Making Sense of Public Opinion Polls: An Extended Interview with Dr. Ron Hassner

How surveys that measure knowledge are relevant for understanding public opinion

Ron Hassner is the Chancellor's Professor of Political Science and Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies at the University of California Berkeley. He serves as the editor-in-chief of the journal Security Studies, editor of the Cornell University Press book series "Religion and Conflict"and is the recipient of the American Political Science Association’s “Outstanding Teaching in Political Science Award”. I spoke with Professor Hassner on January 9, 2024 about using surveys to measure not just attitudes but also knowledge, and why that is relevant for understanding public opinion.

The interview has been edited for coherence and length. An excerpt of this interview ran in the February 15, 2024 issue of the CASJE Research Digest.

Arielle Levites:

I invited you to talk because I came across an op-ed you recently published the Wall Street Journal. We have all seen news reports of campus protestors using the slogan “From the River to the Sea” in support of Palestinians or even perhaps Hamas. And you reported on a study you conducted in which you asked college students: If you endorsed the statement “From the River to the Sea,” which river do you mean? Which sea do you mean? And you found out a lot of students who endorse the statement also didn’t know the right answer.

Ron Hassner:

I can send you the entire survey if you like.

Arielle Levites:

Oh, that'd be great. [After the interview he sent the questionnaire and offered to share his data.]

Ron Hassner:

[The material] I sent to the Wall Street Journal was obviously not for an academic audience. And then the Wall Street Journal cut that down by half. Whatever academic information was left in it, they washed out of it. They were not interested in knowing what form of survey I used and what sort of my checks and balances were inside the survey. They just wanted the punchline.  So a lot of [what my study found] was sort of lost in translation. And in fact, not only is it a survey, but it is a survey experiment, meaning different participants get to see different questions based on the answers to prior questions.

So what did I want to know? I wanted to know several things. I'll start with the most provocative, which I don't think comes across in the Wall Street Journal article. I wanted to know how many of the students who support [the political slogan] “From the River to the Sea” are motivated, at least in part, by a desire for ethnic cleansing [of Jews in Israel].

I wanted to know. How many real haters were out there?

I suspected two things. A. that many of [the college students who supported the slogan “From the River to the Sea”] were just deeply misinformed about the history, about the geography, about what the statement meant. And that in fact, many of them subscribed to the kind of two-state solution vision that I subscribed to, but [the college students] simply hadn't put one and one together. They didn't understand that you couldn't hold those two things at the same time {“From the River to the Sea” and a two-state solution].

 And those two [assumptions about college students] turned out to be true.

Now, I knew [this] from prior surveys [I conducted].

For example, I asked 100 Berkeley students what the acronym BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) stood for. And out of 100, if I remember correctly, I think three knew the answer. In other words, there's this notion out there that BDS is everywhere and everybody's tremendously concerned about it. And yet even on the Berkeley campus, the overwhelming majority of students had no idea what BDS is. They don't know, they don't care.

In the classroom survey, I asked students, which was maybe unkind of me, but I asked undergraduate seniors where, in relation to Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories were located. North, south, east, or west? And they just picked answers at random. Meaning they had never seen a map of the Middle East. All of which is fine if you don't then go out into the heart of campus and scream bloody murder.

So again, [my study in the Wall Street Journal had two main tasks. One, find out what do students know, how do they feel about the statement [“From the River to the Sea”], and does teaching matter?

I tasked a survey firm to collect 250 qualified participants. Qualified means they had already done other surveys for this survey firm. They had signed up with the survey firm, and the survey firm could assure me that they were indeed between ages of 18 and 22, and they were indeed college students, although I had other checks of my own and I could ask the survey firm, to please present me with a diverse panel of participants. Some check on gender diversity, ethnic diversity, age diversity, socioeconomic diversity. So yeah, so it's more serious business. It was a whole panel of questions.

Arielle Levites:

I want to come back to the main questions of the study, and what you asked just now: does teaching matter? But you also just said something just now, you were referencing some pilot studies you said you had done on your own campus. And you said about the student body and what they know about BDS: “they don’t know, don't care.”

Ron Hassner:

They claim to care deeply.

Arielle Levites:


Ron Hassner:

They claim to care a lot.

So when I ask[ed] 200 students I polled four years ago, you'll find this in the Times of Israel. Surprisingly, they don't have a lot of interest in the world. Kind of a shame for senior political science students.

And I say, "How much do you care about the conflict over Kashmir or the conflict over Northern Cyprus?" And the answer is always like, "Meh." “How much do you care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” “Oh, my God. Nothing could be more important.” The whole world revolves around this conflict so I wouldn't say they don't care. They just don't know.

You then ask students, "When did this conflict start?" or "Approximately how many people live in Israel? 20,000, 200,000, 2 million what?" And you get answers ranging from I think 500,000 to 50 million. That's like that's the range. Yeah, so they claim to care a lot.

Arielle Levites:

Relative to other world conflicts?

Ron Hassner:


Yeah. Which is a problem, right? Because they're trying to convince you and me that in the Israeli-Palestinian case they're not motivated by antisemitism. They're not motivated by even necessarily anti-Zionism. They care about all occupations. But then when you ask them, right? Rank these, there is only one occupation. In fact, I think, that's one of the tremendous successes of the anti-Israel movement on campus is when you say “The Occupation,” nobody thinks about Tibet, which is a hundred times the size of the West Bank. Nobody thinks about Kashmir, which is 50 times the size of the West Bank. There is only one occupation. In the whole world, there's only that one. So I think they care a ton, but they just don't know.

Arielle Levites:

So let's talk a little bit more about assessments of knowledge. Most of the polls and the surveys that we're looking at right now are looking at self-reports about people's attitudes, their sympathies. Sometimes I do see questions asking how much they care about something relative to other things, but not that frequently. But what I haven't seen, I don't think in the studies that I've reviewed to date, with the exception of what I saw in your op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, are attempts to assess what people know about some of these questions. Tell me a little bit more about your impulse about asking that and why you think it's important that we understand - not just what people think or how much they care about something, but what they know.

Ron Hassner:

First of all, if we live in a post-truth world, then what you know doesn't matter? And in fact, this is part of contemporary politics and the polarization of politics in the U.S. that I find really troubling. That it's about identity and it's about emotions and it's about how your words make me feel. And it's about, do I feel safe? As opposed to, can we just sit down and talk about the facts and figure out how to fix this? What's the problem? What's the solution?

There was a time when you could simply go to the New York Times and then you'd find out what the truth is. But even the New York Times has abandoned the task of providing a centrist truth to Americans. The New York Times now caters to a relatively narrow left-wing audience. It's given up on trying to talk to Fox News listeners.

I think people just care less about truth and maybe the truth doesn't matt... So here's the second point. The truth wouldn't matter unless I could show that when you expose people to truth, their feelings change, right?

So, I was really worried that I would show somebody a map, "Here's the river, here's the sea, and you just told me you're in favor of a two-state solution. These things are incompatible." I was really worried that a big group of students would say to me, "No, no, no, no, no. I'm not listening to you. I don't care. I love this slogan. It's a great slogan. I'm going to keep saying it. I don't care that the facts don't line up with my slogan. It's a good slogan." I'm happy to say that on this issue [Israel's conflict with Hamas], most random American students who, I'll remind you, they have no family in the Middle East, they've never been to the Middle East, they're not Muslim, they're not Jewish, they're students on a campus. It took one sentence to change their mind. Just a map and an accompanying explanation of what you see on that map like, "Look at the map."

In a world in which opinions now matter a lot and feelings matter a lot, it's still great to see that these feelings aren't just inherent somehow or unmovable, but they are, I think, in the Israeli-Palestinian case, the feelings are produced by propaganda and the propaganda can be unraveled by teaching facts.

The last thing I'll say, and this has to do with one of the complexities of surveys. My survey was an online survey. There was nothing in that survey to stop people from cheating. When I asked them, "Who is Yasir Arafat?," they could have just Googled him, which they didn't. They didn't bother. So when I say that... I'm trying to remember the number. Only 47% of participants knew the name of the river and the sea, a lot of those could have cheated. In other words, 47% is the highest possible number.

Arielle Levites:

So, I'm curious about this idea that teaching and facts matter in the context of one of your earlier pilot studies, which was in some ways the test of the factual knowledge of poli-sci students at a quite elite university. How do we make sense of that? How will we reach people actually with facts?

Ron Hassner:

Oh, you're making a very good and a very painful point. Why do I even need to start teaching people who are supposed to know quite a lot about the world? In part, I think we're teaching them the wrong stuff. We're teaching them a lot of methods. We're teaching them a lot of sort of dry procedural... We are increasingly avoiding teaching them the really difficult controversial issues because it's scary to teach those.

So it takes a little bit of boldness, I think, to teach those things and I think we avoid them. On the other hand, we are up against voices on campus, usually outside the classroom that very boldly propagandize in one direction.

There is nobody on this campus whose job it is, who has taken on the responsibility of riling students up about the Kashmir conflict or Taiwan or Hong Kong or the Uyghurs or Kurds or the Western Sahrawis. Nobody has taken on that task. It's an interesting question to ask why. And those who have taken on the task of meddling in international affairs and propagandizing have focused on one conflict and one side of that conflict only.

And as a result, it's not surprising that students reach their senior year and the only thing they've heard about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Israel is a settler-colonial state. The Jews have come from outer space to colonize a random piece of land and take it away from the indigenous people, and now they're committing genocide.

I want to say something about nuance and what it means. It's tough to do. So I've made it a practice of trying to get teaching assistants who I know have different views than I do about these early Palestinian conflict. And then we will model to the class about how to disagree. I'll use a fact, she'll use a fact, she'll use a fact, I'll use a fact and we'll argue which fact is stronger, more persuasive, more important.

But again, this is an age perhaps of post-truth. It's also an age in which students are taught to avoid conflict and avoid debate because arguments are scary and you're making me uncomfortable and I don't feel safe you use a word I don't like, and if I speak up and have a contrary opinion, I might get canceled. So you actually have to reteach students to disagree with one another.

Arielle Levites:

There are a lot of studies being released now about Americans' response to the war. And I'm just curious if there are any studies in particular that have caught your eye or what you are reading or that you are looking to keep abreast about attitudes about Israel or antisemitism, anything?

Ron Hassner:

Not particularly. I'm interested in students because I'm a professor and because I co-direct an Israel Institute on campus. But when it comes to analyzing the world, I am much less interested in what the average American thinks and a lot more interested in what the average American leader does. And so as far as I'm concerned, the issue of what do Americans think was resolved a month and a half ago when Congress held its first vote, when it finally had a speaker, and 97% of the House condemned Hamas, supported Israel. We now have Blinken in the Middle East for the fourth time. Supplies of both weaponry and funding continue. In my mind, that speaks volumes.

What the average American thinks, again, is interesting to some extent, although I kind of think it's unfair. I feel like I should have a chance to teach them first. Let me teach them first and then ask them what they think because, how could they possibly think straight if nobody's ever shown them a map, let alone taught them Jewish history. They have no idea what a Mizrachi Jew is. They think all Jews in the world look like American Jews. So I don't particularly invest a lot of time in reading public opinion surveys.

Arielle Levites:

Well then, this next question might not be particularly relevant, but I'm going to ask you anyway, or maybe I'll reframe it. If you were going to do, and I know you don't study American Jews per se, but if you were going to do a study about the attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, behavior, needs of American Jews today, is there anything in particular you'd want to know?

Ron Hassner:

I think American Jews come in many different shapes and colors and sizes. I don't feel like there is a static thing out there called the American Jew.

I would like to know in a survey about the war, not just, what does the American Jew think about the war. I would like to be able to differentiate between different kinds of American Jews.

I do think there's a difference between the importance I would attribute to a Jew who considers themselves to be a part of the Jewish American community, donates to Jewish causes, thinks they share value with other Jews, consider themselves part of the Jewish tradition.

Again, I don't mean by this that the voices of some Jews count as more than others or that some people are more Jewish than others. I merely mean that just as I'd love to be able to differentiate between the opinions held by women and the opinions held by men and the entire range in between. And I'd love to differentiate between the opinions of Democrats and Republicans and the range between. I would love to differentiate between the opinions of Jews who have visited Israel five times or more, or haven't, who value the importance of learning and being aware of Jewish history versus those who don't care, those who either attend synagogue or keep kosher or celebrate the holiday.

I mean, some indicator of what kind of Jew are you, because as you know, the Jewish community is extremely diverse... Made more complicated by the fact that there are, and we now know this I think very clearly after the events of October 7, many Jews who you and I wouldn't recognize as Jew in any way, shape, or form, who proclaimed their Judaism as a tool for criticism. And that is where their Judaism starts and ends. Their opinion is extremely valuable to me. I want to know who they are and why they feel what they feel. But I want to be able to differentiate them. I would love a little nuance on that front, but I don't know how to do that. Maybe you do.

Arielle Levites:

It’s difficult because it's a small population. So how do you, with the tools we have, really account for all of that diversity. I know for example, the JFNA study does split the data between people they characterize as engaged Jews and other Jews.

Ron Hassner:

In other words, I don't need a test. How often do you pray? Do you face east and pray towards Jerusalem, right? It doesn't have to be that. Although that too might be interesting. I'd say even more than that. Do you consider yourself to be a member of the Jewish community? Or does your membership in the Jewish community start and end with the sentence, “As a Jew…”? Because if that's your entire engagement with the Jewish community, I'm also curious about your opinions, but I am going to worry less about them.