Shutting Down Antisemitic Comments in the Workplace

Holocaust Remembrance Day took place on January 27,  and the days around it serve as an appropriate time for workplaces and other organizations to schedule events and offer programs that focus on remembering the millions of victims of the Holocaust. 

International Holocaust Day took on new importance this year because of the recent rise in antisemitism in the United States and in places around the world. Taking time to focus on combating antisemitism in the workplace is more needed than ever.  

The United Nations created International Holocaust Day on Nov. 1, 2005. They chose Jan. 27 as the day for the remembrance because on that day in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Germans operated Auschwitz-Birkenau as one of a series of death camps in occupied Poland.  

International Holocaust Day calls on people around the world to not only remember what occurred during that horrific time but also encourages the development of programs about the Holocaust to help prevent it from ever happening again. Business leaders can make a significant contribution in this area by taking steps to shut down antisemitic comments in the workplace and educate people on the facts about the Holocaust. 

The Rise in Antisemitism

The Holocaust is the most infamous example of antisemitism, but, unfortunately, far from the only one. Jewish people have faced discrimination and violence in many different times and places throughout history. These horrific events range from the Rhineland massacres of 1096 during the First Crusade and expulsions from England (in the 13th century) and Spain (in the 15th century) up to the anti-Jewish policies of the Soviet Union after World War II. 

Recent years have seen an upswing in antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitism and other hate crimes, reported a record 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. in 2021. The League maintains a list of recent incidents. Reading that list is a sobering experience, with incidents ranging from someone painting swastikas near the entrance to a national forest in Massachusetts to a Jewish man assaulted at a bus stop in New York City. 

There also have been famous cases involving politicians and celebrities. Rapper Kanye West, who now calls himself Ye, has made several antisemitic comments and professed to like Adolph Hitler. Former President Donald Trump recently dined with Ye and a well-known Holocaust denier.  

There have been deaths, as well. A gunman killed 11 Jewish worshippers in 2018 in a shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue. The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., ended with a counter-demonstrator run over and killed by a car driven by a self-identified white supremacist. 

Combating Anti-Semitic Comments in the Workplace

Many acts of violence begin with words or the airing of misinformed ideas, such as the Holocaust denial theory that’s been around about as long as the Holocaust itself. That type of talk has increased in recent years.

“There’s rhetoric that’s accepted today that simply never would have been accepted a generation ago, not since the 1930s, really,” Joshua Shanes, a Jewish Studies professor at the College of Charleston, told NPR. 

What can companies do? The first step is not to let antisemitic marks go unchallenged. At the University of California, where antisemitic incidents have been on the rise, anyone who witnesses an antisemitic act is urged to file a report with the university. The university system also has an Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination that provides additional resources and support services. 

At the UC-Davis campus, Chancellor Gary S. May urged students and faculty to “be active and not passive when we see antisemitism, disrespect, racism, or bigotry…the lessons of history are clear: ending antisemitism requires all of us to step up and stand up.” 

Keith E. Sonderling, who serves as Commissioner on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, recently offered some ideas that business leaders can adopt to shut down antisemitic comments in the workplace. 

  • Always speak up unequivocally both in support of Jewish employees and against antisemitism 
  • Consider forming voluntary faith-based employee resource groups (these groups can be interfaith or specifically for Jewish employees) 
  • Provide guidance to employees on how to respond to inappropriate statements and postings on social media 
  • Create a clear policy about religious accommodations, including a contact person. Set up a program to educate employees on the policy 
  • Create diversity training and policies that address antisemitism 

It’s also important to include antisemitism in DEI programs and training. Employers should also research DEI material and ensure it does not contribute to antisemitism through stereotypes of power and influence based on racial or ethnic disparities.