Most Jewish parents say Oct. 7 has affected their child’s college selection, Hillel survey finds
Texas A&M Hillel students enjoy their weekly Starbucks meetup on the Quad. (Photo: Courtesy A&M Hillel)

By Andrew Lapin
April 3, 2024

(JTA) – An overwhelming majority of Jewish parents of high school juniors and seniors say the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and its aftermath have affected which college their child plans to attend, according to a new survey commissioned by the Jewish campus group Hillel International.

Many families have ruled out schools over antisemitism concerns, the survey found, and a relatively small but significant proportion — 19% — said they are considering eschewing higher education for their children altogether.

The findings dovetail with a different survey, conducted by the BBYO Jewish youth movement and released in February, showing that two thirds of Jewish teens said antisemitism on college campuses had become an important factor in their college choices. Some teens said they had changed their aspirations or plans for next year because of incidents on specific campuses since Oct. 7.

The parents and teens’ anxiety has been fueled by prominent reports about antisemitic and anti-Israel activity on campuses amid the Israel-Hamas war. Some of the incidents have fueled leadership changes, faculty protests and federal investigations into specific schools.

Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, called the new findings “surprising” and added that they were “a really important additional wake-up call for universities that their positive actions, or failure to act, is going to have real consequences when it comes to their ability to attract Jewish students.”

Yet Lehman stressed that he does not believe Jewish parents should turn away from college altogether.

“We do not believe this is a moment for the Jewish community to pull away from entire institutions of higher education,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We’re working hard to actually ensure that we fix the campus climate at schools where that climate is broken, rather than really self-ghettoizing in terms of where Jewish students feel comfortable attending university.”

Hillel says its survey, which was sourced from parents on its own email list as well as a previous study conducted by the Jewish Federations of North America, is the first to measure changing attitudes of Jewish parents about campuses since Oct. 7. Nearly all respondents — 96% — said they are “concerned about the increase in antisemitic incidents on college campuses since October 7.”

Slightly fewer — 87% — said that Oct. 7 had a direct “impact” on how they chose a college or university for their child, while around two-thirds of respondents (64%) said they are not applying to certain schools because of a perceived rise in antisemitism on that campus.

The survey was conducted March 13-19, more than five months after the start of the war and three months after an explosive congressional hearing on campus antisemitism that led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Numerous other campus protests, spearheaded by Jewish faculty and donors, have drawn attention to antisemitism since. (Harvard saw the number of students applying fall this year, while Penn reported receiving its most applications ever.)

The U.S. Department of Education has opened more than 80 Title VI discrimination investigations on college and K-12 campuses since Oct. 7, of which a significant portion deal with allegations of antisemitism; 60% of parents said whether the school was under such an investigation was an important factor in their college selection.

The survey of more than 400 parents, conducted by the polling firm Benenson Strategy Group, also found that nearly three-quarters of Jewish parents (74%) believe finding a campus with vibrant Jewish life has become more important since Oct. 7 — and that 91% were more likely to recommend their child become involved in Hillel. The organization trumpeted these results, with Lehman pointing to the Campus Climate Initiative, a Hillel effort to educate university personnel about antisemitism.

Mothers Against College Antisemitism, a Facebook group with more than 55,000 members, is among the most visible signs of how parental anxiety around sending Jewish children to college has increased since Oct. 7.  Members of the group frequently share reports of antisemitism from their children’s schools, seek guidance on the safest schools for Jewish students, or encourage others to apply to their child’s school.

The group’s activity mirrors findings from the survey, including one that 83% of respondents believe it is “very important” or “critical” to research how a college has responded to antisemitism when selecting a school. More than half of parents also said they cared about whether the school’s president made a “strong statement” after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

“Parents are concerned for their kids, they’re concerned for their kids applying to college, they’re concerned for their kids in college,” Julia Jassey, a recent college graduate and CEO of the Jewish student advocacy group Jewish on Campus, told JTA in November. “People don’t know what to do. People want to help, and people feel helpless.”

But Jassey cautioned that Jewish students, not their parents, are best equipped to raise awareness about antisemitism on their campuses. She also emphasized that parents making long-term decisions for their children about college enrollment based on what’s happening on a campus right now, as some in the group say they are doing, might not be helpful.

“The last thing that I would ever tell a parent or a student is not to go to a certain school because it’s antisemitic. All that will do is self-select ourselves out of spaces where we want to be able to offer our experience and perspective,” Jassey said. “It’s really more important that when students go to school, they’re educated about what antisemitism is, how to combat it and what to do when they experience it.”

Hillel’s survey does not differentiate between anti-Israel and antisemitic campus activity when asking parents about what concerns them. Instead it frames all objectionable post-Oct. 7 campus activity as “anti-Israel and/or antisemitic incidents.” And in a series of questions asking about parents’ familiarity with various campus Jewish groups, it does not include groups such as the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace and its frequent partner IfNotNow, both of which have focused their criticism on Israel since Oct. 7, and have accused it of “genocide,” a charge Israel vehemently rejects.

Both groups have campus presences, though Hillel does not collaborate with either. Lehman described the groups as “single-issue organizations” that were “just not, for us, as relevant when it comes to parents and family understanding the totality of Jewish life on campus.”

Another recently released survey, from Tufts University professor Eitan Hersh and the Jim Joseph Foundation, found that more than a third of Jewish college students are hiding their Jewish identities in order to fit in on campus, while the number of Jewish students who feel more assertive in their own Jewish identity has doubled from two years ago. Hersh recently told JTA that his results indicate that “students feel like they pay a social cost just to attend Jewish events like Hillel, or to even just identify as Jewish.”

Hersh said that, since the war, “many students are under pressure to have a position, to take a position, and I think that might cause some students to not bring up their Jewishness in conversation, because Israel politics are so complicated.”

A new survey by the Pew Research Center, also out this week, found that the share of adults who think there is a lot of discrimination against Jews in the United States has doubled over the past three years, and in particular since the start of the war.

Asked what advice he would give to Jewish parents considering colleges for their children, Lehman said it was important to “do the homework, to really understand what the Jewish life experience is like at a given campus.”

He added, “Don’t simply rely on news reports or social media chatter.”

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