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the pulpit

In teaching bias, Starbucks winds up displaying it

If the NAACP had been dropped from its bias training, there would have been a national outcry, followed by massive boycott campaigns. In this case, it’s been mostly crickets.

Starbucks official logo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Starbucks official logo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
David Gemunder

A fundamental red line was crossed. For the first time in our collective memory, radical activists successfully used anti-Semitism to convince one of America’s largest companies to turn its back on an established and respected civil-rights organization.

A little history, for perspective. About a century ago, this country suffered from a plague of rampant and normalized anti-Semitism. In that context, B’nai Brith—the venerable Jewish social services organization—established two major entities that still thrive today: Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League.

As a board member and supporter of Hillel on a local and national level for more than a decade, I’m more than familiar with how anti-Zionism and rank anti-Semitism have permeated our colleges and universities, and how difficult it is to be Jewish on most campuses today. This is the first time, though, that I’ve seen that same vitriol effectively move from the quad to Main Street.

As has been widely reported, after a shameful racial incident at one of its Philadelphia stores last month, Starbucks established an Advisory Committee to guide racial-bias training for all of its employees. The ADL originally was a member of this committee, along with several other civil-rights organizations.

Subsequently, several progressive activists expressed their displeasure with the ADL’s inclusion in this effort. Their comments weren’t particularly subtle. Tamika Mallory, an organizer of the Women’s March and admirer of Louis Farrakhan, tweeted that Starbucks was “NOT serious about doing right by BLACK people!” Why?

Mallory clarified: “So you are aware, Starbucks was on a decent track until they enlisted the Anti-Defamation League to build their anti-bias training. The ADL is CONSTANTLY attacking black and brown people. This is a sign that they are tone-deaf and not committed to addressing the concerns of black folks. Be clear about what’s happening here!”

Cat Brooks, who helped found an outfit called the Anti Police-Terror Project, agreed with Mallory and added her own two cents: “You can’t be a piece of anti-bias training when you openly support a racist, oppressive and brutal colonization of Palestine.”

Now, people surely are entitled to their opinions, no matter how bigoted and repugnant they may be. And certain extremists always have vomited up this type of bile. So why is this so concerning? Because this time, corporate America listened; Starbucks unceremoniously removed the ADL from the Advisory Committee.

Let’s be clear: The ADL has an inclusive mission, and a proud and lengthy history, which unequivocally includes defending the rights of people of color. And so does the Jewish community. Jews helped found the NAACP (another member of the Advisory Committee) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Jews made up a disproportionately high number of Freedom Riders in the 1960s, including two who were murdered and buried in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. A rabbi marched arm-in-arm with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Selma.

In this context, the injustice towards the ADL is especially galling. If Starbucks had dropped the NAACP from its bias training, there would have been a national outcry, followed by massive boycott campaigns. In this case, it’s been mostly crickets. That’s utterly unacceptable.

Were the activists biased and repulsive? Of course. And, despite their recent protestations to the contrary, did Starbucks display rank cowardice in the face of pressure from these extremists? Certainly. But that’s the small picture. Here’s the big one: It is crystal-clear that Americans need to recognize that anti-Semitism is just as vile as racism, sexism, homophobia, and other religious or ethnic persecution. It cannot be tolerated from the right or the left. Those should be obvious statements. That they somehow are not self-evident in our time should anger and concern everyone.

How does America turn into Europe for the Jews? Silence in response to crises like this is the first step. We have a stark choice: Either we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and push back with all of our strength, or we prepare to tell our grandchildren what their country was like before we permitted the cancer of mainstream Jew-hatred to spread once again. As Jews, as Americans and as Jewish Americans, we all have a decision to make—and we need to make it right now.

David Gemunder is a member of the Board of Governors of Hillel International.

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