How DEI is failing Jewish workers in the era of rising antisemitism

How DEI is failing Jewish workers in the era of rising antisemitism

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Rising antisemitism on US college campuses has dominated headlines since the Hamas attack on Israel last October 7. 

But the world’s oldest hatred isn’t just manifesting in academia, it’s become rife across the workplace, as well. A widely circulated survey from late 2022 of 1,131 US hiring managers found that 26% of recruiters “say they are less likely to move forward with Jewish applicants.” Some 17% of hiring managers went as far as to admit that their company’s management “told them not to hire Jews.”  

As for employees, a late 2022 survey of more than 11,000 workers by the academic journal Socius found that more than half of all Jewish respondents reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace. And this was before the Hamas attack — and the accompanying 360% rise in antisemitic incidents across America in the months that followed.  

Tensions over the Israel-Hamas conflict have infiltrated companies nationwide as both employees and corporate leaders take public stands over the war in Gaza. While hundreds of firms have condemned the Hamas attack, many of their employees have been far less sympathetic towards Israel. And the resulting discord has been as fraught as it’s been public. 

A protest by workers at the San Francisco headquarters of Google was just one of many high-profiles examples of inter-office conflict at the tech giant in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel last October 7th. REUTERS

At Google, for instance, Israeli and Jewish employees decried antisemitic comments posted in company messaging channels, while Google’s San Francisco headquarters was the scene of protests by pro-Palestinian activists. At Starbucks, company leadership took the extraordinary step of suing their own workers’ union over pro-Palestinian posts on its social media account. 

High-profile editors quit The New York Times, critical of the paper’s coverage of the Gaza conflict, while a group of pro-Palestinian media workers occupied The Times’ Manhattan headquarters in early November. Post October 7th, the workplace has become a battleground — and Jewish employees have been caught in the crossfire. 

DEI programs create a sense of ethnic-hierarchy that always seems to leave Jews in last place. Dzmitry –

Unsurprisingly, Jewish professionals are scared – fearful of speaking out over concerns for their safety and career prospects. Yet they also feel alone, denied the structural support of formalized anti-discrimination policies available to other minority groups. The New York Post recently spoke with Jewish professionals in a range of industries — along with academics and policymakers focused on office culture and antisemitism. That so many of requested anonymity for fear of retribution illustrates the insecurity felt by many Jews today.

Although holidays celebrating other minority groups such as Juneteenth for African-Americans receive widespread corporate and institutional support, similar levels of recognition is not afforded to Jews. Khurram Shahzad –

Much of the blame can be traced to corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs, or DEI, which gained traction in the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020. Within two years, 75% of companies in the S&P 500 had a Chief Diversity Officer, up from less than 50% in 2018. In 2022, the total DEI industry was valued at nearly $10 billion.

Despite years of rising antisemitism, corporate DEI departments were caught unprepared for the current surge in hatred towards Jews. This is hardly surprising. “DEI initiatives… in corporate America have failed to take into consideration the needs of Jews,” says Ben Thwaites, Director of the Forum for Jewish Leadership. “Too often,” he continues, “other minority groups are advanced at the expense of Jewish workers.”

Adam Neufeld of the Anti-Defamation League, says many large companies have begun to integrate antisemitism into existing DEI strategies.  ADL

Such sentiments anchor the experiences of Jews in offices nationwide. Take Rebecca, who works at a Manhattan social media company. The problem, she said, isn’t that DEI is entirely without merit. Rather, the DEI mindset appears unable to “provide equitable support to all minority groups at the same time.” The benefits of workplace DEI, Rebecca added, tend to flow mostly toward “minority groups with broadly accepted histories,” such as women and African-Americans. And this has left many Jews feeling abandoned by corporate leadership. 

Race-based affinity groups are a perfect example of this inequity. According to a McKinsey report, some 90% of Fortune 500 companies now have “employee resource groups,” which provide minority workers “safe spaces” to seek and share support. But because “we don’t fit neatly into most social justice boxes,” said Rebecca, these groups rarely exist for Jews. 

After Starbuck’s Workers Union espoused pro-Palestine sentiments, Starbucks took the unusual step of suing the union in response. AP

Such lack of clarity has real-world consequences, explains Eliza, who works for a Manhattan-based tech start-up. She experienced odd looks and blank stares by her non-Jewish colleagues when she joined a company-wide DEI group at her previous employer as an outwardly-appearing Orthodox Jewish woman. 

“The DEI group…was set up…around the same time as the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “I joined to remind everybody that there’s also antisemitism in the world. I don’t think people recognized it as they see Jews as very privileged, consisting mostly of white males, which I am not.” 

In the case of Naomi, a vice president of investor sales at a TriBeCa financial services firm, her company’s Jewish affinity group was relegated to a sort of second-class status. “We were barred from creating an official Jewish employee resource group because being Jewish is seen as …more of a religion” than a race, she explains. “That meant we were still required to get HR and DEI approval to put on events — and had to cover the costs of those events ourselves — but we never received official status as a group, while other minorities did.”  

The post on the Starbucks Workers Union X page which called for the Union’s solidarity with Palestine. Twitter/Starbucks Workers United

After antisemitic incidents tripled in the US following the Hamas attack, Jewish leaders — most notably billionaire investor Bill Ackmen — called for DEI programs to be dismantled. But others took a more measured approach, requesting that antisemitism be woven into existing DEI strategies. But such requests, say many workers, have fallen on deaf ears. 

According to DEI expert Janessa Mondestin, anti-harassment training in many corporations is overly focused on sexual harassment and fails to account for potential incidents based around religious observance. LinkedIn

Some of DEI’s shortcomings seem to be structural — if not by design. Take anti-harassment training, which is crucial for keeping workers safe.  According to Janessa Mondestin, a DEI expert and Executive Director at Hire 4 Higher HR Consulting, existing “anti-harassment training…is lackluster and archaic… generally focused on sexual harassment for compliance,” she said. “It should include the complexity of diversity, including religious observances.” Most of the time it does not.

Then there is the issue of safety, which can also fall under the purview of DEI departments. Caroline, a Long Islander who works at a European luxury fashion house, said her firm failed to take action in January after “someone who was Jewish… was attacked outside of the office.” 

“The company did nothing to make us feel safer until I rallied a group of Jewish employees to approach our DEI office,” she explains. “Tepid,” is how Caroline describes her company’s response. 

Prof. Shai Davidai of Columbia University is not calling for DEI to be ended. But he bemoans the arbitrary ways in which its philosophies and policies are implemented — especially when it comes to Jewish students and workers. Stefano Giovannini

Other Jewish employees say  DEI programs have been at the forefront of perpetuating dangerous — and often untrue — stereotypes dictating that Jews are white and “oppressors,” and therefore ineligible for the benefits offered by DEI. 

Adam Michaels, founder and CEO of employee benefits platform Enrollify, who’s written repeatedly on workplace antisemitism since the October 7th attack calls this thinking “abhorrent.” But Michaels is not surprised. “Those in charge of DEI programs seem to be the same ones justifying the actions of Hamas as “oppressed freedom fighters” and categorizing Jews as “colonial oppressors,” he said.  

Benjy, a product manager from New Jersey working at a large payments technology company, echoes Michael’s sentiments. “The ultra left views us as white oppressors, but the ultra right don’t view us as white at all,” he said. With some 20% of all Jewish households now containing non-white members, such thinking is clearly outdated.

“There may be a separation between what happens in the US college campuses and what happens in the real world, but universities are training grounds for everyone who goes into the real world,” Davidai said.  

Shai Davidai, an Israeli American professor of management at Columbia Business School, has been outspoken about the surge of antisemitism on college campuses, but he notes that “universities are one of the main employers in the US.”

Davidai, who has been in academia for 13 years, reiterated that he supported the premise that companies should be diverse, inclusive and safe, but he bemoaned the selective ways in which DEI principles have been imposed. 

Bill Ackman is one of many high-profile Jewish leaders who’ve called for the dismantling of DEI. REUTERS

He cites late January’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day as a perfect example of this inconsistency. Most companies today offer robust programming around ethno-specific “history months” or notable race-based holidays, such as Juneteenth or Cinco de Mayo. But, observes Davidai, little of the same attention is afforded to major Jewish events. 

“You’d think that would be the focus of DEI officers,” he said. “But I don’t recall seeing many big companies or universities come out with a statement about International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

With both antisemitism and the scrutiny over DEI continuing to rise, the question for many Jewish leaders is what happens next. Even before October 7th, major corporations such as Google and Meta were already reducing their DEI budgets. But with DEI unlikely to disappear anytime soon, Adam Neufeld, senior vice president and chief impact officer at the Anti-Defamation League, says many large companies have begun to integrate antisemitism into existing DEI strategies. 

“Those in charge of DEI programs seem to be the same ones justifying the actions of Hamas as ‘oppressed freedom fighters’ and categorizing Jews as ‘colonial oppressors’,” says Adam Michaels.

Over 250 organizations – “from Google to UPS to Accenture to Nascar” — have signed onto ADL’s antisemitism workplace pledge,  says Neufeld, which demands that “workplaces… incorporate antisemitism in DEI efforts… and support the development of Jewish employee groups.” The ADL’s goal, Neufeld explains, is to “create a workplace that is safe, equitable, and inclusive for Jewish and all employees.” 

But as the war in Gaza rages on, that safety remains far from guaranteed as long as Jews fail to secure the privileges and protections afforded to every other minority group in America. “You’re always the oppressed or an oppressor within [the DEI] prism,” says Benjy, the fintech product manager from New Jersey. “But as Jews we always seem to fall outside of the boundaries of DEI.”

Jonathan Harounoff is a writer and Director of Communications at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).

David Christopher Kaufman

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