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Prescription Zionism and DEIA Initiatives

Salvaging the faltering Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility initiatives.
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August 31, 2023
Olegk1986, Alice Wanwarameth/Getty Images

Last March, during a philosophy class discussion about race and power, a Black student expressed that, “the Holocaust is a lot more sensitized because Jews are white. Compared to [anti-Black] racism, antisemitism seems to be a non-issue.” Later that year, another student confronted me, asserting that I had no right to speak about Jewish vulnerability because I had “no color on my skin.” Had both students realized that Jews do not, in fact, fall into the category of “white” but rather represent an ethno-religious group indigenous to the land of Israel, their naive observations may have been quite different.

This past June, the White House released the United States National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism, urging “employers—including states, cities, K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, private companies, and nonprofits—to review their own diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) programs to ensure full inclusion of antisemitism awareness.”

Regrettably, DEIA initiatives have seen considerable setbacks and are being substantially curtailed. The U.S. Supreme Court has mirrored this reality through its pivotal decision to overturn Affirmative Action this past June.

Will diversity initiatives endure and is their survival warranted? To uphold the White House’s commitment to advance nationwide education on Jewish identity, their continuation is essential—albeit with a fresh, new perspective. The approach I propose leverages Zionism as a philosophical foundation and an educational tool that has the potential to transform DEIA initiatives to positively impact Jewish and non-Jewish groups.

Arguments against DEIA programming are not without merit. Indeed, as Black comedian and former media personality, Karith Foster once noted, many DEIA policies have “the tendency to reduce people to victim or villain [which can] strip agency from and alienate everyone.”

While the intent behind diversity programming is noble, it is often overwhelmed by an oppressed vs. oppressor narrative, giving rise to a “victim-villain” mindset.

As for Jews, David Bernstein, author of “Woke Antisemitism,” and others claim that DEIA programs are anathema to Jewish interests. They “undermine Jewish narratives of self-determination in the binary oppressed vs. oppressor paradigm,” which “negates the rights of Jews, who may not wish to identify as part of the ‘white’ dominant class, to define their own identity, experience, and vulnerability.”

Still, it is imperative to educate both employers and DEIA practitioners about identity and social biases. This holds particular significance as it concerns today’s Jewish college students. At George Washington University, my home campus, Jewish and Israeli students have been labeled “colonial apologists” and harassed in the classroom for being “born in Israel.” My own friends have had their mezuzot (encased religious scrolls) torn from their doorposts or have been spat-on for wearing a Jewish star.

This widespread trend is further intensified across America’s universities as CUNY students such as Fatima Mohammad and Nirdeen Kiswani are permitted to elevate antisemitism in their consecutive year graduation speeches. Instances of radical Islamists and neo-Nazis uniting to set Israeli flags ablaze in close proximity of synagogues, or reports of assaults on Orthodox Jews on New York City or London streets have become increasingly commonplace.

Education about the Jewish experience deserves equal priority to that of other minority groups. Late British Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has characterized the evolution of antisemitism as a “mutating virus.” In an address to the European Parliament in 2016, he expressed, “Once Jews were hated because of their religion. Then they were hated because of their race. Now they are hated because of their nation-state.”

Israel has long held the title of being the most “misunderstood country on earth,” according to former Israeli Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism and Delegitimization, Noa Tishby. For this reason, Jewish identity education must underscore the inextricable tie between Jewish peoplehood, religious values and ancestral land. The unyielding perseverance and resilience of the Jewish people throughout history merits equal acknowledgement to that afforded any other indigenous community reclaiming their homeland or any minority group securing their civil rights. Not unlike the pursuit of gender parity that endures beyond the attainment of women’s suffrage, we must strongly advocate for Jewish self-determination beyond Zionism’s original manifestation.

Education about Zionism must transcend mere facts and delve into its defining characteristics. The new generation should draw inspiration from visionary Zionist thinkers such as Theodore Herzl, who took decisive measures to combat vulnerability. His approach did not involve elevating one identity over another, but rather harmonizing different philosophical strands to achieve a higher purpose.

Spanning the spectrum of Abraham Isaac Kook’s religious Zionism to Moses Hess’s socialist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s revisionist Zionism to Agudas Yisroel’s non-Zionism, and Theodore Herzl’s political Zionism, adhering to rigid conformity and binary classification only hindered the collective endeavor. Instead, the plethora of rich and sometimes conflicting intellectual and theological philosophies ultimately guaranteed the Jewish nation’s success. Never before as during the unfolding “Israeli spring” with tens of thousands of Israelis publicly criticizing their government and proudly brandishing Israeli flags, has it become more evident that Zionism yields its influence in the same manner.

The diversity of ideas behind Zionism allows coexistence and collaboration with multiple communities. At home, Zionists have long engaged in a sustained tradition of examination and self-critique aiming to showcase Israel as a light beacon unto itself and among nations. Globally, Zionist leaders have vigorously pursued alliances and fostered diplomatic discourse.

In 2004, the Israel Allies Foundation founded the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus and, in a subsequent move, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus in 2006. Since then, Japan, Finland, South Korea, England, Brazil, Canada and other nations have created their own caucuses in support of Israel’s right to exist in peace.

Amid Palestinian rejectionism and terror activity, Zionism’s role was pivotal in the realization of the landmark 2020 Abraham Accords, successfully cementing bilateral relations with neighboring countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. Eyes are now set on the prospective normalization with Saudi Arabia, which promises to be a game changer in the region’s geopolitics.

Zionism’s remarkable achievements despite daunting existential challenges can serve as inspiration for other minority groups. Relaying its genuine history and promoting its progressive tenets can aid in its acceptance and in countering anti-Zionist prejudices. The DEIA community can derive inspiration from Israel’s accomplishments, using their own intricate pasts as springboards for constructive advancement.

The American Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus and Dubai’s Abrahamic House exemplify the White House National Strategy’s promotion of interfaith and cross-communal initiatives. These efforts move beyond historical adversities, focusing instead on celebrating the intersections of  cultures, fostering unity, and mutual support.

Genuine diversity entails countering hate and nurturing ties irrespective of identity. The DEIA community can gain insight from the commitments made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “guarantee[ing] freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” and “extend[ing] its hand to all neighboring states and their peoples.” French, British and Spanish Europeans; Americans across its states including Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims; the Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ communities—all deserve a seat at the DEIA table to enrich the dialogue and enable collective partnership.

As former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren notes in “2048: The Rejuvenated State,” Zionism embodies “responsibility, vision, and will.” Inclusive responsibility counters divisive identity politics. While no diversity program may create utopia, centering on resilience, diversity, constructive critique and collaboration can pave a path toward unified Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world.


Sabrina Soffer is a junior at the George Washington University and the Commissioner of its Task Force to Combat Antisemitism. 

 

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