Activist groups have aggressively challenged diversity initiatives of private employers over alleged reverse discrimination. What can employers do to protect DEI efforts?
Acknowledging the diversity of the Jewish identity
May is Jewish American Heritage Month, an ideal time to acknowledge and celebrate the Jewish American impact on advancing civil rights, modern science, the arts, the law and countless other domains in our nation. This is also an essential time for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) professionals to recognize the particular challenges experienced by Jewish employees who desire the same honor and respect as anyone else.
“As a multiethnic and multicultural people, Jews can neither afford to opt out of DEI nor allow its practitioners to exclude [them.] (Kohov & Flint).”
The Jewish identity is diverse in and of itself. Far from a monolith, to be Jewish is a fluid, intersectional and evolving identity spanning multiple nations, ethnicities and races. As such DEI efforts would be incomplete in the absence of considering the Jewish experience.
Antisemitism is at an all-time high
Antisemitic discourse has run rampant in recent years within political and cultural platforms. From high-profile artists, athletes and politicians, to harassment, vandalism and assault, antisemitic happenings saw a 34% increase between 1979 to 2021 at its peak. This translates to roughly seven antisemitic incidents per day according to the Anti-Defamation League.
These discriminatory trends are seeping into the workplace even as DEI efforts are on the rise.
With 9.3 billion spent just last year and an estimated 15.4 billion projected spending by 2026 the inclusion of the Jewish experience is rarely considered within DEI objectives. This has to change in order for DEI efforts to succeed.
Jewish discrimination in the workplace spans multiple industries
A 2022 study exploring how religious discrimination is perceived in the workplace evidenced that more than half of the Jewish participants experienced discrimination at work.
A ResumeBuilder.com survey of hiring managers and recruiters revealed that a quarter of the 1,131 respondents wanted fewer Jews in their industry. A comparable percentage of respondents disclosed they’re less like to advance Jewish applicants as they already have too much power and wealth.
Bloomberg News interviews with various Jewish employees across industries confirm a perceived increase in antisemitic commentary, less representation of Jewish workers in upper ranks, and personal sentiment of fear their Jewish name might limit advancement or invite harassment.
The ever presence of old tropes is a clear reminder that:
“antisemitism is alive and well, (Schneider, via Cohen & Bloomberg).”
It is now more important than ever that this reality be addressed in the American workplace.
Leadership must facilitate education about the Jewish identity
When being Jewish is categorized as solely the Jewish faith, DEI efforts that shy away from religion may overlook the opportunity to educate and embrace the cultural identity and peoplehood associated with this intersectional identifier. 17% of American Jews identify as non-white specifically; Black, Asian, another minority race or multiracial, Hispanic, Mizrahi, Sephardic, or of other nationalities. Jews hold widely differing political views, and a range of opinions on Israel, and practice Judaism in a variety of ways if at all.
Even still antisemitism makes no such distinctions, with a Jewish person potentially being targeted for their last name or the holidays they choose to observe. Jewish employees’ concerns should be as much a priority as the needs of any marginalized group. DEI efforts should include initiatives to educate employees about antisemitism, diversity within the Jewish community and racial intersectionality.
There is no one way to be Jewish. In the absence of these efforts to learn more about the wide variety of experiences Jewish individuals with intersectional identities (ex: Asian neurodivergent Jew) are left particularly vulnerable to discrimination and exclusion.
Employers should embrace and respect Jewish holidays
Beginning the year with a companywide calendar inclusive of all religious and cultural holidays is a helpful way to ensure no one is made to feel like they have to choose between their career and their faith.
Managers should be understanding of the importance of Jewish holidays and that employees may need to leave by late afternoon with holiday observance beginning the night before the calendar event. Early circulation of the company calendar gives time for edits, and corrections and ensures that no required meetings, deadlines or retreats are scheduled on those days.
“Inclusion is about acknowledging all the dimensions of someone’s diversity, which also includes their faith. By understanding more deeply and respecting their religious practice, you’re demonstrating inclusive leadership. This over time creates a heightened sense of belonging for your employees (Saterman via Mallick).”
Employers and employees alike should strive to be allies to the Jewish community
Acknowledging your co-workers’ Jewish identity, respecting their individual relationship with that identity and engaging with each Jewish person as an individual is a key starting point to fostering an authentic allyship with Jewish persons in the workplace.
When acts of violence against the Jewish community come to pass there will be a foundation of genuine respect and care behind offers of support and comments of concern.
Checking in and supporting your Jewish co-workers following national antisemitic events can be in the form of a kind word of acknowledgment, an offer to cover a shift or a moment away from the office for a drink or a meal. These simple friendly gestures do much to help the marginalized feel seen, and heard. Similarly speaking up against antisemitism in the workplace helps foster an environment of inclusion.
As many as 1 in 4 Jews have experienced hate speech or antisemitic comments. Working in fear of antisemitism might compel a Jewish person to hide their identity and lose the opportunity to bring their whole self, their best self to work every day. The burden of calling out or reporting antisemitism should not fall on the victim alone. Being an ally means reporting antisemitism to management and calling out offenders whether in the moment or after the fact.
Managers and human resources must hold employees accountable for intolerant behavior, and ensure they get the education, and training regarding expectations and consequences for future transgressions.
Broaden the scope of your DEI work to include the Jewish experience
DEI leaders cannot afford to sideline the unique experiences of Jewish employees in the workplace. DEI objectives that strive to promote a culture of respect and belonging must be inclusive of a Jewish perspective as much as any racial, gender or identity group.
Systemic oppression – no matter if it’s racism, sexism or antisemitism – has foundations in misinformation and hate.
Rather than pitting the “isms” against one another, the goal should be to build a work culture that is intolerant of oppressive thinking and behavior against any marginalized community. It is the moral obligation of DEI leaders to acknowledge the fluid multifaceted nature of the Jewish experience through education, thoughtful inclusive scheduling and encouraging a culture of allyship.
Seeking out experts in DEI, like our facilitators at Spectra Diversity, who are connected and knowledgeable about Jewish values and concerns can be an organization’s first step in cultivating genuine support and impactful change.
Harvard Business Review, How To Support Your Jewish Colleagues Right Now, Mita Mallick, December 2022.
Fortune, “Almost 25% of American Hiring Managers Don’t Want to Advance Jewish People in Hiring Processes, Alarming Survey on Workplace Antisemitism Finds,” Arianne Cohen & Bloomberg, January 2023.