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Billionaire investor Bill Ackman said diversity policies have ignored Jews. He’s not entirely wrong

Photograph by Jin Lee — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman doubled down on criticism of his alma mater, Harvard University, writing in a letter to the university’s president that “Jewish students are being bullied, physically intimidated, spat on.”

He called on Harvard to address the abuse and reprimanded it for failing to explicitly include Jews in its DEI policy, echoing a growing sentiment that extends beyond academia and into corporate America.

Ackman’s scrutiny of the diversity policy at the Ivy League, which has since added anti-Semitism to its diversity program, begs the question: Has corporate DEI historically overlooked Jewish people? And if so, why?

After speaking with about a dozen diversity practitioners, consultants, and organizations that support people of Jewish ancestry, the consensus was indefatigably in the affirmative. But the full history is highly nuanced, with several important factors at play.

First, Jews today are considered white, a distinction that wasn’t bestowed until after the Second World War and one that often ignores their intersectionality, especially among those who identify as Middle Eastern or Black. In plain English, they don’t fit neatly into the black-and-white paradigm that corporate America has used as its anchor for DEI efforts.

Mary Kohav, who oversees diversity and inclusion and community engagement at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, is a prime example. An Iranian Jew, her parents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. “I grew up here and have experienced anti-Semitism on one side and, on the other, racism about my Iranian heritage."

She points to baseless tropes about "Jewish establishment power" as another hindrance in corporate America because diversity policies typically focus on underrepresentation in positions of influence.

“The weirdness of anti-Semitism is that it sort of punches up,” a Jewish executive told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re in what I would consider a golden period of American Jewry and in many major sectors, Jews, while the vast minority of these things, still proportionally do not have a representation issue and therefore haven’t been a focus for companies. Nor have Jewish executives, historically, been arguing for it until recently.”

The duality of the Jewish identity as both a religion and a shared culture also muddles the demographic's experience in corporate America. Some diversity experts I spoke to nodded to their faith ERGs as areas where Jewish people can gather. But Adam Neufeld, SVP and chief impact officer at the ADL, says the mischaracterization of Jewishness as solely religious is problematic. “The complexity of Jewish identity extends beyond religion, and if you look at survey data, it’s a much more secular religious identity,” he says. “It's not a monolithic identity; it is a multicultural intersectional identity with various national origins, ethnicities, and races. It's essential to acknowledge that.”

Neufeld, along with others, acknowledges that many Jewish people have the privilege of passing as non-Jewish—not as a matter of shame, they caveat—but rather that their Jewish identity isn’t immediately obvious. As one person phrased it, “A good portion of us are Jewish coded, and it comes with certain advantages that most other minority groups don’t have. That’s a very different bar.”

Despite this distinction, some warn against the myth of competing resources. “Systems of oppression are interconnected. These -isms are built from the same frameworks, and we shouldn't fall prey to oppression Olympics because addressing anti-Semitism and unpacking how it functions as its own system of oppression does have beneficial outcomes for all groups,” Kohav says.

The politicization of the Jewish experience also plays a role in the community's placement within DEI efforts and has, at times, deterred leaders from addressing these employees' struggles full on. “While [companies] can have conversations around addressing hate and finding humanity in one another, there is concern that things will evolve into a political debate," Kohav says.

It’s a shared sentiment among all the sources who spoke to me, many of whom stress that they aren’t asking leaders to put anti-Semitism at the top of the DEI pedestal but to include it in their initiatives explicitly.

“The average company is trying to sell toothpaste, so we’re not asking them to have a position on the two-state solution or with respect to the [Israel-Hamas] war,” says Neufeld. “What we are saying is that you should support Jewish employees and be consistent just as you are with other groups—and yes, we also encourage them to support their Muslim and Arab employees in the same way.”

In practice, it means that if you're celebrating every heritage month, you should honor Jewish American Heritage in May. If you have an extensive set of digital modules around racial bias, you should include or develop training on anti-Semitism or best practices to support Jewish people during religious observance. If you have many employee resource groups, there should be one for Jewish employees. And if you held roundtables and town halls to address the Black experience in 2020 or the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, you should offer the same for Jewish employees now.

“Anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred, though on the rise, hasn't always been blatant," Kohav says. "It sometimes manifests overtly as violence, but more often through microaggressions and tropes, and so it requires education and allyship to be able to call it out.”

Ruth Umoh
@ruthumohnews
ruth.umoh@fortune.com

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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