Arkansas study suggests more education can lead to more anti-Jewish bias

By Larry Brook

It has been commonly accepted that education is the key to fighting antisemitism, that the more education one has, the less likely one is to adhere to antisemitic beliefs.

A recent study from University of Arkansas researchers turns that notion on its head, using a new methodology to tease out antisemitic tendencies among those who would otherwise deny being antisemitic. The working paper, “Education and Anti-Semitism,” showed that the more educated respondents were more likely than the less educated to harbor anti-Jewish biases.

The paper, by Jay Greene and Albert Cheng of the University of Arkansas, and Ian Kingsbury of the Empire Center for Public Policy, was released by the university’s College of Education and Health Professions in February.

Cheng said they felt the common notion of educated people being less antisemitic “can’t always be true, that is too simple of an explanation and there are too many counter-examples.”

Greene and Cheng were discussing the issue one day, and the topic of double standards came up. They decided to use that avenue in their research, to see if double standards were applied in attitudes toward Jews.

“Over time we’ve found all the ways people don’t reveal what they really believe,” Cheng said. “People answer in socially desirable ways to make themselves look good.”

Traditional surveys about antisemitism are done by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with a range of statements. Figuring that educated people would know better than to admit holding antisemitic views, “we’ve been thinking how we can get a more accurate picture of what people actually think,” and their results “challenged the conventional wisdom.”

They set up seven pairs of questions meant to illustrate double standards, giving each version of the question to half of the overall respondents, and comparing the results. One version was Jewish-related, while the other used a different ethnic or minority group. Since half the questions would be posed as relating to a different group, there were three or four Jewish-centered questions out of 29 total questions, making it less obvious that the Jewish-related questions were a focal point of the survey. “Since nobody in our study saw both versions, they could never know what we were really asking,” Cheng said.

He added that it was a true character test — “do you do the right thing when no one is looking.”

About 1,800 people were surveyed, grouped into “general public,” those with a four-year degree and those with post-graduate education.

One example that did not garner much of a difference between the versions related to government regulation of what is taught in private schools, with the question saying some express concerns that they “do not cover the same academic material required in public schools” while others believe they should have the freedom to choose their own curriculum. In half of the surveys, Orthodox Jewish schools were given as an example, while in the other half, it was Montessori schools. The difference in responses between the two was insignificant — but the general public and those with a four-year degree agreed with the need for government oversight far less than those with more than a four-year degree.

Other questions had a far more significant gap between the Jewish and non-Jewish versions, with the widest gap coming from the most highly educated group, and always to the detriment of the Jewish version.

One question asked about conflicts of interest that arise from a person’s attachment to another country, using Israel or Mexico as the examples. The four-year degree group had the lowest level of concern overall, but still had a seven-point gap in concern over individual ties with Israel. The general public category had the highest level of concern regarding Mexico, but still was more concerned about Israel ties, by five points. The margin for the highest-educated was 13 points, with 35 percent agreeing that Americans with ties to Israel have a conflict of interest.

Another question was whether the U.S. military should allow the wearing of religious headgear as part of the uniform. One version mentioned a Jew who sued the Air Force over its refusal to allow a yarmulke, while the other version mentioned a Sikh who sued the Army over wearing a turban. While there was little difference between the two questions for the general public and four-year groups, there was a 12-point gap among the most educated, with the lowest overall percentage saying the turban should be banned, but the highest result saying the yarmulke should be banned.

The biggest gap was over huge crowds during Covid lockdowns, with Black Lives Matter protests and large Orthodox Jewish funerals in New York as the respective examples. There was no difference in the general public results, and an 11-point gap against Jewish funerals among the four-year responses, though disapproval of the Black Lives Matter crowds was also more prevalent than among the general public.

Among the highest educated, the gap was 36 points in disapproving of large Jewish funerals, with 78 percent of those given that question expressing opposition, and just 42 percent opposing the crowds of BLM protests — a full 20 points lower than the other two groups.

The study has been praised and criticized. Some academics responded to the results by claiming vindication for asserting that there is an anti-Jewish bias in academia. Cheng said some students said the study “said all the things they were afraid to say aloud” about their professors. “They heard conventional wisdom that education is supposed to inoculate against antisemitism, but their lived experiences on campus portrayed the opposite.”

A criticism of the methodology is that the two scenarios were not necessarily the same, such as Black Lives Matter protests versus large Orthodox Jewish funerals. But Cheng pointed out that if that were the case, and the structure of the survey was the problem, it would manifest itself the same way across all three education levels, showing similar gaps one way or the other. Instead, three of the four showed significantly higher against the Jewish version by the highest educated, while none showed significantly higher against the non-Jewish response for any demographic.

“It is tough to nail down a purely objective matter,” he said, adding that they hope their study pushes people “to think about this a little more rigorously.”

He hopes others use this methodology to explore the issue further, “come up with new items… to get a fresh set of eyes,” and whether the double-standard method can be used in researching bias against other groups.

The team said there are several implications for the Jewish community — from being mistaken about where threats to the community come from, to how much influence the highly-educated have in society. “It does not bode well for Jews to be disfavored by them.”

Another implication is that using greater education to fight antisemitism isn’t working.

Cheng said more research is needed to explore why higher education levels produce these results, and the team feels that instead of it being purely an information problem, it’s also a character and virtue problem.

He cited a philosophy from the Civil Rights movement that education is intelligence plus character.

“If we really want harmony between groups, it’s not just about teaching a bunch of facts better,” Cheng said, “it’s about cultivating people who care about each other.”

“Our common denominator is to cultivate a healthier civic culture. These days we all need it, we need to mend a lot of the fracture that we see.”