Tabia Lee (Photo/Andri Tambunan)
Tabia Lee (Photo/Andri Tambunan)

Did standing up for Jewish students cost a Black faculty member her job at De Anza College?

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A faculty member hired to promote diversity and social justice at De Anza College in Cupertino says she was ostracized by colleagues for challenging widely held “orthodoxies” on race and was obstructed in efforts to organize “Jewish inclusion” events at the community college.

Tabia Lee, who is Black, wrote in a recent essay that she became a “persona non grata” in the office she led because she ran afoul of what she called the tenets of critical social justice, a worldview that “understands knowledge as relative” and tied to “unequal identity-based power dynamics that must be exposed and dismantled.”

“This, I came to recognize, was the unofficial but strictly enforced ideological orthodoxy of De Anza—as it is at many other educational institutions,” she wrote.

The conflict between Lee and her colleagues highlights ongoing national debates about who gets to define antisemitism and the role Israel plays in complicating, and often derailing, efforts to condemn Jew-hatred. It also raises questions about whether American Jews belong under the umbrella of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, or whether they don’t by virtue of the fact that most are white and more economically secure than the average American.

In an interview with J., Lee painted a disturbing portrait of her treatment by her colleagues and supervising dean during the two academic years she spent at De Anza, whose student body has a recent history of anti-Israel actions, including a wide-ranging anti-Israel divestment resolution in 2017 and another in 2021 condemning Israel’s “attacks against humanity.”

Lee said she was chastised with racially charged language — such as accusations of “whitesplaining” and “whitespeaking” — because of her approach to the job. She said a colleague called her a “dirty Zionist” and a “right-wing extremist” when she brought Jewish pro-Israel speakers to campus, and that she was accused of reinforcing “white supremacy culture.”

Lee’s contract is not being renewed for another academic year. She said she has not ruled out filing a lawsuit.

The communications office of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District did not respond to a detailed, point-by-point list of Lee’s claims submitted by J., citing employee privacy.

Lee was hired in August 2021 to direct the school’s Office of Equity, Social Justice and Multicultural Education. She felt encouraged and optimistic during the interview process, she told J. — she went through multiple successful panel interviews, during which she was told she would be tasked with an overhaul of the office.

“They told me, ‘The office you would be working for is a little too woke,’” she recalled.

Her interviewers told her, she said, that they’d received complaints about the equity office “calling out” or publicly shaming professors, instructors and others on campus for what were considered missteps on race or diversity issues. Lee said she would take a different approach: “calling in,” or educating, rather than shaming.

“They had identified a pain point of people being called out too much and being made uncomfortable and not engaging,” Lee said, adding that her approach was “talking to people, bringing them in to learn more. An inquiry-based approach.

“I was very clear that’s what I do. And they selected me,” she said.

But she came to learn, over the course of her time at the institution, that “race, racism, equality, and equity … meant different things to my coworkers and supervising dean than they did to me,” she wrote in an essay published in Compact, an online magazine that “opposes the ideology of liberalism” in favor of what it calls “liberality.” She said she faced “efforts to obstruct” her work — from within the three- to four-member office she led, from her supervising dean and from within the Equity Action Council, a roughly 15-person body at De Anza tasked with executing diversity initiatives.

Under the framework of critical social justice, she told J., “everything is viewed through a lens of oppression and tribalistic identity. It’s hugely different from a classical social justice worldview, where there’s a focus on freedom and individuality.”

Lee holds a doctorate in educational leadership from a joint program of UC Irvine and Cal State Los Angeles. Prior to joining De Anza, she was an instructional designer of undergraduate programs and part-time lecturer at Notre Dame de Namur University, a Catholic university in Belmont, then spent a year as a full-time temporary faculty member at the College of San Mateo, according to her CV.

The De Anza board of trustees’ vote not to renew Lee’s contract for the 2023-24 academic year was made on March 6. A letter from Foothill–De Anza Community College District Chancellor Judy Miner informing Lee of the decision cited a “persistent inability to cooperate” with staff and “unwillingness to accept constructive criticism, including from supervisors, peers, and colleagues.”

Lee technically remains on staff until June 30.

Jewish issues

Before Lee began at De Anza, the school’s 2020-21 year saw a series of bruising student government meetings that concerned Jewish and pro-Israel students and staff, according to Sarita Bronstein, executive director of Hillel of Silicon Valley.

Sarita Bronstein
Sarita Bronstein

Bronstein’s San Jose–based Hillel serves five South Bay campuses: San Jose State, Santa Clara University and community colleges De Anza, Foothill and West Valley.

In February 2021, Jewish De Anza students Adam Ashkenazi and Gai Blaunstein introduced a resolution to define and condemn antisemitism that included the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Jewish bias. Used by 39 countries, including the United States and most of Europe, the IHRA definition has nevertheless proven controversial, particularly at universities, because it treats certain criticism of Israel — such as comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, depending on the context of the comparison — to be antisemitic. The De Anza resolution called for the college to adopt the IHRA as its “official definition of antisemitism.”

Blaunstein, who was born in Israel and moved to California in the third grade, said he thought the resolution would be a slam dunk. Blaunstein was in his second year at De Anza when he and Ashkenazi introduced the measure.

He estimated there were a “couple hundred” Jewish students at De Anza. But only 10 or so were active in on-campus Jewish issues when he was there, said Blaunstein, now a senior at Chapman University in Orange County.

The purpose of the resolution was to make Jewish students feel more comfortable by establishing a “solid line that people cannot cross” when it comes to antisemitism.

De Anza College campus
De Anza College campus

The reaction to it came as a “big surprise,” Blaunstein said.

“Lots of people showed up [to the student government meeting] and protested and interrupted us and were acting very rude and misbehaving,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of control in the meeting, which made it very difficult to push forward.”

He said when he left the meeting, “I had no words.”

Ultimately, the resolution did not pass — it was postponed until the following semester and never revisited. “I had no idea that so many people would be against passing a law to protect some kind of group of people on campus,” Blaunstein said. “To me, it was a given. I respect other people’s values, and they should respect mine.”

That spring, two student senators proposed a new resolution that included the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism. The declaration, which serves as a response to the IHRA definition, takes a very narrow view on when criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism. It is supported by Jewish Voice for Peace, the Berkeley-based anti-Zionist group.

Jewish activists on campus were “blindsided” by the new resolution, they wrote in a petition seeking to reject the measure, which was “written without ANY consent from the Jewish community.”

Neither resolution succeeded. At a student senate meeting on May 12, citing “controversies” and “limitations attached” to both, the student senate decided to instead issue a generic statement condemning antisemitism.

“The fight against antisemitism is a part of a larger fight against white supremacy, and the DASG Senate is committed to challenging all forms of bigotry and discrimination,” the statement said.

A short time later, after a deadly outbreak of violence in Gaza and Israel in May 2021, De Anza, like many colleges and universities around the country, took up a resolution condemning the violence. De Anza’s was a scathing denunciation of Israel; the measure claimed the Israeli military was targeting Palestinian civilians and committing “attacks against humanity.”

The resolution, which stated Israel was established on “Palestinian soil,” passed.

Bronstein described the meetings and others like them on campuses served by her Hillel as rhetorical battles during which participants “spewed passionate but misguided accusations based on lies and distortions.”

“They went after some of us on social media,” she said. “There were a lot of accusations and disrespect. There was a lot of screaming.”

That winter, soon after taking over as head of De Anza’s equity office, Lee worked with Hillel to address concerns about the atmosphere on campus for Jewish and pro-Israel students.

Lee scheduled a 20-minute agenda item at the Jan. 26, 2022 general meeting of the Equity Action Council, called “Increasing Sensitivity for the Jewish Student Community at De Anza College.” She invited Bronstein and Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, CEO and director of the Tennessee-based National Jewish Advocacy Center, to present to the council over Zoom.

Certain members of the council chafed at the appearances of Bronstein and Goldfeder, according to Lee.

At one point during the meeting, Lee said, a staff member wrote repeatedly in the Zoom chat, “Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter,” in a way that Lee called “very disrespectful.”

When Goldfeder posted a link to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, chat records show, a staffer named Adriana responded by posting a competing link to the homepage for Jewish Voice for Peace. “Here is another great resource,” Adriana wrote.

“I just found it rude,” Lee told J.

After the meeting, Bronstein suggested action items to the council, among them gathering “data to better understand the current climate” for Jewish students. She also asked the equity office to add a statement opposing antisemitism on its webpage, alongside existing resources supporting BLM, Stop AAPI Hate and other initiatives.

Staff in the equity office declined to add a link to resources on antisemitism, Lee said. One person on the team said they didn’t feel it had grown into a problem issue on the campus of some 19,000 students, many of whom attend part-time, Lee reported.

“I’ve been teaching about antisemitism, and about Jewish cultures, since I was teaching. It’s part of California standards,” she said. “So I thought everyone was doing that.”

A ‘heterodox’ approach

Years ago Lee co-founded the organization Free Black Thought, which pushes back on views on racial politics common in progressive circles. It describes itself as an organization that uplifts “heterodox black voices” and “heterodox black thinkers,” or thinkers who deviate from progressive, widely shared views, including views popular within social justice-oriented movements like Black Lives Matter. It uses the motto “Black thought varies as widely as black individuals.”

Lee has, for example, questioned the idea that oppression comes necessarily to individuals who are Black, proposed a moratorium on symbolic “land acknowledgments” at De Anza “until we could incorporate changes suggested by Tribal Nations for real action,” and has questioned the capitalization of the letter “B” in Black, widely adopted after the George Floyd protests.

Since being notified by De Anza that her contract would not be renewed, Lee has taken her case public, appearing on Fox News and other conservative outlets as a prominent critic of so-called “woke” culture on college campuses.

Jews and DEI

Debates about who belongs in campus and corporate diversity programs have attended the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) space for years. Those debates intensified in the wake of the reckoning on race prompted by the murder of Floyd, when hires for diversity programs skyrocketed.

David Bernstein
David Bernstein

Along with the rise of DEI programs have come its critics. Among them is David Bernstein, author of “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.” To Bernstein, today’s dominant DEI approach tends to either downplay or dismiss antisemitism.

“Jews should be very concerned about an ideological environment where any discussion of antisemitism is met with hostility, opposition or minimization,” Bernstein, founder and CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, told J.

“In an ideological environment where average economic success is conflated with oppression — in other words Jews, and other groups that do better than the mean, economically, are viewed as oppressors — we’re going to have ongoing problems like this where antisemitism is not taken seriously,” he added.

There’s a silencing and a shunning that happens … there’s a hammer that comes down on you.

A liberal who supports policies such as expanded government-funded health care, abortion rights, immigrant rights and same-sex marriage, Bernstein said the Maryland-based group he founded firmly opposes critical social justice, just as Lee does.

Lee said she read Bernstein’s book and found it illuminating.

Progressive critics of the JILV point to its ties to the conservative right and say that it is standing in the way of legitimate social justice efforts.

But Bernstein describes the JILV as a means to “push back against the emergence of radical ideologies in public” and “in the Jewish community” — “and to warn people of how this ideology is giving rise to a new variance of antisemitism, which sees Jews as part of the powerful oppressor class.”

Bernstein mentioned a 2021 case at Stanford University, covered in J., that saw two Jewish mental health professionals file workplace discrimination complaints for, among several reasons, being coerced into joining a “white affinity” group through their DEI program, having their concerns about antisemitism downplayed, and facing what they called “severe and persistent” anti-Jewish harassment from colleagues.

The question of whether Jews belong in today’s diversity conversation also lies at the center of the debate surrounding California’s ethnic studies mandate, which has mobilized vast segments of the organized Jewish community.

Are ethnic studies, or DEI programs, meant to serve as a form of multicultural education, to include all ethnicities? Or are they meant to highlight only those ethnic groups that are majority non-white and most marginalized in the United States today?

At De Anza, Lee endeavored to take an approach that fell squarely within the multicultural camp.

Toward that end, she ventured to establish “heritage months” that would celebrate a wide array of ethnic identities, including a Jewish heritage month, an Arab American heritage month, a Sikh awareness month and others. Staff within her office opposed it, Lee said, but she went ahead with a “heritage month workgroup” anyway.

She described a “resistance to actual, authentic inclusion and community education” at De Anza.

Lee also convened a Jewish Inclusion and Anti-Semitism Community Education Summit in the winter 2022 quarter, she said, with little support from her staff.

The event featured five two-hour programs held on various days between Feb. 24 and March 23, including a conversation on “defining antisemitism” and a screening of “The Forgotten Refugees,” a 2005 documentary about the demise and forced exile of Jews from Arab lands during the 20th century.

Attendance was “low,” Lee reported, adding that the event was not included on the academic calendar and was not attended by campus leadership.

Response from De Anza

Since learning that her contract was not being renewed, Lee has been receiving support from the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, a civil liberties group. A spokesperson from FAIR told Inside Higher Ed that if Lee decides to file a lawsuit, the group would be “very eager to support her.”

De Anza did not answer a list of questions from J. detailing Lee’s claims, citing employee privacy.

“Without commenting on any specific matter, we can share that faculty members have comprehensive due process and appeal rights both under the law and negotiated through their bargaining unit,” a statement to J. from spokesperson Paula Norsell read.

Lee said during her time at the college, she noticed there were a lot of people — faculty and students — who seemed to share her skepticism about critical social justice.

But people who adopt the more “humanistic” approach, rather than a purely race-based approach to social justice, “cower in silence,” she said.

“There’s a silencing and a shunning that happens,” she said. “The response you receive if you do things like I did — just ask questions that may challenge the orthodoxy — there’s a hammer that comes down on you.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.