Jewish communal leaders still committed to DEI framework, despite widespread criticism

ADL’s chief impact officer: ‘The responsibility to fix campuses is not narrowly on the DEI offices but is on the university president’

The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy at colleges has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of a House hearing on campus antisemitism, which underscored how programs designed to promote inclusion have failed to address the rising anti-Jewish hate on campuses — and often perpetuate it.

But even as there’s been an opportunity for Jewish leaders to confront the systemic challenges within the DEI system, leading Jewish communal organizations are still preferring to work within that system — urging universities to better incorporate Jews into an oppressor-oppressed hierarchy, instead of calling on them to dismantle the ideology behind it altogether.

Leaders from the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League told JI their organizations are taking the engage-and-influence approach— and had been doing so well before Oct. 7. 

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘confront’ to describe what we’re going to be doing,” Sara Coodin, AJC’s director of academic affairs, told JI. “We engage pretty regularly and partner with universities to work on education programs that can have the kinds of results we are looking for, more inclusion for Jewish students. We tend not to take an overly divisive approach when it comes to DEI.” An example, Coodin said, is an AJC-run trip that brings DEI university staff to Israel. 

“There are shortcomings in the lens that DEI has adopted to do its inclusion work,” Coodin continued. “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.” 

“We hope we can create initiatives that actually work within DEI structures if those are the structures being used on campus, but at the same time we expect folks to be willing to acknowledge the situation we’re in. There’s nothing to be gained by papering over the situation we are in, that many Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome and are dealing with a toxic climate on campus,” Coodin continued.

Adam Neufeld, senior vice president and chief impact officer at the ADL, echoed a similar approach. “We’ve been engaging universities, including DEI offices, for several years [about] the exclusion of antisemitism,” he told JI. “Our goal is to ensure that campuses are free of antisemitism. We just care about the results and there are many ways of reaching that goal.” 

“We clearly have a massive problem with antisemitism on many college campuses and part of that is schools have not been communicating to their students the history of antisemitism and therefore have not baked that into their DEI programs,” he continued. 

Neufeld noted that “[the ADL’s] view right now is that the responsibility to fix campuses is not narrowly on the DEI offices but is on the university president. The university presidents are the ones failing on so many campuses right now.”

“The current crisis is a result of a lot of factors. We should not expect DEI to be the sole way we get out of this. This is a university president problem and part of it, we think, is universities fixing their DEI to include antisemitism and Jews so that their student body understands antisemitism, he continued, adding that ADL is working with federal and state officials “to get universities to step up and reverse the dangerous situation they’ve created.”

Neufeld said it was “reckless” for DEI programs not to speak about Jews and antisemitism. 

“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,” he said, noting that the ADL started collaborating with Hillel International and Chabad on Campus for this shift before Oct. 7. “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,” he added.  

But David Bernstein, founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, told Jewish Insider that the problems within DEI programming are systemic, and that efforts to engage are a mistake.

“All that does is reinforce the ideological framework behind it and hampers our ability to oppose the constant source of antisemitism and illiberalism,” Bernstein said, adding that “the underlying ideology of most DEI offices almost never [benefits] Jews, who they frame as oppressors.”

Bernstein pointed to a Tablet magazine story by Armin Rosen, where the journalist interviewed equity offices at prominent colleges to see if they released statements of support for Jewish students after the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7. None of them did.

Bernstein called the congressional hearing earlier this month, in which Ivy League presidents refused to say that calling for the genocide of Jews constitutes harassment on campus, “a wake up call for a lot of people.” 

“The jury is out whether it will lead to a larger shift in Jewish attitude, but I do see some movement,” he continued, noting that the issue has existed long before Oct. 7 and its subsequent rise of antisemitism. In 2021, a Heritage Foundation study analyzed the Twitter accounts of 741 DEI staff at 65 universities to compare their posts about Israel and China. 

The data found them to be disproportionately focused on Israel relative to China, having posted about Israel almost three times more than about China — in an almost entirely negative way. Ninety-six percent of all of the Twitter communications were critical of Israel, while those about China were 62% positive. 

“The question now is does the Jewish community try to engage DEI and influence the way it views Jews, does it try to oppose DEI, or does it try to transform DEI?” Bernstein continued. 

Despite the ADL’s stance that DEI programs need to be reformed to include Jews, the group’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told JI earlier this month, “The failure of many of these DEI offices to effectively respond to the crisis right now is quite an indictment– it just is.” 

The ADL’s Neufeld added that under extreme circumstances he would no longer be willing to work within the DEI system. “If a particular campus’ DEI framework is so terrible that it perpetuates antisemitism and there is no sincere effort to change that approach, we would absolutely oppose DEI on that campus,” he said.

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