The DEI Dilemma

Should Jews look to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) movement for more protection, or should they oppose it because it undermines liberal values? An examination of the dilemma.
January 25, 2024
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A fierce debate has erupted in the mainstream Jewish community over Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs, which have proliferated in colleges, high schools, private companies, governments and nonprofits. Some want to engage-and-influence these programs so that Jews are better represented in the mix of oppressed groups deserving protection, some want to end what they deem a badly flawed model of diversity, and others want to reform these programs to make them less ideological and more supportive of viewpoint diversity. While there are voices in mainstream organizations urging the latter two options, most major Jewish organizations cling to engage-and-influence. It’s an understandable but lamentable error. 

Moving away from engage-and-influence would, of course, necessitate a painful tradeoff for the Jewish community. In the short term, engaging coercive DEI programs allows us to influence the way these programs portray Jews. In the long term, however, engaging DEI programs props up an illiberal ideology on which these programs are based and spreads antisemitic sentiment. As tempting as engagement may be, the Jewish community must prioritize genuine and durable structural change that ameliorates antisemitism over activities like DEI that appear advantageous at the present moment but carry lasting costs.

A Bureaucracy Run Amok

DEI first took shape in the workplace in the late 1980s, designed to increase the representation of minorities and create more inclusive work cultures. Given America’s persistent racial disparities and unfinished business of civil rights, there was a clear need for diversifying the places Americans work and study. I recall walking around the financial district of Boston just over a decade ago, noticing the bands of white men clad in Brooks Brothers suits going to lunch. You could pick out the alpha male, the boss, from the stratified formation. One doesn’t have to be a management guru to imagine the homogenous work cultures in these financial institutions. I suspected it wouldn’t be easy to be a nonconforming black man or a woman among the professional classes in such companies, if such opportunities were even extended. It’s understandable why many people, particularly from traditionally underrepresented minority communities, would champion the promise of DEI. 

Yet from the get-go, DEI went beyond diversification and insisted that participants adopt specific perspectives on race and racism, such as Robin DiAngelo’s shibboleth of “white women tears” (white women lamenting how hard racism is on them) or Ibram X. Kendi’s dictum that all social disparities are a function of discrimination. In this worldview, those who disagree with such pronouncements are at best “fragile” and defensive, and at worst privileged or racist. Indeed, DEI is not merely a set of prescribed practices to make institutions more inclusive, but a comprehensive diagnosis of why such disparities exist in the first place, a picture of reality that leaves little if any room for disagreement. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, for example, states that “an anti-racism framework serves as a conceptual tool to examine the institutional and systemic practices necessary to confront systemic racism.” The Association claims to know the precise nature of the problem as well as the solutions for overcoming it. 

Some DEI programs divide people up into racial “affinity groups” that provide people of color a space to reflect on their oppression and racialized white people a space to come to terms with their complicity in white supremacy and the requirements of allyship. It’s hard to imagine how this brings people together. Such practices are especially damaging to children who are being socialized into racial division. Some DEI programs have forced Jews into white affinity groups even when they don’t identify as white and denied Jewish employees’ requests to create separate Jewish affinity groups. A Chinese-American friend complained to me that at work she was placed into an Asian-American affinity group with two Iranian-American women with whom she didn’t feel the slightest cultural affinity. Far from fostering diversity, these programs virtually guarantee social polarization and resentment. While some people may feel supported by racial affinity groups, others don’t want to be told what racial group they belong to or to profess their complicity in white supremacy. In defining the world in rigid categories and insisting others do the same and even define their own identities accordingly, DEI, with few exceptions, is constitutionally averse to perhaps the most important form of diversity—viewpoint diversity. It’s no wonder that these programs provoked a backlash.

Not only is such diversity training polarizing, studies show that DEI programs don’t even achieve their stated goals.

Not only is such diversity training polarizing, studies show that DEI programs don’t even achieve their stated goals. According to Musa al-Gharbi, Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, “a robust and ever-growing body of empirical literature suggests that diversity-related training typically fails at its stated objectives.” The training does not improve organizational morale, increase collaboration, or improve hiring, retention or promotion of minority candidates, he states, and often does the very opposite. Yet this research is widely ignored by institutions that have signed on the DEI dotted line. In a 2018 research paper, sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote, “We have been speaking to employers about this research for more than a decade with the message that diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around.” Notwithstanding its original aspirations, DEI has become the bureaucratization of an ideological approach to diversity that simplistically divides the world into oppressed and oppressors, and seeks to bring along its participants, sometimes in agreement, often in silent protest. 

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DEI and the Jews

DEI programs also fuel antisemitism. Dr. Stanley Goldfarb, a former associate dean and professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and founder of Do No Harm, watched with dismay as DEI radicalized Penn’s campus culture. “At the heart of DEI is a simple binary: the world is divided between oppressors and the oppressed,” he stated. “Proponents of DEI cast white people as oppressors and black people as the oppressed. While they apply this frame primarily to America, they often apply it to Israel, too. Apparently, Israel is a bastion of Jewish whiteness, with a racist commitment to shattering the lives of nonwhite Palestinians.” To be sure, Jews have reached the height of numerous fields, and Israel is a successful and thriving country. This makes the category “oppressor” seem applicable to those who buy into the ideology, but Jews have also been an embattled minority, subject to centuries of persecution. The simplistic oppressed-oppressor framework so common in DEI cannot cope with the complexity of the Jewish experience, and defaults into placing Jews into the white oppressor box. Dr. Tabia Lee, the former head of DEI at the Silicon Valley-based De Anza College, wrote that she was “told in no uncertain terms that Jews are ‘white oppressors’ and our job as faculty and staff members was to ‘decenter whiteness.’” (In full disclosure, Dr. Lee now runs a project funded by my organization, the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values). 

Indeed, there have been numerous instances of DEI programs and officers hostile to Jewish concerns. A Title VI complaint filed by the advocacy organization StandWithUs, against the once Jewish-friendly George Washington University, stated “Jewish and Israeli students in the Program’s mandatory diversity course were singled out for repeated and persistent harassment.” Dr. Lara Sheehi, an assistant professor of psychology at GW, chastised Jewish students for their privilege and invited antisemitic speakers, including one who said “that good deeds done by Jews and Israelis are done to mask sinister activity.” The University of Maryland placed Jazmin Pichardo, an assistant director of diversity, as head of a committee charged with addressing rising campus antisemitism. The university ignored Pichardo’s anti-Zionist Facebook posts. Sima Shakhari, a University of Minnesota Gender studies professor, who denied that Hamas committed sexual violence on October 7th, is, according to the Times of Israel, a leading candidate for a senior position at the school’s DEI department.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Executive Director of the Amcha Initiative, an organization dedicated to investigating and educating about antisemitism in higher education, in a piece titled “Why DEI Programs Can’t Address Campus Antisemitism” in the journal Sapir, writes that the lack of clarity around the definition of antisemitism and the refusal of many to view anti-Zionism as a form of Jew-hatred, will lead many DEI officers to simply dismiss anti-Zionist harassment as a form of prejudice against Jews. “If scholars of antisemitism can’t even agree on a definition of antisemitism, how can DEI officials be expected to understand what antisemitism is and to create effective programming to address it?” she asked. As we’ve seen in the above examples, many haven’t and won’t.

The authors argue that the sheer volume of DEI staff expressing anti-Israel attitudes is so out of proportion as to constitute antisemitism.

A Heritage Foundation report, “Inclusion Delusion: The Antisemitism of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Staff at Universities” by Jay Greene and James Paul, shows how the increase in DEI staff at universities (the average University now has 45 such professionals on staff) was destined to engender hostility toward Jews and Israel. The authors argue that the sheer volume of DEI staff expressing anti-Israel attitudes is so out of proportion as to constitute antisemitism. To measure antisemitism among university DEI staff, they examined the Twitter feeds of 741 DEI personnel at 65 universities to find their public communications regarding Israel. For comparison purposes, they looked at the same set’s tweets about China. The report found that “Those DEI staff tweeted, retweeted, or liked almost three times as many tweets about Israel as tweets about China.” Of the tweets about Israel, 96 percent were critical, while 62 percent of the tweets about China were favorable. The report concludes that “university DEI staff are better understood as political activists with a narrow and often radical political agenda rather than promoters of welcoming and inclusive environments.”

In the aftermath of the October 7th massacre in Israel, Tablet Magazine writer Armin Rosen reported that he “called or emailed over a dozen equity divisions at prominent colleges and universities to ask whether they had released any statements, held any events, or created any new programming for Jewish students since the Hamas rampage of October 7 and the wave of campus unrest that followed. The answer is no—of course not.” Rosen concludes that “These bureaucracies are not burning through institutional capital in order to salve the anxieties of Jewish students, because helping students was never the point. Their ambitions are of a different order: DEI embodies the moral authority of a larger system for distributing status and power. It doesn’t care about actual human beings—and as we’ve learned since the massacre of October 7, it especially doesn’t care about Jews.”

And then there’s the second letter of the acronym: “E,” denoting “Equity” and its implications for diaspora Jews. Ibram X. Kendi defined Equity in his best seller “How to be an Antiracist”: “Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing.” Discrimination that produces equity, Kendi assures us, is anti-racist. According to noted Black economist at Brown University Glenn Loury, this understanding of equity can generate resentment against successful groups. Loury stated that, “One consequence of a fixation on group disparities understood to be the necessary consequence of oppression or racism is that the groups that do well will come under suspicion. Their success will be thought to be the flip side of the disadvantage of the groups that do poorly. If African Americans are underrepresented in this or that venue because of systemic racism, and Jews are let’s say overrepresented in those very same venues, how can it be otherwise but that the over-representation of the Jews is somehow the bitter fruit, the necessary consequence of that very system of oppression that excludes African Americans?” The Jewish community is already feeling the effects of this version of equity that has taken so many institutions by storm. Jacob Savage, citing too many examples to dismiss, writes in Tablet that “Jews are being disproportionately purged from liberal institutions because Jews disproportionately exist within those institutions.”

Even those in the mainstream Jewish community dedicated to engaging DEI acknowledge that DEI programs have been tone deaf or downright hostile to Jewish concerns.

Even those in the mainstream Jewish community dedicated to engaging DEI acknowledge that DEI programs have been tone deaf or downright hostile to Jewish concerns. “There are shortcomings in the lens that DEI has adopted to do its inclusion work,” Sara Coodin, the American Jewish Committee’s director of academic affairs, told Jewish Insider. “It’s not a lens that was ever constructed with the Jewish community, our history, our needs in mind, so we are seeing now what those shortcomings yield. They yield a community unable to respond to the current moment and to antisemitism in a meaningful way.”

Over the past few years, numerous mainstream Jewish organizations have entered the DEI space to ensure that antisemitism is taken seriously and firmly implanted in the canon of societal oppressions. Adam Neufeld, Chief Impact Officer at the ADL, stated “one of our core asks for all colleges is that DEI policies and trainings include antisemitism—both classic forms and more contemporary Israel forms of antisemitism.” Neufeld stated “and now it’s only more clear that that’s necessary … [DEI framework] can be applied in an antisemitic way but I think it can also be applied in a way that respects and brings light and makes people understand antisemitism.”  

Although I adamantly oppose the dominant form of DEI, I well understand the temptation to insert the Jewish story into the hierarchy of oppressions. One Jewish college professor recently shared with me that he asked the university president to appoint him to his college’s DEI committee so he knows “what’s going on in the school and can make sure that Jewish students are being taken care of.” He expressed some ambivalence, however, about his role, sharing that “we have all the racial affinity groups, including a Jewish affinity group.” I asked the professor if he’s paying a “price of admission” for being part of the program. “Oh I know exactly the price I’m paying,” he replied, without hesitation. “I’m going along with efforts to repress Jewish student activism. In one campus building, we have flags of every country representing every student from abroad except Israel, even though there are several Israeli students. We don’t press the matter because we sense that antisemitism is right beneath the surface—a sleeping tiger.” How do you feel about participating in a program that maintains racial affinity groups, I asked. “That’s a problem for me too,” he responded.  

At a Jewish communal event at which I spoke a year ago, a mother of two high school students said “I agree with you that the DEI at my kids’ school is divisive, but if I just argue for dropping it no one will listen to me, I’ll be shut out of the discussion, and they’ll continue to do DEI without addressing antisemitism. The best I can hope for is a commitment to including antisemitism.” The woman had a point. Unless she pressed the matter, the DEI program would almost certainly overlook, if not target, Jews. At that time, I didn’t have the heart to suggest that she cut her losses and oppose the DEI program. Instead, I suggested that she apply what I called “The Batshit Crazy Test”: “Is the DEI practiced by the school batshit crazy, or just a little crazy?” I asked. If it’s just a little crazy, perhaps you can work with it to get Jews included but if it’s batshit crazy, I think the only response must be to fight it.” She looked at me with resignation. “It’s really batshit crazy.” Her kids’ schools had embraced the “white supremacy culture” framework, promoted by the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, that holds that norms like being on time to work or school are “white supremacy values.” I later found out that my kids’ school system had adopted it as well.

If we are to make headway in the fight against antisemitism, the Jewish community must take the long view and seek to weaken the ideologies and institutions that produce it.

Having given talks to dozens of mainstream Jewish organizations in the past year, I’m convinced that many Jews now see the dangers of coercive DEI. Two prominent former Jewish executives recently urged the Jewish community to shift away from coercive diversity programs. Abe Foxman, who headed the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for nearly three decades, told Jewish Insider that DEI “cannot be fixed.” DEI, he stated, is “based on a faulty premise … that all white people are oppressors and all people of color [are] oppressed.” Foxman said such practices result in “bias, illiberalism, reinforced, legitimized and institutionalized antisemitism in many institutions.” “DEI,” he stated, “was developed to eliminate bias but sadly it created bias.” David Harris, the former CEO of the American Jewish Committee, stated that “DEI has evolved into a mammoth, ideologically-driven presence on many campuses, some of which have literally hundreds of staff working exclusively in this space.” He said, “Accordingly, I don’t believe that outside efforts, however well-intentioned, that nibble around the edges or simply seek to add Jews to the DEI agenda, address the heart of the problem.” While neither of these two leaders are currently at the helm of their organizations, their remarks have clearly gained support and, I have on good authority, are being actively discussed and debated. As long as the current divisive form of DEI remains dominant, it will stoke resentment and fuel antisemitism. If we are to make headway in the fight against antisemitism, the Jewish community must take the long view and seek to weaken the ideologies and institutions that produce it.

End or Reform DEI?

Free Press founder and former New York Times columnist, Bari Weiss, argues that the best path forward is to end DEI altogether. “The movement that is gathering all this power does not like America or liberalism … It demonizes hard work, merit, family, and the dignity of the individual. An ideology that pathologizes these fundamental human virtues is one that seeks to undermine what makes America exceptional,” she argues. “It is time to end DEI for good. No more standing by as people are encouraged to segregate themselves. No more forced declarations that you will prioritize identity over excellence. No more compelled speech. No more going along with little lies for the sake of being polite.” She later added on X: “Lots of organizations claim to be defending young Jews on campus. Simple litmus test: do they oppose DEI? If not, do not take them seriously,”

While some assert DEI bans violate academic freedom, colleges do, in fact, have every right to abolish DEI bureaucracies just as surely as they can cut a Rugby team or basket weaving program. Unlike the opinions of individual professors, DEI as an institution is not protected by academic freedom. The central claims of DEI about systems of oppression and privilege are protected by academic freedom and should be permissible in the classroom, but the bureaucratization of these claims is not covered by and, in fact, undermines academic freedom by shutting out dissenting voices. So while I strongly oppose red-state bans on the teaching of “divisive concepts” (such as Critical Race Theory) in state universities, and doubt such bans pass constitutional muster, Florida, Texas and other states are on firm ground in eliminating DEI departments in state-funded universities. This past December, Oklahoma became the latest to do so when its Governor Kevin Stitt (R) signed an executive order prohibiting DEI at state agencies and public universities. Additional governors and legislatures will likely follow suit. 

Frederick Hess and Jay Greene point out that short of an outright ban, “state legislators could consider capping the size of DEI bureaucracies … Legislators might stipulate that total DEI staff at an institution should never exceed the number of staff dedicated to supporting students with special needs. Or they might stipulate that institutions should have no more than one DEI employee for every 150 or 200 tenured faculty members. This would at least reverse the steady growth of these staff.” In a recent compromise, Wisconsin Republicans reached an agreement with the Democratic governor whereby Republicans agreed to provide pay raises for university staff in exchange for Democrats agreeing to freeze all DEI hiring and cutting a third of the current DEI staff.

Some argue that an outright ban of DEI is infeasible, especially in blue states, and that reform is the better path forward. New York Times columnist David Brooks cites the appeals for reform of Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, who has spent years building bridges on campuses. “Patel doesn’t believe we should try to “end D.E.I.,” Brooks states. “That’s not going to happen anyway.” Patel argues that society is at a “paradigm-shifting moment when we can replace a destructive form of diversity, equity and inclusion with a better form—one that actually includes people, instead of excluding them.” Patel proffers that the far better framework for diversity is pluralism, which “starts with a celebration of the fact that we live in one of the most diverse societies in history. The job of the university is to help young people from different backgrounds learn to work and live together.”

Those interested in liberal alternatives to standard DEI can pick from options already on the shelf, such as Chloe Valdary’s “Theory of Enchantment,” which seeks to “cultivate unity … with a diversity and inclusion program that teaches love,” or Karith Foster’s “Inversity” model, which similarly strives to “take division out of diversity by shifting the focus from what separates and divides us to what we have in common … understanding our value, our worth and our connection to humanity.” Both call what they do DEI, even though it’s at odds with standard DEI practices. A friend’s wife is a partner at a law firm who managed to put antisemitism on the firm’s DEI agenda. Far from being an ideologically-driven program, the law firm’s entire approach features monthly speakers at voluntary luncheons and discussions that now include antisemitism. “It’s hardly batshit crazy,” she informed me, chuckling. “We’ve even hosted a speaker who challenged DEI.” If these pluralistic models of DEI become the new normal, we will be able to worry much less about DEI’s role in fanning the flames of antisemitism.  

A shift away from the coercive model of DEI is already underway in many corporations. I recently spoke about the state of corporate DEI to a Jewish DEI consultant who has become weary of his field, not least because so many of his fellow DEI professionals were either callous or hostile to Jewish concerns after October 7th. “The former VP of Diversity has now been demoted to assistant director of human services,” he said. He told me that many corporations have backed away from the DEI commitments they made after George Floyd’s death, either because the programs proved divisive or because in the wake of the recent Supreme Court affirmative action decision, DEI no longer affords protection against discrimination lawsuits and can even be a legal liability. The American Alliance for Equal Rights, for example, this past August sued Fearless Fund, an Atlanta-based venture capital firm for discrimination for limiting its grant program to businesses owned by Black women. The Alliance also sued two law firms, claiming that their diversity fellowship programs discriminated against white candidates. DEI-oriented advertising and public programming also proved catastrophic for certain companies, such as Budweiser and Disney, further diminishing DEI’s appeal in the eyes of company execs. DEI programs are thus rapidly shrinking in size and scope, and hiring is way down in the corporate sector. Might DEI similarly contract at universities and in other sectors?

Undoubtedly, ideologically-charged universities are a tougher nut to crack than corporations and law firms. Danielle Allen, a political philosopher and scholar of public policy at Harvard, explains how a pluralistic vision of DEI went off the rails at Harvard, a cautionary tale for future reform efforts. In 2018, she was one of three co-chairs of Harvard’s Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. Critical of divisive DEI programs, Allen said that the task force “grounded the work in a broad commitment to pluralism. We wanted a diversity of views on campus, and we recognized that the sources of diversity are myriad. We cared as much about viewpoint and religion as any other source of diversity.” But their recommendations were largely ignored. “The 2020 murder of George Floyd and intense surge of anti-racism work that followed it,” she explained, “led to the adoption of vocabularies and frameworks that made it difficult for a forward-looking pluralism to make headway … the racial reckoning of 2020 lost sight of that core goal of a culture of mutual respect with human dignity at the center. A shaming culture was embraced instead.” Based on this account alone, it’s easy to see how future efforts to institute a moderate form of DEI could be derailed by the existing DEI professional class, who won’t readily relinquish their cherished pieties. Nevertheless, the best bet is to try to reform and retrench DEI in blue states and private universities, and to try to end it in state-funded universities in red states. 

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Stuck in the Jewish Dilemma

The Jewish community’s DEI quandary pits the community’s short-term interests—ensuring antisemitism is taken seriously in a particular institution in the here and now—against its longterm interests: fostering a more open and less ideological and antisemitic society. If October 7th has taught us anything, however, it’s that seemingly expedient compromises with illiberal and antisemitic forces will only come back to haunt us. For too long, we put up with and reconciled ourselves to radical identity politics and extremists preaching about “decolonialism.” We convinced ourselves that we had to play in “the only game in town.”

Many Jews now understand that a progressive ideology fueled antisemitism. They can see the role that DEI programs played in reinforcing the dogma. The ground has softened for a change in approach. In a sermon in December of 2023, Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson, a prominent progressive reform rabbi of one of America’s preeminent congregations, Congregation Emanu-El of New York, states “many adherents view progressivism today as the facile sorting of people and nations into two boxes: oppressor or oppressed, and many of them place Israel and Jews in the first box.” While he excoriates DEI departments for their failure to take antisemitism seriously, he stops short of calling for a total rethinking of this approach to diversity. Likewise, when I asked one top Jewish professional leader about the possibility of moving away from DEI, he responded “What’s wrong with varied approaches from Jewish organizations? Why shouldn’t some organizations engage DEI so that it addresses antisemitism and others oppose it? Wouldn’t a good cop-bad cop approach be optimal?”

The good cop-bad cop approach is a cop-out. It’s time for Jewish organizations to oppose coercive DEI. 

If major Jewish organizations actually put in place such a division of labor, I might reluctantly conclude it’s the best we can do. But they’re not dividing their labor. They all want to be the good cop and thus cluster around an engage-and-influence approach. The lessons of October 7the haven’t fully set in, as mainstream Jewish organizations are still stuck in their own histories and political identities. At this point, none are willing to use their political capital or jeopardize their longstanding alliances with progressive groups. The good cop-bad cop approach is a cop-out. It’s time for Jewish organizations to oppose coercive DEI.

David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) and the author of “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.” 

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