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Op-Ed: Antisemitism in the Workplace and How to Fight It

It’s there. It has to be. According to Anti-Defamation League Director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, antisemitism has increased 388% since October 7 over the same time period last year. Christopher Wray, FBI Director calls it at a historic level and points out that Jews are the target of international and domestic terrorists. Both the extreme left and the extreme right are culpable.

I’ve heard that 70% of Jews no longer feel safe in the U.S. Maybe that’s because 2021 had the largest number of antisemitic events ever recorded in the U.S. And then 2022 topped that. And now 2023 goes way beyond.

No other ethnicity has had such relentless attacks over such a long period of time. No other religion faces such persecution in the U.S.. Right now, Jews are on the receiving end of about 55% of the religious hate crimes that occur in the U.S., while they only make up 2.4% of the population.

So how does this play out in the workplace? Antisemites work. And unless they own their own business, they’re in someone’s workplace. It’s possible that they could reserve their antisemitic behavior and words for outside of work. But not probable.

Dealing with antisemitism in the workplace is similar to dealing with any other discriminatory or offensive behavior targeting people of a particular race or religion. Except for one big thing–with Jews it’s both an ethnicity and a religious practice and can be both, or one or the other. Make that two big things–4,000 years of horrendous persecution and atrocities including the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition.

The following steps could help in dealing with antisemitism should it manifest in your workplace:

Don’t ignore it. Don’t pretend like it isn’t there. If it’s in society as rampantly is, it is in workplaces and could be in yours.

Use Your Policies. I’m not of the opinion that you need another policy. Policies don’t change behavior that much. If they did, there would be no sexual harassment and no illegal discrimination as such policies are in every company. But you can dust off those existing policies and talk about how relevant they are right now, specifically to this issue.

Zero Tolerance. Many companies call it that when referring to violence, discrimination, or sexual harassment. Make it your standard. It won’t alleviate all antisemitism or other illegal discrimination, but it sends a message that it will be dealt with if it happens. And then deal with it if it does, as severely as needed to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes, people with behavior problems get a “wake up call” when their job is on the line and it changes their lives for the better.

Be Proactive. There is a lot of rhetoric and there are a lot of emotions regarding the surprise attack by Hamas leading to 1,400 deaths, captives, decapitated babies, and horrific treatment of innocent people. And there is a lot of rhetoric and there are a lot of emotions regarding Israel’s war on Hamas and the over 10,000 people killed in Gaza so far. If all this spills over into your workplace, there will be sides whether those are verbalized or not. Instead, a savvy boss can be proactive by acknowledging that this and everyone’s feelings about it are very real and demonstrating how to have a civil dialogue.

Draw the Boundaries. Dealing with issues like everything that’s happened since October 7 is not a science; it’s more of an art. If you crack down too much on talk about current events, you could impact your culture and take some of the fun out of the workplace. Shutting down all of it could sound a bit draconian and impact morale and perceptions of leadership. However, if you are too lenient, you could have increasing hostilities between employees of different persuasions, and a decrease in productivity. You have to gauge the appropriate balance between both.

Listen. We can only see through our own eyes. Behaviors and language that we might think are non-offensive to someone of a different group may be highly offensive or at least insensitive to someone of that group. It hasn’t been that long since Whoopi Goldberg was surprised that something that seemed innocuous to her was actually very offensive to Jews. It’s unfortunate when we have to learn that way, and way better when we learn awareness in advance. The best way to do that is to build trust with those who see through different eyes than your own. And then listen. That’s empathy.

Communicate. If 70% of Jews no longer feel safe in the U.S., see to it that they feel safe in your workplace. That doesn’t happen by making company-wide statements about how you want everyone to feel safe. And it will not happen with a photo shoot or press release. Have one-on-one talks to let people know you stand with them, have their back, and want to know if there’s ever an issue that makes them feel unsafe.

Use Your Culture. If you’ve taken the time to establish group norms that everyone knows and is accountable to, those should go a long way in terms of setting the boundaries for appropriate behaviors even when discussing issues as complex as what’s happening now. If your group norms and culture create a sensitive environment where everyone will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, some subjects can be touchy. If your group norms and culture make it clear that being blunt is ok, and that having a thicker skin is a needed trait, anything may be fair game. This is an excellent time for you to set an example and reinforce the standard. Lead on.

Everything in this can apply to dealing with behavior that is anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Moslem, anti-Hispanic, anti-Asian, anti-Budhist, anti-Christian and any other ethnic or religious group. I’m focusing on antisemitism right now because of two numbers – 388% and 4,000 years.

As owner of Open Door Organizational Solutions, Mark consults with organizations on culture, team, and leadership. You can reach him here.