemitic views are far more common among non-whites than whites, and are particularly prevalent among Black and Hispanic Americans. FBI hate crime data shows a similar pattern: non-whites seem significantly more likely (per capita) to commit hate crime than whites. Other risk factors for engaging in bias incidents include being male, unemployed, having a history of crime, having no spouse or children, or lacking a college degree. However, these are not realities that are much-discussed.
When academics and reporters discuss prejudice and discrimination, they tend to focus narrowly on whites and other “privileged” people as perpetrators, and everyone else as victims, resulting in a distorted and incomplete picture of bigotry in America. In reality, however, the Americans most likely to engage in hate or victimization of marginalized and disadvantaged people are those who are, themselves, marginalized and disadvantaged in other respects – and they’re often motivated less by hardcore antipathy towards a specific group than by a more generalized desire to dominate others who seem different and vulnerable (targeting whomever is in their proximity fitting that bill when the motivation hits).
Many of the US subgroups with an especially high propensity towards holding antisemitic views or engaging in bias incidents also tend to be politically aligned with the Democratic Party. However, this is not because these subsets of society tend to skew ideologically left. In fact, within the Democratic coalition, non-whites, less educated voters, et al. are especially unlikely to self-identify as “liberal” or “progressive.” They vote Democrat for practical reasons (such as support for social safety nets or government programs) while largely rejecting left cultural ideology — self-identifying as “moderate” or “conservative” instead.
Insofar as people fail to distinguish between constituents’ political and ideological alignments, it can be easy to mistakenly assume that antisemitism in the Democratic coalition must driven by folks internalizing leftist views. In reality, the Democrat-leaning Americans who are most likely to be antisemites are especially likely to be alienated by cultural leftism. In fact, many of the populations most at risk of engaging in bias incidents (non-whites, lower socioeconomic status, less educated, men) have been steadily migrating towards the Republican Party in recent cycles, precisely due to the growing emphasis on cultural liberalism within the Democratic Party.
One thing that compounds this confusion is that many conservatives are militantly pro-Israel despite (and sometimes, because of) holding negative views towards Jews. Consequently, insofar as people mistakenly conflate views towards Israel with views towards Jews, they may significantly underestimate antisemitism on the right (in addition to overestimating antisemitism on the left).
America is not a racist hellscape
Although antisemitism is more prevalent among certain subsets of the population than others (albeit, not the ones ‘the discourse’ tends to focus on), across ideologies, races, genders, religions and age groups, the overwhelming majority of Americans are not antisemites. On the contrary, polling and surveys consistently show that Americans have more positive perceptions of Jews, and less negative perceptions of Jews, than of any other religious group:
Although their perspectives were not included in the Pew Research study due to low sample size, other studies with much larger samples show that Muslim Americans tend to view Jews in a positive light as well.
Indeed, bad times for Jews tend to be bad times for Muslims too. This is because, as Pew Research elsewhere emphasized, “most Americans who hold an unfavorable view of Jews also hold an unfavorable view of Muslims, but most people who hold an unfavorable view of Muslims do not express negative views of Jews.”
Although antisemitism is often framed as being driven by sympathies towards Arabs and Muslims, more typically, people who hate Jews also hate Muslims (and Arabs by proxy). Americans who believe antisemitic tropes are also likely to hold the exact same views about Muslims:
It should perhaps not be surprising, then, that the rise in antisemitic bias incidents since October 7 has been accompanied by increased attacks and harassment directed towards Muslims too. We’re in this together.
Looking at the overall prevalence of antisemitism in the US, ADL data show that although antisemitic attitudes have been increasing in recent years, less than 13 percent of Americans endorse a majority of the antisemitic tropes they track. The percentage of Americans who believe most of the ADL’s 14 measured tropes is half the global average and significantly lower than rates in Western Europe.
As Eric Levitz recently emphasized, “The acceptable number of antisemitic hate crimes is zero. But it also doesn’t improve the well-being of Jewish Americans to give them an exaggerated sense of their ethnic group’s vulnerability in the US There are 7.3 million Jews in America. Only an infinitesimal fraction of American Jews suffer acts of prejudicial violence, vandalism, or harassment in a given year. And by virtually every other metric, our community is thriving.”
Of course, it should be recognized that there is a long and shameful history of antisemitism in America writ large, in colleges and universities, and within the left – legacies that reverberate into the present in myriad respects. And while contemporary data do not seem to suggest an epidemic of antisemitism in America, many metrics do seem to be trending in the wrong direction. This was the case prior to October 7, and subsequent social tensions seem to have made things significantly worse. Nothing here should be taken to suggest that there is no antisemitism in America, on college campuses or within the left. Nor should anyone conclude that antisemitism that does exist in these contexts is unproblematic in virtue of being much worse elsewhere.
However, it’s also critical to keep in mind that, despite the ignoble history of antisemitism in the US and some unfortunate contemporary trends, the US is not awash with bigotry and oppression. America is one of the most diverse and inclusive societies in the world (ask an immigrant). The US is more welcoming and supportive towards Jewish people than almost anywhere else. Moreover, colleges and universities do not foment antisemitism or anti-Israeli sentiment – to the contrary, college educated Americans are especially likely to reject antisemitism or Holocaust denial and to have positive feelings towards Israel (even if they are also more likely to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause). Likewise, “kids these days” are not especially antisemitic – they remain significantly less antisemitic than the rest of American society, despite some unfortunate recent trends among right-aligned youth. Finally, left ideology doesn’t drive antisemitism in America, if anything it helps suppress it. US liberals tend to be far less antisemitic than conservatives and moderates despite being much more critical towards Israel and Zionism.
All said, it's easy to see why many buy into prevailing narratives about the relationship between antisemitism, higher-ed, cultural leftism and “kids these days.” However, those narratives are demonstrably incorrect.