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Bronx Defenders to pay $170,000 to harassed Jewish employee

The New York nonprofit's staff will undergo training on antisemitism as part of a settlement

Bronx, N.Y. Credit: Gryffindor via Wikimedia Commons.
Bronx, N.Y. Credit: Gryffindor via Wikimedia Commons.

A legal-aid agency in New York City reached a settlement with a former Jewish employee, who claims that she was harassed and treated so poorly that she had to quit her job.

The nonprofit Bronx Defenders will pay $170,000, including attorney fees, to former employee Debbie Jonas, according to the New York Post. Jonas, a Zionist, has said that she will donate $40,000 of the settlement to Israeli charities. She was represented in the negotiations by The Lawfare Project.

In May 2021 as Hamas launched thousands of rockets at Israel, an employee at the Bronx Defenders sent a letter to colleagues accusing Israel of genocide. After Jonas complained that the letter was antisemitic, she was “cursed at and badgered,” and told that her children, who are dual U.S.-Israeli citizens (some served in the Israel Defense Forces), were murderers.

Justine Olderman, executive director of Bronx Defenders, which admitted no wrongdoing, apologized to Jonas. As part of the settlement, Bronx Defenders employees will undergo required antisemitism training from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Alyza Lewin, president and general counsel of the Brandeis Center, told JNS that unfortunately, it’s become more and more necessary to train people about antisemitism. She thinks that is partly due to diversity, equity and inclusion programs overlooking Jews and antisemitism.

Sometimes, “they go beyond just leaving out Jews and antisemitism, and inadvertently foster a hostility to Jews because they will treat all Jews as powerful, white oppressors and repeat what are really traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes,” she said.

Lewin expects to discuss plans for the training this week with Olderman.

It is “important and meaningful” to ensure that Bronx Defenders attorneys, who fight for those who face discrimination, “understand the full range of communities that experience harassment and discrimination,” she said.

“I think that when they learn how antisemitism manifests itself, they will begin to understand what antisemitism is and how to recognize it. My hope is that they will be able to separate what is happening from the political,” she said. “I anticipate some good conversation, and I hope it will be a worthwhile learning experience.”

Dov Hikind, a former New York assemblyman and head of the Americas Against Antisemitism, took to Twitter to discuss the “big victory but also a vital lesson on why victims need to seek justice so that there are consequences.”

In May 2021, Bronx Defenders sent a “blistering email attacking the Jewish state, accusing Israel of genocide, creating a toxic and fearful work environment” at a time when the Hamas terror group was in the process of launching more than 4,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip towards the civilian population in Israel, said Hikind.

“Never throw the towel in,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Approach those who care and pursue the injustice that is directed at the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

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