Antisemitism is on the rise. Here is how to tackle it in the workplace
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Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Site
John van der Luit-Drummond, Editor

German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle has fired a total of seven Arab journalists, four of them Palestinian, for alleged antisemitism. The dismissals follow a two-month internal investigation by former German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. Several freelance journalists have also been dropped by the state-owned broadcaster and another six cases are reportedly still under investigation.

Basil al-Aridi, Murhaf Mahmoud, Maram Salem, Farah Maraqa, and Dawood Ibrahim were terminated by Deutsche Welle on 7 February. They were followed this week by Zahi Alawi and Yasser Abu Muailek. Among the evidence obtained against the seven were several years-old social media posts deemed antisemitic under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

“What the terrorist state of Israel is doing to the Palestinians is a repeated Holocaust,” Alawi wrote on Facebook in 2014. In 2018, he wrote in an essay that a “Jewish lobby controls many German institutions”. Maraqa reportedly described Israel as “cancer that should be cut out”.

Salem has dismissed the allegations against her, calling them “a scandal”. Defending herself, Salem said she is “not antisemitic” but “someone who believes in freedom of speech”. She added that the charges levelled against her related to a Facebook post “criticising the situation in Europe” but did not directly mention Jewish people or Israel.

Several of the terminated journalists are reportedly considering legal action against their former employer.

Reports of antisemitism are on the rise worldwide. After violence erupted between Israel and Palestinians last May, vandalism of synagogues in multiple states made headlines across the US; in the UK, the 2021 conflict led to record numbers of anti-Jewish hate incidents; EU leaders have been left worried by the rise of Holocaust denial witnessed during the pandemic, and the Central Council of Jews in Germany recently warned of increased antisemitism linked to protests against coronavirus measures.

False narratives

Antisemitism in the workplace is becoming an all-too-common occurrence. Some of the most high-profile examples include Google removing its head of diversity, Kamau Bobb, last June over a 2007 blog post in which he described Jewish people as having “an insatiable appetite for war and killing” and an “insensitivity” to suffering.

In 2020, the UK Labour party broke equalities law by failing to address antisemitism in the party, an investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found. And, earlier this month, award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg was issued a two-week suspension from ABC’s The View after saying the Holocaust was “not about race”.

“It’s enough to make anyone’s brain hurt, and anyone who does DEI-related legal work is already exhausted. But let’s start simple: antisemitism is racially motivated hatred. Any actions or words that confuse, diminish, avoid, downplay, caveat, or asterisk this truth will strike deep existential fear and pain across the entire Jewish world,” explains Bonnie Levine, founder of Verse Legal in Atlanta, Georgia. 

“False narratives about ‘Jews controlling the media’ and similar villainising caricatures have been leveraged over generations to perpetuate persecution, horrific violence, and genocide. If organisational leaders and communicators remember this and nothing else, dayenu [a refrain from the Passover Seder meaning ‘that would be enough’].”

The degree to which Jews experience equivocation on even the existence of antisemitism in society puts the entire community in a state of perpetual unease, adds Levine.

“Whoopi Goldberg’s recent remarks are a symptom not of one person’s unusual ignorance, but of a much broader low-level distortion; one with which most Jewish individuals are incredibly familiar but which fewer and fewer of our non-Jewish friends even seem to notice until presented with an example so prominent and extreme,” she says.

“This type of ignorance is precisely what paves the way to normalising anti-Jewish sentiment. In Jewish circles we are acutely aware that this tide can turn quickly, and without notice from others.”

...when Jewish employees express their feelings that #jewsdontcount, employers often equate that sentiment to #alllivesmatter

For Levine, employers must take the time to truly learn about antisemitism if they are to combat it. “I do not mean mandating an employee-wide training in which top-level executives are too busy to participate, and employees are resentful of the check-the-box intrusion into their schedule.

“Rather, to lay the groundwork for broader engagement, leaders and key decision-makers must first show that they have themselves reflected thoughtfully on persecution and discrimination against the Jewish people.”

Only once employers have a thorough grounding in the subject matter does the real challenge begin, Levine adds: “Employers must develop sufficient moral clarity not only to acknowledge antisemitism, but to navigate it alongside other forms of oppression, and notably to avoid de-centring anti-Black racism.

“At the same time, to use a hashtag analogy – when Jewish employees express their feelings that #jewsdontcount, employers often equate that sentiment to #alllivesmatter. It is hard to deny that antisemitism itself – namely, the underlying antisemitic tropes that saddle us with false narratives of universal oppressor status – fuel that conclusion.”

Defining antisemitism

Although there is confusion among some over whether antisemitism is racial or religious intolerance, most would easily conclude that the calling for harm to Jews; denying the Holocaust; or perpetuating myths of the blood libel or Jewish control of the world’s media, economy, and governments are antisemitic tropes that have no place in civil society – or a modern, diverse workplace. 

However, the Deutsche Welle and Labour Party investigations show that defining what constitutes antisemitism can be a contentious subject. According to the IHRA, antisemitism includes claiming the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel. Critics argue the IHRA muzzles free speech and denies legitimate criticism of the state of Israel.

Nevertheless, Jamie Susskind of 11KBW advises employers to have regard for the definition, saying: “These examples, especially those that are or might be related to Israel, are increasingly regarded as authoritative.”

Indirect discrimination

Although outright hatred of Jews would be hard for employers to miss, there are less obvious forms of workplace discrimination that might go unnoticed. “While Jewish employees do not expect their employers to know the Jewish calendar inside and out, certain key holidays should always be avoided for major events – two days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and, ideally, the days between, typically in September-October; Passover in March or April,” advises Levine.

“When there is flexibility to schedule something in a manner that avoids even the lesser-known holidays – Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, and Simchat Torah in the period following Yom Kippur in fall; Tisha B’Av in summer – do so. Don’t worry if you need to ask someone for help if it’s hard to figure out when the holiday begins and ends – it’s difficult to capture on a standard calendar.”

Related is the understanding that there is a wide range of religious observance among Jews. “Do not make assumptions about observance – familiarity with one person’s observance level will tell you almost nothing about another’s, and Jews are targets of antisemitism regardless of their practice – though religious Jews are easier to target, this is an important distinction,” says Levine.

“To cultivate an environment inclusive of all levels of observance, avoid critical functions on Friday nights and Saturdays where possible; be aware that some practice involves unplugging completely on the sabbath and certain holidays; as well as dietary restrictions that exclude most cooked or prepared food – having raw fruits and vegetables as well as kosher-certified packaged food available helps,” she adds. 

The very essence of a diverse environment involves navigating the deep pain of others’ lived experience that is otherwise invisible to you

Employers are also advised to proactively respond to incidents of violence and discrimination against Jews. “In the era of the corporate values statement, the Jewish community perception is consistent and widespread that organisations are slower to denounce antisemitic incidents than to denounce hate directed at other groups – the next time you hear about anti-Jewish violence, consider a prompt internal acknowledgement of it before anyone asks,” says Levine.

“Like other marginalised groups, Jewish employees are acutely aware of reinforcing the very stereotypes they are trying to point out by speaking up, and stay silent. Be aware of this, and of an organisation’s responsibility to be proactive.”

Getting intersectionality right is also important, suggests Levine. “The very essence of a diverse environment involves navigating the deep pain of others’ lived experience that is otherwise invisible to you. This is inherently difficult, and employers trying to make it look otherwise are probably doing it wrong. A good thought exercise is to assess whether your resources are allocated in a way that benefits employees or customers. If the latter, they may be too optics-motivated.”

Even as organisations begin to redress the systemic inequality experienced by Black workers and protect female staff from sexual predators, there is an argument that many organisations have turned a blind eye to antisemitism or are merely performative in their diversity and inclusion efforts. Critics argue that such external-facing marketing is not only ineffective, but harmful to all minority groups.

“It contributes to a lack of trust in the employer and feelings of marginalisation of employees from all groups, sometimes even burdening these groups to compete for resources or airtime,” says Levine. “Rather than reinforcing a hierarchy model of oppression, decision-makers need to hold themselves accountable for wielding their power responsibly, and working to distribute it equitably.”

Empowering workers

By listening to employees’ concerns, genuinely investigating grievances, understanding and adopting the IHRA guidance, and including it in discrimination training, organisations can create a safer and more inclusive space for their Jewish workers.

In addition, Rebecca Tuck QC, head of Old Square Chambers’ employment group in London, encourages employers to consider active bystander training for all staff. “Whether it’s antisemitism, Islamophobia, or the trans-gender-critical debate, it is important to educate and empower workers on how they can call out something they don’t feel comfortable with,” she says.

Explaining the concept of being an active bystander, Tuck QC says: “If you hear a comment in the workplace that is inappropriate, what do you do about it? Depending on your seniority in relation to the person who said it, and how confident you feel, you can try and divert attention from it; you can delay and deal with it later; or you can be direct and challenge them then and there.

“It’s really great when you see organisations engaging with how they empower their workplace because it’s not enough to have a policy that says antisemitism will be treated as gross misconduct; it’s how you have a workplace in which antisemitism isn’t going to happen.”