Talking Campus Antisemitism and New Social Science with Professor Jeffrey Kopstein

Sean McGinley


Vol. 6

University students are far more critical of Israel – and even more antisemitic – than the nation at large, right? Not necessarily, says Professor Jeffrey Kopstein, a professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Kopstein was hosted by the Politics and International Relations Department on March 12 at Ursinus. As part of his visit, Professor Kopstein took part in a small discussion about his recent work regarding campus antisemitism and, later on, gave a lecture entitled “Politics, Violence, Memory: The New Social Science of the Holocaust” in Pfahler Auditorium. 

Professor Kopstein’s research spans a wide variety of topics, with much of it having a relationship to European and Russian Jewish history as well as antisemitism. He has written about and conducted research on inter-ethnic violence, the voting patterns of social and ethnic minority groups, and anti-liberal thought and its effects on democratic society. In addition to holding faculty positions at institutions like the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of Toronto; and the University of California, Irvine, Professor Kopstein has been a visiting fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and has received research grants from the National Science Foundation. 

Professor Kopstein started his campus visit in Bomberger, taking part in a discussion with students hosted by Professor Jonathan Marks of the Politics department. He initiated this discussion by providing a general explanation of his research on campus antisemitism. Dr. Kopstein explained how, in order to measure feelings of campus antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, he conducted survey research that asked students to respond to differing series of statements. One series included statements that probed at potential antisemitism, with students being asked whether they agree or disagree with each statement and to what degree. Another series dealt more specifically with how students felt about Israelis, Palestinians, and ongoing conflict within Israel overall. After providing this explanation, Dr. Kopstein went on to explain several interesting insights that he gathered from this research. 

One of the primary insights from Professor Kopstein’s results measuring campus antisemitism at UC Irvine is that they did not differ significantly from results found across the general American population. This is surprising for a few reasons. For starters, UC Irvine has often been criticized for fostering a particularly anti-semitic and anti-Zionist culture. A Los Angeles Times article by David Lauter and Jaweed Kaleem that touched on some of Professor Kopstein’s work stressed this same idea. In talking about Dr. Kopstein’s move from the University of Toronto to UC Irvine in 2015, the article mentions how “friends warned him that the campus had a reputation for significant amounts of antisemitism as well as strong opposition to Zionism.” When actually dissecting survey results from these students that measured rates of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, his results showcased only a 25% rate of high levels of antisemitic convictions and 2% rate of true antisemitism. These results are not dissimilar from rates of antisemitism measured across the entire American population, as reputable sources like the National Opinion Research Center have published recent, comparable numbers. 

Aside from challenging accusations about UC Irvine, Professor Kopstein also mentioned how these results challenge popular notions that higher education inherently breeds antisemitic beliefs amongst college students. The aforementioned Los Angeles Times article points this out, stating, “Kopstein’s study of students found no difference between those surveyed in their first semester and those who had been on campus for four years.” The fact that rates of antisemitism amongst college students didn’t change throughout four years coupled with these results’ similarities to rates of antisemitism amongst the U.S. populace as a whole is indicative of the fact higher education does not teach antisemitic beliefs. 

Another key insight revealed by Dr. Kopstein’s research would the existence of a general “gap in empathy” in expected reactions to the Hamas-led massacre against Israeli citizens that occurred on October 7th, 2023. Professor Kopstein conducted his research surveys of college students during and after the October 7th attack, yet antisemitism still increased over this time period. Dr. Kopstein emphasized that this was in spite of the fact of the October 7th attack being labeled “the worst attack against Jewish citizens since the Holocaust” – a designation that holds significant truth and weight, being emphasized by sources like The Economist, The Guardian, and the Jewish Telegraph Agency. 

Dr. Kopstein explained that anti-Israel sentiments were surely expected after the events of October 7th, as the Israeli government’s counter-attack began just hours after the initial attacks by Hamas. Yet, the fact that a significant portion of the student population within these surveys were reporting outright antisemitism and not just the expected negative responses to the actions of the Israeli government was, in Kopstein’s own words, “an empathy fail.” 

In discussing these survey findings, Dr. Kopstein pondered if the findings may have changed had he conducted this research at a school like Ursinus. The inherent demographic and cultural differences within Ursinus’s student population when compared to many of the populations utilized in Dr. Kopstein’s study certainly begs the question as to whether the results would have changed and to what degree. 

The willingness of Ursinus faculty to host these kinds of discussions about complicated geopolitical topics was appreciated by many of the students who attended.

“It was fascinating to get to hear about research into the overlap between antisemitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses as it is often a hotly debated political topic,” said Alex Zelaya ’26, a politics major, who attended the discussion. 

Aside from explaining his main findings, Professor Kopstein also spent some time talking about his research methodology within the realm of social science. He explained that, like many social scientists who construct surveys that measure variables regarding race and ethnicity, he chooses not to include an “I don’t know” option. Instead, a series of statements are given and survey takers respond whether they agree or disagree to varying degrees (i.e., “strongly agree,” “agree,” “strongly disagree,” and “disagree”). When asked about this by a student, Kopstein stressed the idea of social-desirability bias. This occurs when certain survey takers, in trying to avoid appearing unsavory based on how they answer questions, purposefully tailor their answers to appear more socially desirable. In not including an “I don’t know” option, Dr. Kopstein explained how this enabled him to get more accurate results, as those with antisemitic views could no longer hide behind answering “I don’t know” to statements that they definitely held strong feelings about. 

Later on, Professor Kopstein gave a more formal lecture as part of the Jewish Life lecture series on how social scientists have only recently started conducting research on the Holocaust. Throughout his lecture, Professor Kopstein stressed how analyzing the Holocaust has often been the work of historians, but not necessarily political scientists in particular. This is in spite of the fact that studying the Holocaust offers many key, sociopolitical insights regarding hot button topics like political polarization, according to Dr. Kopstein. 

The event was well attended by both students and faculty alike. Of those who went, many were quick to praise the way Dr. Kopstein was able to clearly explain the nuances and overall importance of studying the Holocaust from a social scientific perspective. 

“I thought he was a good presenter. It was obvious that he had a lot of enthusiasm for his research” said Shay Henes ’24, a politics major, who attended both the small discussion and lecture. “He was able to effectively demonstrate the new social science methodology within Holocaust research in a clear and understanding manner.”