Moment Debate | Do Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives Harm Jews?

By | Nov 20, 2023
2023 November/December, Debate, Opinion

Interviews by Amy E. Schwartz


David L. Bernstein is the author of Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.

Naomi Greenspan directs the Improving the Campus Climate Initiative for the nonprofit Academic Engagement Network.


Do Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives Harm Jews? | Yes

Do diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives harm Jews?

Yes. They embolden and empower ideologues who see Jews as part of the oppressor class because the DEI worldview divides the world neatly into oppressors and oppressed. Many DEI officials also hold views hostile to Jews and Israel—the Heritage Foundation did a study showing this—because Israel is viewed as the most powerful country in its region and therefore an oppressor country, and because there’s such a history of anti-Zionism on the left. So I think that these rapidly proliferating initiatives are inherently problematic for Jews, and they’re fanning the flames of antisemitism on campuses.

Do Jewish concerns fit comfortably into the average DEI mission?

Look, I understand that we don’t want to be left out. As they say, if you’re not at the table, then you’re lunch. In an ideal world, if DEI were just about exploring multiple identities, it could be hospitable to Jews. Unfortunately, “equity” in the Ibram X. Kendi sense has come to mean a specific goal—perfect representation of every group reflecting their numbers in the population.

They’re fanning the flames of antisemitism on campus.

When you say the only reason for the lack of such parity is discrimination, you end up ignoring root causes—for instance, in earlier education—and that can lead to really bad social outcomes. And the flip side of understanding “equity” that way is that, if discrimination is the sole reason some groups are not achieving parity, the groups that have achieved parity, or exceeded it, must be complicit in discrimination and white supremacy. In other words, they’ve achieved their place in society on somebody else’s back. And that view is also a source of antisemitism.

Are DEI goals a zero-sum game? Do Jews lose if other groups gain?

If you divide up the world into oppressors and oppressed, and every identity is either a source of oppression or of privilege—which is what the intersectional matrix does—then it’s a zero-sum game for Jews, who will, by virtue of their Jewish identity, be viewed as privileged. When we embrace that framework, we also end up with a society that’s less open, less able to solve problems and also discriminatory against certain identities but not others. And it’s not true—privilege and oppression don’t automatically follow identity. Jews should not try to insinuate our identities or our claims into that framework, because the framework itself needs to be rejected.

Does the idea that Jews are “white” complicate DEI conversations?

The idea that somebody else gets to impose a racial identity on you is highly problematic. And many Jews don’t identify as white anyway, regardless of their skin color. We weren’t always viewed as white in America. What about a Jew from the former Soviet Union who’s experienced lifelong discrimination? My mom is from Baghdad, Iraq, so I guess I don’t have to identify as white under those terms, but I still think it’s not a healthy way to classify our society.

Why did DEI officials at universities fall so short in the current crisis? What went wrong?

The problems on campuses have been a long time coming. If you go back to the late 1960s with the arrival of postmodern thought and ethnic studies centers at universities, and then later Edward Said’s book Orientalism and how it made anti-Zionism front and center in post-colonial theory, it all created a perfect storm of anti-Zionism in academia. We’re paying the price for that now. We didn’t recognize the ideological CO2 emissions that were creating the climate change on campus.

Where do we go from here? What do good programs look like?

I divide DEI into three categories. Some programs are highly ideological—to use the technical term, batshit crazy. Some are ideological but not over the top. And some are benign and liberal, such as Chloé Valdary’s “Theory of Enchantment.” In some places DEI is used as a platform for conversations, and I think that’s very valuable. Unfortunately, it’s not the dominant paradigm.

I would like to think DEI could be reformed, but it may not be reformable. I absolutely believe we should support diversity—if diversity means making sure that we have a multiplicity of people in the room from different backgrounds and different experiences, including people who might not normally be included. But it has to include viewpoint diversity, or else it’s illiberal. An illiberal environment gives rise to antisemitism and other forms of bigotry and hate, particularly on the left.

Unfortunately, fighting this is not a quick fix. It’s going to require systemic change at the university level. Over time, we’ll have to return to liberal principles and the free exchange of ideas. And I think that’s been badly tattered in the past five decades.



Do Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives Harm Jews? | No

Do diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives harm Jews?

No. It is because of America’s acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism that the Jewish community here has thrived. We must continue to foster this ethos of inclusion for Jews to remain safe. Right now antisemitism awareness education with DEI officials is more important than ever.

Do Jewish concerns fit comfortably into the average DEI mission?

Much of the DEI mission, particularly diversity and inclusion, is good for the Jewish community. The “equity” piece is more complicated, since for the most part, American Jews are not an underrepresented minority. We largely have achieved equity in terms of both access and outcomes. There’s a fear by some that focusing on equity of outcomes could hurt those who previously benefited.

Are DEI goals a zero-sum game? Do Jews lose if other groups gain?

Absolutely not. Just as the integration of American Jews into American society over the last 100-plus years benefited the country as a whole, the integration of additional communities will make our country stronger. We need to emphasize that uplifting one of us uplifts all of us. To be safe and inclusive of any one group, a society needs to be safe and inclusive of all groups. If we don’t come together as minority communities to fight the hatred of white nationalists—if we are busy arguing over which form of oppression is worse or who should benefit from DEI efforts—we will have less capacity to combat this hateful ideology.

Does the idea that Jews are “white” complicate DEI conversations?

It can. Race is a social construct, and in the United States, it’s largely centered on a black-white binary, because of our history of slavery, Jim Crow and continued discrimination against the African-American community. In the early 20th century, the American Jewish community experienced structural racism alongside the African-American community. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, that began to change, and Ashkenazi Jews have largely benefited from their perceived whiteness within American society, though antisemitism persists.

They’re an opportunity for education about Jewish identity.

As Jews, we see ourselves as a people with a distinctive history and ethnic identity. Lumping us into the category of “white” can feel like it erases our sense of self. It can also invite antisemitic tropes. Increasingly on the left, and within DEI spaces, whiteness is associated with power and privilege; if Jews are perceived as exclusively white, this can accelerate antisemitic tropes about Jews having too much power. This is an opportunity for education—to raise awareness about the nature of Jewish identity, our diversity and how categorizing us as white doesn’t capture who we are as a people.

Why did DEI officials at universities fall so short in the current crisis? What went wrong?

I think that as a Jewish community, we need to take a different approach to engaging on the topic of antisemitism. If we approach these conversations with facts and talking points about Israel, and the person we’re talking to has no basic knowledge of Jewish identity and history, we’ll lose the argument. We need to start by explaining who Jews are, what the history of antisemitism is, and how the antisemitic tropes that appear in white nationalist ideology also appear in conversations about Israel. We also need to leave space for criticism of Israel that doesn’t traffic in antisemitic tropes or marginalize Jews. Not everyone will support every Israeli policy—even Israelis and American Jews don’t do that—but people must recognize the need for and the right to a Jewish state.

While some people in DEI and other progressive spaces will not be on board with the basic right of Jewish self-determination, my experience is that if we approach the subject in a way that educates and explains, rather than defends and combats, we can often shift the conversation.

Where do we go from here? What do good programs look like?

My organization, the Academic Engagement Network, has worked with more than 1,000 mid-level administrators over three years through our Improving Campus Climate Initiative. We’ve reached out to them with tools to address the Israel-Hamas war in that context.

Generally, my experience engaging DEI administrators in antisemitism awareness education has been extremely positive. They are hungry to learn more, to understand the Jewish experience, to support campus Jewish communities and to foster more constructive dialogue around polarized issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are not coming to this table with any ill will toward the Jewish community, they simply haven’t had an opportunity to learn about our community.

DEI exists. Rather than fight it, let’s embrace it and make sure the Jewish community has a seat at the table, and talk about it in a way that will resonate with these audiences and make allies of them.

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