Representing Jews on Campus

Spoiler alert: This post will not discuss the ins-and-outs of divestment, BDS, the merits of the Students Out of Occupied Palestine resolution, the Coalition for Peace petition, nor will it, in any meaningful way, talk about Israel or Palestine. It will, however, talk about the politics of representing Jews on the Stanford campus, and how claims to represent populations easily distort realities. In other words, this isn’t a post about international relations. It is a post about social science, and the politics of representation.

(In truth, its a short essay about social scientific methods (editor’s note: its going to get even more boring than you thought!), and why they matter, especially in circumstances like these.

First, a little background:

There’s been much in the news lately about Jews, Israel, and Stanford University. What began with a robust debate over a student-generated petition recommending that the University divest from companies that do business in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has now evolved into an aspiring (and now elected) student senator’s claim that she was asked an anti-semitic question during an interview with a student group from which she sought endorsement. News of this latest incident has been pretty widely circulated and at present, is under review by the university.

Now, the Stanford Review, the campus newspaper that first published the story of the anti-semitic question, has published a “Survey of the Jewish Community on Divestment.” The article claims that the “poll also revealed concerns within the Jewish community about anti-semitism.” It cites responses to five questions to support this claim before concluding that that students voting for their student representatives should “consider the harms that divestment may inflict upon the Jewish community.”

The author of the article mobilizes the trappings of social science, complete with graphs and percentages, to present the data as somehow “representative” of Jewish life at Stanford. Despite these efforts, the article fails to hold up to even the most basic social scientific scrutiny:

First, the article notes that the poll only drew about 100 respondents, corresponding to about 15% of self-identified Jewish students on campus. This is a very low response rate, to say the least. But that’s not the least of the survey’s methodological problems. How did the survey’s author(s) ensure that they reached all of the Jews on campus (to my knowledge, no such list-serv exists)? How did they introduce the survey? How did they account for response bias? All of this is to say that all we know about the survey is that it tells us about the students who responded to the survey (which is all most surveys can claim, anyhow). And it should not be read to represent anything other than that.

Second, of the five questions reported on in the article, all but one are hypotheticals, of the “what would you have done…” variety. The one that is not phrased in hypothetical terms includes language that the author of the article refers to as “admittedly ambiguous.” So, we know about what the 100 people who responded to the survey think they might have done, but we don’t know anything about what they actually do, believe, feel, think, or hold dear.

The author of the article goes a long way to qualify his claims and his own conclusion is also framed by conditionals, and for those efforts I applaud his desire to temper the so-called survey’s findings. But he should have taken his own inclination more seriously, and treated it with even greater humility.

The article’s headline and conclusion promise far more than they can offer, promising clarity and insight but offering little more than a distorted picture of Jewish life at Stanford. The small, not-representative and not-random sample of respondents, paired with questions that ask about how people imagine they would have acted, does not produce a clear picture of anything.

Especially in regard to issues as urgent and challenging as divestment, student leadership, life on university campuses, anti-semitism, and the future of Israel and Palestine, we all need to be extremely cautious when we deign to represent the voices of others. Those committed to education, as either faculty or students, need to tread especially carefully when drawing conclusions or claiming to represent a very complicated phenomenon.

There is so much more at stake than just methods or disciplines.

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