Few things elicit Jewish pride like the role the American Jewish community played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including the writing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism hosted the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights as the act was drafted. The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and other vaunted Jewish organizations boasted active civil rights initiatives, sponsoring legislation and litigation to bring about a more perfect union. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the head of the American Jewish Congress, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington.
Over many years, these same organizations have time and again stood up for civil rights by joining lawsuits and promoting legislation, from criminal justice reform to hate crime laws to voting rights, ensuring that civil rights are not just codes on the books, but a pillar of the American creed. Without a doubt, this country still has a way to go in living up to its ideals of equality and fairness. Jewish organizations have their own role in helping to ensure that the country does so.
A new set of challenges to civil rights law have emerged, however, that do not discriminate against “protected classes” of minorities, but engage in overzealous, coercive and discriminatory Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) practices. While they may not seem like an affront to civil rights in the same way as previous infractions, they nevertheless violate both the letter and spirit of the 1964 Act by segregating people on the basis of race and treating them differently on expressly racial grounds. Moreover, these coercive DEI programs sometimes devolve into wanton anti-Semitism and violate the civil rights of Jews. Jewish groups, unfortunately, have been largely silent on this problem. It’s time for them to live up to their core principles and oppose this new form of unequal treatment.
Although we tend to think that the 1964 Civil Rights Act simply barred “discrimination” against blacks, women and other protected groups, it is better understood as prohibiting particular grounds for making decisions. The act made commercial, employment, educational, housing and many other decisions punishable by law if based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex or nationality. Race and other categories are prohibited as central factors in how people are treated. Indeed, the act deemed race itself an invidious category under the law. Yet that point seems to be totally lost on many of the originators of the civil rights laws who don’t take these newer forms of segregation seriously.
Two recent cases illustrate the point.
In June 2021, two Jewish mental health providers at Stanford University alleged they were the targets of anti-Jewish harassment. Ron Albucher, a prominent psychiatrist, and Sheila Levin, a clinical social worker, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Stanford University’s Counseling & Psychological Services’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program created a hostile environment for Jews. The treatment they experienced, the complaint holds, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The complaint alleges that Jewish staff members were pressured to join the DEI program’s “whiteness accountability” affinity group, created for “staff who hold privilege via white identity” and “are white identified, may be newly grappling with or realizing their white identity or identify as or are perceived as white presenting or passing (a.k.a. seen as white by others even though you hold other identities).” No affinity group was created for Jewish staff members, despite their repeated requests for such a group. This treatment seems to be a clear violation of existing civil rights laws.
Another more recent case took place in one of the largest domestic violence nonprofits in the country, Women Against Abuse (WAA), based in Philadelphia. Employees of the WAA legal center—including a Jewish woman named Nicole Levitt—were divided by race into affinity groups that were charged with exploring “how and where Anti-Blackness showed up in childhood, young adulthood and how it manifests today.” Groups were asked to engage in sharing “positive,” “negative,” “current” and “past memories of whiteness and white people” and “blackness and black people.” The White affinity group was asked to sign a contract stating they “own that all white people are racist and I am not the exception.”
In both the Stanford case and the Women Against Abuse case, the complainants allege that they were threatened with workplace and professional retaliation for airing doubts about this race-focused programming. Moreover, the Jewish employees were censured when they raised the issue of anti-Semitism in work diversity meetings.
For Jews who remain committed to existing civil rights laws, these cases ought to set off alarm bells. It should not be—and yet it may well be—difficult for Jewish organizations to speak honestly and recognize that there is a purpose to prohibiting all forms of racial discrimination, no matter who they target. It would be a sad irony if such discriminatory actions were allowed, even encouraged, by the very groups who saw to it that the nation outlawed all discrimination based on race.
It’s time for Jewish organizations to exercise the deliberative processes and due diligence they are known for, and rediscover the importance of individual equality in law, liberty and justice that they advanced in the 1960s.
David Bernstein is Founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org) and author of the forthcoming book Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.
Jeffrey Bergman is an attorney living in the Chicago area.