Stanford University's campus from above / Wikimedia Commons
Stanford University campus (Photo/Wikimedia)

What a recent report gets wrong about DEI and antisemitism

This piece first appeared in the Forward.

A recent Heritage Foundation report claims that university Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices are so suffused with antisemitism that they might even be responsible for increased campus violence against Jews. Although the study has received some favorable coverage, it was so poorly executed that it reveals nothing more than how easily data can be manipulated to score a political point.

The conservative think tank’s “backgrounder,” titled “Inclusion Delusion: The Antisemitism of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Staff at Universities,” purports to investigate antisemitism among DEI officials at 65 leading universities. According to the authors, many DEI programs not only fail to restrain “hostility toward Jews, [they] actually foment it.” The report goes on to claim that “rather than promoting diversity and inclusion, universities may be contributing to an increase in anti-Jewish hatred by expanding DEI staff and power.”

There have been some reported incidents of DEI advocates displaying troubling callousness or even hostility toward the interests of Jewish students, but the Heritage Institute’s methodology doesn’t establish any widespread “encouragement” of antisemitism.

The first step in the Heritage study was identifying almost 3,000 DEI staffers at the 65 U.S. universities comprising the so-called “Power Five” athletic conferences. The rationale for this sample — which excluded the Ivy League, all liberal arts colleges and every religious university save Notre Dame — is never explained. The next step was locating Twitter accounts for as many DEI staffers as possible. Finally, the researchers coded the tweets for “anti-Israel attitudes that are so out of proportion and imbalanced as to constitute antisemitism.”

The researchers found plenty of tweets by DEI staffers that evinced a hostile obsession with Israel, which often overlaps with antisemitism. One tweet, from a staffer at a graduate school diversity program, said:

“Y’all love to add the word liberal in front of the most evil things and it’s unhingedddd. Wtf is a liberal Zionist? What’s next? Liberal Nazi? Liberal colonizer? Liberal murderer? Liberal imperialist? Liberal fascist?”

The important question is the number of biased staffers, not the number of tweets.

Another, from someone in a “Multicultural Student Affairs” office, appeared to justify terrorism, explaining “Settler colonialism is fundamentally violent. And it begets violence.” A third message threatened, “‘from the river to the sea’ means that we will decolonize every block and every grain of sand in palestine (sic).”

These are disturbing sentiments, but the overall numbers are insignificant. Among the 2,933 DEI staff surveyed, there were only 741 accessible Twitter accounts, from which there had been 605 anti-Israel tweets, retweets and likes (compared to only 28 favorable).

Although the imbalance is striking, the report never says how many unique accounts generated the 605 problematic tweets. Was it one DEI staffer tweeting 600 times, 20 staffers tweeting 30 times apiece or 200 staffers tweeting three times each?

The important question is the number of biased staffers, not the number of tweets. This is a strikingly conspicuous and inexplicable inaccuracy in the report. Nonetheless, the misleadingly provocative claim of an “overwhelming pattern” was picked up in a Washington Free Beacon headline: “Overwhelming Number of Diversity Officers at US Colleges Hold Anti-Israel Views, Study Says.” In fact, the actual data demonstrate nothing of the sort.

Whatever the numerator, the number of hostile tweeters must be compared with a denominator of almost 3,000. Given the unrelenting enmity toward Israel of certain progressive activists, it is highly likely that a handful of DEI staffers were responsible for a great majority of the invectives. If so, the most common number of hostile tweets per person is probably zero.

RELATED: Our research shows many DEI staff have a blind spot when it comes to Jews

The report likewise fails to state the period under study. Were the 605 damning tweets clustered around a single outbreak of Middle East fighting? Did they amount to a daily barrage for several months? Or were they intermittently posted over a year or longer? The time frame obviously makes a difference regarding the prevalence and intensity of the alleged anti-Israel phenomenon, to the extent that it exists at all.

It is bizarre that the authors of the Heritage Report – a Harvard PhD and a doctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas – withheld information so crucial to their hypothesis. Given the nature of their data collection, the Heritage Report authors could easily have provided the total number of supposedly anti-Israel tweeters, and specified the study’s time span, if that had been helpful to their case. The wobbly presentation of this study is indicative of the Heritage Foundation’s mission to delegitimize university DEI programs as a whole, having published multiple reports and op-eds calling for reductions in staffing and greater control by state legislatures.

There are problems, some of them severe, in DEI offices, as there are in every bureaucracy. In this case, however, it is evident that the accusation of antisemitism is only functioning as a prop for the Heritage Foundation’s broader campaign. “The Inclusion Delusion” stretches its conclusion well beyond the breaking point when it claims: “It is clear that DEI staff at universities actually function as political activists, articulating and enforcing a narrow and radical ideological agenda.”

The Heritage Foundation’s arguments are based on unexplained samples and self-selecting results. It is unfortunate that the authors sacrificed data for politics, as there are real questions surrounding the troubling attitude of an undetermined number of DEI staffers who apparently believe that: “Jews, unlike other minority groups, possess privilege and power, Jews and victims of Jew-hatred do not merit or necessitate the attention of the DEI committee.”

Regrettably, the Heritage Foundation’s report leaves these vital issues unexplored.

Steven Lubet
Steven Lubet

Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. His most recent book is "The Trials of Rasmea Odeh: How a Palestinian Guerrilla Gained and Lost U.S. Citizenship."


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