De Anza College campus
De Anza College campus

DEI programs can harm Jews — but they don’t have to

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De Anza College in Cupertino decided last month against renewing the contract of a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) director. Tabia Lee, who is Black, was hired for that role two years ago. She shared her story in Compact Magazine and with J.

In short, Lee’s DEI efforts deviated from the worldview of a few vocal, powerful people with rigid views of identities and social constructs who don’t identify or address antisemitism as a form of hate within DEI frameworks.

Lee, a veteran of this work, never held this view.

Her DEI trainings are based on open dialogue and viewpoint diversity, not the tenets of critical social justice, which she described in Compact as a “worldview that understands knowledge as relative and tied to unequal identity-based power dynamics that must be exposed and dismantled.”

De Anza rejected Lee’s approach.

“At every turn, I experienced strident opposition when I deviated from the accepted line. When I brought Jewish speakers to campus to address anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, some of my critics branded me a ‘dirty Zionist’ and a ‘right-wing extremist,’” she wrote in Compact. “When I formed the Heritage Month Workgroup, bringing together community members to create a multifaith holiday and heritage month calendar … my officemates and dean explained to me that such a project was unacceptable, because it didn’t focus on ‘decentering whiteness.’” One person asked her if it was “about all the Jewish-inclusion stuff you have been pushing here.” Her workgroup was denied support.

Shortly after, colleagues called for her termination at a Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees meeting. The wheels were set in motion.

Those critics, blinded by their own prejudices, only see Jews as white and privileged.

So why is this on our radar of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa? Because we were a part of the antisemitism workshops that Lee was lambasted for and that ultimately cost her the job. JIMENA, an organization representing Middle Eastern Jewish Americans, does not fit into the distorted paradigm through which Lee’s critics view her and Jews.

Those critics, blinded by their own prejudices, only see Jews as white and privileged. Two of JIMENA’s speakers at Lee’s workshops were immigrants whose families came from Iran, Libya and Tunisia. They’d fled oppressive, state-sanctioned antisemitism as stateless refugees. Despite their diverse identities and orientations, JIMENA speakers shared that the oppression that impacts them most is antisemitism. This reflects JIMENA’s conversations with a diversity of Jews who say that they’re most threatened by a dramatic increase in antisemitism as reflected in the Anti-Defamation League’s 2022 statistics showing the highest level of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. since it began tracking in 1979.

The speakers, both Middle Eastern immigrants, people of color and one queer, should be the embodiment of the diversity that DEI practitioners advocate for. Yet, they are Jewish. If included, they would fog the black-and-white binary lens.

“For those within the critical-social-justice-ideological complex,” Lee wrote in Compact. “asking questions, encouraging other people to ask questions, and considering multiple perspectives — all of these things, which should be central to academic work, are an existential danger.”

Speakers like those that JIMENA provides should be welcomed by DEI trainers on college campuses and in public schools. What a teachable moment it can be to present Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants to American audiences. With this approach, DEI trainings can advance their cause to address bias or prejudice based on stereotypes of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, immigration status, language or other defining traits.

Thankfully, Lee is not alone in raising the alarm bells and working to push the field of DEI forward. Saba Soomekh, the American Jewish Committee’s director of training and education, is an Iranian-born Jewish scholar who leads DEI training for universities and large corporations. In an AJC podcast on antisemitism and DEI, Soomekh notes a number of incidents in which Jews have been discriminated against within DEI trainings and frameworks. She reminds us to recognize that there are great DEI practitioners who are doing impactful work against antisemitism and who can make schools and workplaces more welcoming for everyone, including Jews.

Like Soomekh and Lee, JIMENA is committed to DEI because our workplaces and schools must be safe for people from all communities and backgrounds, including Jews. DEI efforts themselves — as well as the trainers and administrators who lead them — must not become the problems. Instead, they need to model openness to learning and understanding of others, including from people who reflect the diverse Jewish experience in this country.

If DEI practitioners carry anti-Jewish biases, they certainly are not the right people to lead this critical work. Let’s elevate those like Lee and Soomekh who demonstrate a commitment to dialogue, critical thinking and the well-being of all individuals in a community.

A longer version of this piece appears at jimena.org.

Sarah Levin
Sarah Levin

Sarah Levin is the executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an advocacy and education institution based in San Francisco dedicated to advancing the rights and the heritage of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.