Jewish College Rankings – Israel edition

Where do I start? Well, last time I wrote about this I complained that there were no real rankings for Jewish life in college, and instead people just made lists of colleges with the most Jews. I wrote extensively why that was a bad idea, and encouraged people to come up with actual rankings – and I then wrote about how we did just that, and how we came up with a robust algorithm ranking colleges for religious Jewish life.

Now it seems there’s a new trend — ranking colleges for Jews based on how many anti-Israel incidents occur. This includes TruthRevolt’s 10 worst anti-semitic campuses and Algeminer’s recent 40 worst colleges for jewish students (and 15 best college). While I appreciate the efforts, I have to disagree. I’m not even going to get to Mitchell Bard’s important points about putting this anti-Israel data and analysis into perspective (see this article and this article, also on the Algemeiner) or the debates about whether anti-Israel activity is tantamount to anti-semitism, which are important discussions in their own right. But even taking the anti-Israel sentiments expressed in these rankings at face value, I have some serious problems with it:

  1. It doesn’t take into account the range and depth of pro-Israel activity happening, which at many of these campuses is quite robust. It doesn’t even mention it! If a campus runs 100 pro-Israel events and 5 anti-Israel events, would you say “Wow, they ran 5 anti-Israel events, that’s such a hostile campus for Jews!”? If 10 students come to SJP meetings and 100 students come to pro-Israel group meetings (and 9,890 students come to neither), would you say that campus is pro-Israel or anti-Israel (or neither)?
  2. Just because there are some anti-Israel voices or some students organize an anti-Israel event, that doesn’t mean that the entire college is anti-Israel or that every student at the college is overwhelmed with anti-Israel sentiment. There have been many times when student board passed a resolution advocating BDS, and then the university administration and board subsequently vetoed it and continued investing in and partnering with Israel. Would you call that campus bad for Jews? Should we judge a campus based on the actions of a few, and even after those actions are condemned or overruled?
  3. This only touches on Israel which, while really important, is only a fraction of the issues Jewish students face. What about Kosher food? The size and vibrancy of the Jewish community? The presence of Hillel and Chabad houses and staff, and the quality of the programming there? What about support for religious students – like the OU’s JLIC couples, and minyanim of all different varieties, and Jewish learning, and student outreach? What about local shuls which support and host students, and Jewish student communities and leadership, Jewish studies programs, and Jewish fraternities, and Jewish outreach organizations… This issue is not just about the variety of factors but also their frequency: maybe there’s Israel Apartheid Week once a year, but what’s happening every other week of the year? What’s happening every morning, afternoon, and evening when students are looking for kosher meals, prayer opportunities, and spaces to gather as a Jewish community?  Leaving all of this out on a ranking of best and worst colleges for Jewish life is just shameful.

On a philosophical level, I also have a problem with people saying that they won’t send their students to campuses with anti-Israel activity — because wouldn’t that make the situation only worse? Soon we’d only have pro-Israel environments at YU and Touro (Brandeis is already on the chopping block for some Jewish college guidance counselors for this very reason). What would happen to the majority of Americans and the majority of Jews who are coming from those campuses? Who would respond to anti-Israel activity? Who would shape the hearts and minds of the future leaders and voters and activists?

I think it also throws people off from where our priorities should be and what the real causes and effects are. I read a recent article in which Natan Sharansky claims that most Jews in American colleges aren’t involved in Judaism (which is true) because they’re afraid of anti-Israel sentiment. From all the studies I’ve seen, and students I’ve spoken to, and students I’ve reached out to, I’ve yet to see that be a major factor. In fact, feeling that “Israel is a real turn-off” was the reason why 9% of unaffiliated students said they were not involved in Jewish life on campus in a 2010 Hillel study. And now when funders and organizations want to reach out to Jews who aren’t connected (which they should!), they’ll think the way to do that is by fighting against BDS (which they should not).

Israel is a big part of Jewish life, especially on campus, and it should definitely be part of the conversation about ranking Jewish life on campuses, and about where to direct or divest more resources and more students. But it should be part of the conversation, and not the sum total, and to think and publish otherwise is silly and potentially even harmful.

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