Kill it or reform it? Jewish critics of DEI debate the future of campus diversity programs


((JEWISH REVIEW)) — As director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota, Natan Paradise says he leads a research institution, not an advocacy organization. Yet since Oct. 7, he says his research has been put on pause while he spends his time “just dealing with this.” 

 “This” refers to fallout from the deadly Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza. 

“A lot of conversations have had to be had, educating both inside and outside the Jewish community,” Paradise said in an interview thismonth. “That happens daily. People want to know, should we respond and should we respond in an uproar? The donors are in an uproar. Administrators need context.”

At Minnesota, various academic departments issued statements on the conflict that Paradise calls “dismaying,” and others called actionable. 

The university chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine plastered the doors of academic buildings with flyers bearing anti-Israel messages. A prominent Republican on the law faculty filed a civil rights complaint that this week resulted in a federal investigation. And the campus was roiled when a candidate for a senior position at the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion office gave a speech accusing Israel of genocide and denying reports that Hamas had committed sexual crimes in the Oct. 7 attacks. 

The candidate is no longer being considered for the position, but the incident still ramped up concerns about DEI at Minnesota and beyond. When Paradise joined fellow scholars for a panel discussion about “Jews, Antisemitism and DEI: Campus Experiences” at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in San Francisco last month, emotions ran high.

“We have problems” with the campus DEI office, said Amy Simon, an assistant professor of Holocaust Studies and European Jewish History at Michigan State University, where officials recently backed away from a project that would have addressed concerns about antisemitism. The office is known as the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, or IDI. “Sometimes they’re listening, but there’s never a real hearing from the top of the administration [or] the IDI either.”

DEI is a shorthand for a framework that says employers and institutions should be welcoming to diverse applicants, especially people of color, women and the LGBTQ community. Campus DEI offices offer training to students and faculty in how to be welcoming to marginalized groups, provide support groups for women, people of color and LGBTQ students, and work with the administration in promoting and identifying diverse candidates for faculty and administration jobs. 

Members of the Association for Jewish Studies gathered for the organization’s 55th annual conference, held in San Francisco, Dec. 17-19, 2023. ((JEWISH REVIEW) photo)

College campuses have had minority and multicultural affairs offices since the late 1960s and 1970s, focused largely on hiring more diverse faculty and staff and enrolling and retaining more students of color. In the mid-2000s, diversity officers who had been working in isolation formed the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. The organization’s membership has tripled to over 2,000 since July 2020, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as universities reacted to the police murder of George Floyd and calls to address systemic racism.

As the offices have grown — more than two-thirds of all major universities have chief diversity officers — and as a backlash to the 2020 reckoning on race has deepened, criticism has mounted against DEI. In recent years, it has become a prime target of a group of activists — mostly conservative, and some of them Jewish — who blame DEI for an antipathy toward what they see as traditional American values and a misguided focus on identity over merit in academia.

One leader of the anti-DEI movement is Chris Rufo, a conservative activist who has argued that diversity initiatives undercut the values of the liberal arts. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him to the board of the New College of Florida as part of an effort to remake it according to conservative values — and one of the first moves was to ax the DEI office. But it’s not just Florida: In 2023, Republican lawmakers in at least a dozen states proposed more than 30 bills targeting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education.

Since Oct. 7, some Jews who would not normally feel at home on the right have found themselves joining the ranks of DEI’s critics. At the Jewish studies conference, many scholars said their schools’ DEI offices ignored Jewish concerns — either not recognizing Jews as a minority or seeing them as white and privileged, and therefore not subject to marginalization. 

The seeming failure of many DEI programs to take Jews’ concerns seriously has led some Jewish leaders and conservative politicians to call for their dismantling. But others, particularly on the left, say the core values at the root of DEI initiatives are positive and the programs should be widened to include Jews.

No major Jewish group has called for abolishing the programs.

“We think it is an absolute mistake for anyone to say that DEI is the single cause of the explosion of anti-Jewish intolerance we are seeing,” Adam Neufeld, a senior vice president and chief impact officer at the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview. “It is a part of it, we’re sure, but it’s not the sole force. Antisemitism has existed for millennia.”

The ADL is working to improve rather than abolish DEI programs, he said, from privately consulting with campus administrators, to publicly calling out universities that don’t protect Jewish students and faculty, to supporting litigation in cases alleging schools have mishandled antisemitic incidents.

That approach is a mistake in the eyes of DEI’s most vociferous Jewish critics — many of whom view the campus convulsions after Oct. 7 as proof that they are right. Some of them pointed to the pivotal congressional hearing in December featuring three university presidents, who stumbled when asked whether calls for “the genocide of Jews” would violate their campuses’ speech codes. Two of the presidents, Liz McGill of the University of Pennsylvania and Claudine Gay of Harvard, later stepped down. DEI is “the root cause of antisemitism at Harvard,” Bill Ackman, a Jewish hedge fund manager and Harvard donor who led the charge against Gay, said in a lengthy tweet cheering her ouster.

“For Jews, there are obvious and glaring dangers in a worldview that measures fairness by equality of outcome rather than opportunity,” Bari Weiss wrote in a Tablet essay about how Jews should respond to Oct. 7. Weiss, who runs the news startup The Free Press, argued that under DEI, “equity” has come to mean that people are judged deserving according to their group identities. “If underrepresentation is the inevitable outcome of systemic bias, then overrepresentation — and Jews are 2% of the American population — suggests not talent or hard work, but unearned privilege.”

A protester carries a sign at a “Shut It Down for Palestine” rally outside the Foggy Bottom George Washington University Metro Station in Washington, D.C., Nov. 24, 2023. (Elvert Barnes Photography/Wikimedia Commons)

Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told Jewish Insider that DEI “cannot be fixed,” saying that “efforts by communal Jewish organizations to include the Jewish community or soften its impact on antisemitism have failed.” 

David Harris, the former CEO of the American Jewish Committee, also told Jewish Insider that he doesn’t believe that “outside efforts, however well-intentioned, that nibble around the edges or simply seek to add Jews to the DEI agenda, address the heart of the problem. DEI today poses a major challenge to liberal understanding of American societal aims.”

Other prominent Jews calling for the demise of DEI are Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer and pro-Israel activist; Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, and David L. Bernstein, a Jewish communal professional whose opposition to “wokism” led him to form the Jew­ish Insti­tute for Lib­er­al Val­ues.

“It’s not that we don’t want to make campuses comfortable places for people of color and gays and lesbians. God forbid,” Bernstein said in an interview. “Unfortunately DEI quickly evolved into an ideological framework that tells people in no uncertain terms who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors. It tends to divide people into racial affinity groups, which can be very divisive. It often imposes political litmus tests with DEI statements that applicants must submit for getting a job or getting promoted.”

Bernstein agrees with Weiss that DEI turns the relative academic and financial success of Jews against them by suggesting they are “riding on the backs of deprived minority groups.”

 Bernstein and others also cite a 2021 report from the Heritage Foundation on the “public communications” of DEI professionals, saying they showed a disproportionate tendency to “attack Israel.” 

“Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to see why so many DEI programs are loath to acknowledge the antisemitic nature of anti-Zionist behavior that so often leads to the harassment of Jewish students,” Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of the pro-Israel AMCHA Initiative, wrote in a piece for Sapir, a journal of the Maimonides Fund.

At many campuses, DEI offices have staff who are trained in investigating and resolving complaints about discrimination, and are the main address for such complaints. However, in a college survey the ADL conducted before Oct. 7, more than half of all students surveyed said they had completed DEI training, but only 18% of those said those trainings included topics specific to anti-Jewish prejudice. 

“That is a terrible and unacceptable situation,” said the ADL’s Neufeld. “It is dangerous, both in the sense that it excludes a historically persecuted people who are incredibly vulnerable and actually sends the signal that the exclusion is acceptable.”

Jewish critics of DEI frequently say this exclusion is the result of an “oppressor/oppressed” framework that considers Jews as white and privileged, but tend to provide little evidence. Instead, campus insiders say, there are other structural reasons for the exclusion of Jews and antisemitism from DEI offices.

“Judaism is seen as a religion, and DEI offices don’t touch religion in the sort of structural ecosystem of how the university works,” explained Samira Mehta, the director of Jewish Studies and an associate professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, during a session at the AJS conference. “The university chaplains’ office is in charge of religion and religious diversity. DEI is in charge of racial and gender diversity. DEI is also not so welcome to Islamophobia, except to the degree that they keep their eye on what’s happening to brown students.

“And the people who come up through these offices do not have training in religious diversity and don’t know how to do it,” she continued. “Also the people who come up in those offices sometimes are coming up from queer and gender diversity standpoints.” Mehta referred to these as “all of those structural ways that antisemitism, while real, is not something they handle.”

Lauren Strauss, a professor of modern Jewish history at American University, said that was the experience of Jewish students on her campus who faced antisemitism in their dorms and classes after Oct. 7. They were told that “they should go see a chaplain because this is a religious matter, not racial, ethnic or social prejudice, and outside the DEI office’s mandate,” she said at the AJS panel on DEI. (This week, an activist law firm filed suit against A.U. over its handling of incidents affecting Jewish students on campus.)

Jewish faculty at A.U. have also pushed, with little success, for discussion of antisemitism, alongside sexism, homophobia and transphobia, in a core curriculum course for first-year students and transfers known as the American University Experience. Even after agreeing to one session on the Holocaust, the university’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion said it was optional. 

“The one bright spot in all this,” Strauss said, is the support she’s gotten from “a small group of Jewish studies and general studies scholars” and the campus Hillel director. 

Yet Strauss and the other scholars did not say they favored abolishing the programs. While it may be satisfying to condemn the ideology underpinning DEI, they said, campuses need departments whose task it is to increase diversity and make the marginalized feel welcome. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs three higher education bills, including one prohibiting institutions from spending federal or state dollars on “diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)” programs, May 15, 2023. (Florida Governor’s Office)

Stacy Burdett, a consultant who helps corporations, colleges and nonprofits enhance DEI programming to address Jewish concerns, said calls to dismantle DEI offices also ignore the ways they in fact advance diversity.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a discussion of DEI that isn’t cognizant of the role that gender equity plays in the DEI movement,” she said, offering one example. “And also that the Jewish community itself is a place where there is a paucity of women leaders.”

Burdett said the current debate over DEI lacks the kind of nuance that Jewish groups brought to debates over a previous era’s civil rights issues, including quotas and affirmative action. 

“There’s no question that some of the ideological underpinnings of DEI in some institutions are flawed, and sort people in categories that Jews don’t neatly fit into. I think everyone in the Jewish community wants the American public square to be a safer place for Jews, and there are just different ways of getting at that,” she said. “But we’re in a very polarized debate between two groups of people, one of whom sees diversity as a threat, and the other that sees it as the strength of a pluralistic society.” 

At the University of Minnesota, Natan Paradise shares many of the critics’ views of DEI’s shortcomings. But he is wary of joining in attacks that he sees either as politically motivated or hostile to the very idea of racial or gender inclusion. 

“Those who want to dismantle DEI are acting in bad faith,” he said. “DEI does a lot of good. It does make a difference for students on campus. It could make more of a difference. It could make a better, more nuanced difference. But I think DEI plays a critical role on campuses.” 

He prefers forming relationships with administrators at the university’s Office for Equity and Diversity, and said there have been successes, including a freshman orientation course that now includes discussion of antisemitism, and a change in how the campus Office for Equity and Diversity classifies antisemitism on its website.

“We are just not on their radar and we ought to be, and I have been working very hard at my institution to change that, and we’ve made quite a bit of progress,” he said about Jews on campus. “We have to be present in all the social justice initiatives, in order for us to be present when we need it. And when I mean relationships, that means being in the spaces with the people who are doing the work, so that they see you as an ally, and you can count on them as an ally. In too many instances, we just haven’t done it.”