DEI at a crossroads: The Jewish perspectives


You’ve probably heard about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and might already have an opinion about it. Is DEI necessary to change university and business cultures from within, or is it an evil that chooses identity over merit? Or…somewhere in between? In this episode, Mijal and Noam discuss DEI, its strengths and weaknesses, their personal experiences, and whether Jewish thought and wisdom can and should change our thinking about DEI.

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Noam: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Wondering Jews with Mijal and Noam.

Mijal: I’m Mijal.

Noam: And I’m Noam. And this podcast is our way of trying to understand the Jewish world. We don’t have it all figured out, so let’s figure it out together.

Mijal: We have a question from one of our listeners, Aliza. And Aliza wants to know, what is our beverage of choice and how many cups do we each have daily? So you should start.

Noam: Starry, it’s all about Starry. It’s all I drink all day. I’ve never had Starry. It’s a new, very hot drink and the NBA is marketing it a lot. But that’s not my favorite drink. My favorite drink is just the functional cup of coffee right here, but specifically iced brown sugar, shaken espresso, the oat milk variety. That’s my drink. That’s my drink of choice.

Mijal: You put sugar in your coffee?

Noam: I hear the judgment in the question.

Mijal: Very intense judgment. Yeah, I drink a lot of coffee. Probably not great, four to five cups a day. No sugar, no nothing, just a little bit of milk, that’s it.

Noam: Turkish coffee?

Mijal: No, no, I’m not such a good Sephardic. I just have a good cappuccino. I wish I had a more interesting answer, but that’s what’s up in terms of drinking.

Noam: Okay, alright. Aliza, we’re gonna work on that. We are going to work on that answer.

Mijal: So, yeah, maybe next episode we should just drink some new beverages and just try to see how that goes.

Noam: What would be the next beverage then?

Mijal: Starry?

Noam: Okay, we’ll have Starry together, deal.

Mijal: I’ve never had that so I don’t know. Okay, so Noam, besides for choice of beverage, I actually wanted to speak about a topic that is in the news a lot. And that topic is DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI, I think of it as almost like a lightning rod topic. Like there’s a lot of op-eds and social media conversation around it. And people seem to have a lot of very strong feelings.

So the big question that I want to put on the table is really, how do we feel about DEI and do we think that it has to be reformed? It has to be changed? And first, let me ask you, are you excited about this conversation? Is this something that’s top of mind for you?

Noam: It’s definitely top of mind for me and I am definitely more nervous about the conversation because it’s a lightning rod. And people are incredibly passionate about their views on this topic. So I want to be able to just have the conversation with you. And I’m not going to come at this from the perspective of I have the answer, I’ve solved it.

Mijal: I have the answer.

Noam: One of us needs to. One of us should have the answer. So that’s the way I’m feeling about this conversation. But Mijal, I’m gonna flip this around on you. Can you first explain, because you really often work in this, in a lot of different communities. What’s the best argument for the importance of DEI?

Mijal: I think, Noam, actually we first have to define it. Because part of the challenge with many of these terms is that people understand them in very different ways. So DEI literally stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I would say that there’s different ways to think about it. And I’d love afterwards, Noam, to hear which one resonates with the way you think about it.

So one way that people think about it is that DEI just stands for any sort of efforts that are trying to make spaces more diverse and that are trying to make spaces both more diverse, but also with a social justice perspective. So diverse in terms of participants, also diverse in terms of making things more equal and more just for different groups, especially racial and ethnic minorities that have been disadvantaged in the past. So that’s one way of just thinking about DEI.

Noam: Yeah, but I have a question on that. What’s the goal of DEI from your description? What’s it trying to accomplish?

Mijal: So from this first perspective, it’s really to make the world a better place. Because historically, if somebody had a different skin color or accent or country of origin, they would have been treated differently and discriminated against in different systems. So DEI comes to help rectify that.

Noam: So you’re describing yourself right now. Meaning you’re someone that comes from outside of the United States of America with a different accent and a different skin tone.

Mijal: Well, yes, I think you’re right. I would be, in theory, one of the people they wanna help because, you know, I’m kind of like not racialized as white in this country. I have Middle Eastern ancestry. I have an accent. I’m Hispanic. That people like me have historically been disadvantaged in many spaces, so DEI comes to help. That’s one way to think about DEI.

Another way to think about DEI is that it is actually a set of ideologies. And it’s an ideology that doesn’t just want to make the world a better place and to help people like me, but it’s a set of ideologies in which people are not so much treated as individuals, but in terms of their group identity. So I’m not so much Mijal, a person with my unique history. I am Hispanic or I am Middle Eastern or I’m a woman or I have an intersectional identity. And that we actually have a way to note which groups are privileged and which groups are oppressed. And based on that, DEI comes to try and help those who are oppressed rise up to push back against the system set up by those who are privileged. So does that make sense to you, Noam? And do you see the distinction between that and the first thing I said?

Noam: I do see the distinction between the two. One is more about the individual. One is more about the group identity and the system that they’re a part of. You also used words like privileged. What does privilege mean in the context of politics and society?

Mijal: So that’s a really, that’s a good question. And again, I think we’re both trying to be honest here and to be nuanced. So I wanna kind of like acknowledge that people use it a little bit differently, but within a DEI context, privilege often means that you are part of a group that has had a certain history in which, let’s say in America, the group had certain access to, let’s say like, material resources in ways that other groups didn’t have. Should I give you a quick example to make it less abstract?

Noam: Yeah, please, please.

Mijal: Okay. So there’s like a lot of conversation about how, when we think about racial inequality in America, how even today, there’s like a wealth gap between different racial groups. For example, after World War II, there was a GI Bill that helped veterans be able to go to universities more easily and get mortgages and all of that. And those benefits were largely limited to white Americans. So that’s a way of saying there’s this thing called like white privilege, which means that you have been historically part of a system that has helped you in a way that other groups haven’t been helped.

Noam: Okay, so I hear that and that’s very helpful to me. What I’m hearing now is from a Jewish lens why the story of the Jewish people could be complicating and a complicating factor in this.

Mijal: Okay, tell me a bit more now, what do you mean by that?

Noam: Well, I was just thinking about my grandfather. My grandfather, who was in the Navy, fought World War II, fought in Normandy, D-Day. I believe he was privileged to be able to use the GI Bill and go to Cornell and start his life. I also know that Jewish people have centuries of anti-Semitism, centuries of being othered, centuries of being oppressed, of being exiled, of having pogroms, of not being allowed into country clubs, having quotas in university. And so the Jewish person, very much so, feels as though on the one hand, I have benefited from the United States of America and have been able to pass as white. And on the other hand, it’s very clear that there’s been a lack of privilege and that there’s been a desire and a need, uh, to fight up.

Mijal: Okay, so I think what you’re getting to already, Noam, we can look at it as like a Jewish perspective or just like in general, I think you’re beginning to get into a critique of DEI. So I think if we think about…

Noam: Oh, I didn’t even mean to. I’m Jewish. So I started hearing why it’s complicated from my identity.

Mijal: Right, and that complication can also be said as, wait a second, groups are really complicated. And it’s not so simple to say a group is just oppressed or an oppressor.

Noam: Right, right, right.

Mijal: And that critique can also be said, hey, individuals are not always groups. And I always, Noam, I think about this so much, and I’m a little bit cynical about this, I’m not gonna lie. As someone Hispanic, I can easily get into a place and speak as a Latina immigrant, and people don’t realize that descriptor, we can use that term for millions and millions of people who have different experiences and come from different places and who in South America have different hierarchies of race and ethnicity. Okay, so let me just go back because I want to get to the Jewish perspective.

But let me bring a third category, which I think is important to name here. DEI is an industry. It’s like a multi-billion dollar industry in which a lot of people make a lot of money. You can look at the corporate world, universities, like the number of DEI officers and the legislation and the rules that they put into place and the way they control different places. So I think DEI can also be seen as an industry. And part of the question, how do we feel about DEI, which of these definitions or a different one do you have in mind when you’re responding to it? When you think about DEI, did either one of my definitions kind of like come into play for you or is it something else?

Noam: Well, I love the idea. I’m gonna start with my answer to my question to you, which was, Mijal, give the best defense for DEI. Where I’m coming from, my defense of DEI, is any sort of movement that’s going to stand for the underrepresented and the marginalized, where there’s a universal definition of justice, that’s gonna universally be enforced and there’s not gonna be bullying and no harassment and it’s gonna help the less fortunate. That’s wonderful. That is a wonderful vision.

Mijal: Noam, one second, before you even go, you just said any sort of movement who stands for the underrepresented. Let me disagree with you here. I don’t even want to talk about the DEI yet, but I think through our history, there’s been plenty of movements that have done terrible things in the name of fighting for justice. I mean, we can talk about communism as like one of the big examples, in which millions of people were killed and tyrants took power, but the discourse or the language they used was on behalf of the underrepresented and the weak.

Noam: Right, I agree with you. That’s a great point. What you’re pointing to is you are debating their motivation versus their actual goals. So, no?

Mijal: Hmm. I mean, their motivations and also what they end up doing. So you can also have really good intentions and do terrible things. So I’m not convinced that good intentions are good enough.

Noam: Fair enough. Agreed. It’s not good enough. But with DEI, I think it’s important to go with an understanding of why it could potentially be a really important thing for the world. And I’ve just, myself, spent time with DEI officers who are great people, and they’re trying to do great work.

And there’s a sensitivity that they’re bringing into the table. And there is a lack of sensitivity from people often who are, um, antagonistic towards DEI. Again, I am not here to support DEI or to be against DEI, but I want to give my personal experience with DEI so far and my, a positive reading of the history potentially. We’re looking at the three different ways that people could look at DEI. Of those three, what’s your most charitable read of it?

Mijal: Well, the first one, I think there is exactly what you just said. I think there is a lot of people who genuinely want to do good and who look around and they say there’s really not great gaps between different groups. And there’s been like a history of racism and discrimination in this country and we got to make things better. And for them, this falls under the umbrella of DEI as something that can help. And I am really sympathetic. My issue really has to do with the two later, which is when it becomes like this ideological movement based on certain ideas that I don’t just disagree with, but I find dangerous. And when it’s part of like a corporate industry that I think is generating wealth more than helping.

Noam: Right, right. So the industry aspect, that definitely resonates with me. The other part that resonates with me as a complicated feature, and I want to know what you think about this, is there’s the D, there’s the E, and there’s the I. The D and the I make a lot of sense to me, just instinctively. I get why diversity is really important to have a diverse group of people together in any context, because people come from different socioeconomic status backgrounds. People come from different racial backgrounds that, you know, that systemically have been oppressed. And more than that, a diverse group of people could come together and make the world a better place and make the world a more unique place, and there could be a mosaic that emerges from that. And I also deeply value the I, the I being inclusion, the I being this opportunity to bring people in who have either differences, who otherwise would be othered and put to the side. My question is more about the E, the equity thing. You used the word before, you used the word access. What is equity about? Is it equity of opportunity? Is it equity of outcome? Is it equity through access? What is the equity piece?

Mijal: Well, Noam, how do you use the equity piece? I know how I use it, but how do you define equity?

Noam: Well, if it’s equity of outcome, I don’t understand how that is something that you can expect. You could give people the same access and that makes a lot of sense to me, but I really don’t understand the expectation of the same outcomes.

Mijal: Right, so yeah, I agree with you. This is why I myself don’t feel comfortable using the word equity. And that is because it could be used in a way that basically says we need to ensure equality of outcomes, not equality of opportunity, which I think was like the classic American.

Noam: Right, that’s what I’m saying. Yeah.

Mijal: Yes. And I think there is like a little bit from where I’m sitting of like a naive read on this that basically says, if we fix certain racism in society, like the jargon is like structural barriers, then we’ll automatically have equality of outcomes. I think that’s naive because I think historically there’s always like tension between agency and choices, kind of like what you were getting to when you were saying hard work and freedom, right? A different way of saying this, Noam, is that I think an honest way of advocating for equity would have to acknowledge that it comes with a loss of freedom.

Noam: Right, right. So yeah, there’s a tension between those two. Absolutely.

Mijal: Yeah, Noam, and before you said you were going to talk about like personal experiences with the idea, do you have any stories?

Noam: I think you probably have better stories.

Mijal: Sure, although you might have as well.

Noam: I’m a white presenting male. And I recognize the opportunities that I’ve had in this capacity. And I know that there are groups that I’ve been a part of in which there are more men represented than women. I get that, I really get that. Where I find this to be a bit of a challenge, and this is an idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, and I know he was a mentor of yours, which is amazing. But Rabbi Sacks says that identity politics is a symptom of the breakdown of national identities and the institutions of civil society. The reason I’m bringing that quote up is when ideas are supplanted by identity, I think what happens is we don’t necessarily get the best ideas. And I’m an ideas person. I want the best ideas at the table. And sometimes you’ll say, listen, you need these following prototypes of individuals in order to present these ideas. Now, if that’s true in terms of the efficacy of that idea being heard, then fine. But I think there’s a cost to that worldview. Do you disagree?

Mijal: Right, well I think what you’re getting to, Noam, I think it’s like the tension between merit and then like trying to have, you know, all groups represented in the same way and having processes to kind of force that. And there, yeah, I would agree with you, there’s like real questions there to delve into. But you know what, Noam, I’ll tell you maybe like a couple of anecdotes or just some examples.

Noam: Please, please.

Mijal: I think my first real exposure to DEI was maybe, I would say, six years ago. I was at a Jewish organization and I was asked, slash forced, to do a DEI training, which many places do. And I remember sitting there. And this very nice person was training us, and he puts up a white board, and he starts writing like a breakdown of like a list of like, these are the groups that are oppressed, and these are the groups that are like privileged. And I had this weird feeling, because I knew most of the people there were white and Ashkenazi, and I was one of the only ones whose identity were like in the you know being Oppressed, you know, column. And at the same time I was like shaking my head like, there’s a lot here that I disagree with. And I think part of the reason I disagreed with it now is that it felt really easily manipulated like I can just come and say hey, I have this identity, and you know nothing about my socioeconomic background, about the opportunities I’ve had, when my family came, all of those things. And the person next to me could be like a white Ashkenazi person who grew up like in poverty without any resources. And to me, it made it hard for me to like not have moral concerns about the way that DEI presents itself.

Noam: Interesting. Well, I want to jump from that to talk about a broader point, because it reminded me of it. What’s going on in Israel right now and Hamas? See, you didn’t see me going there, did you? I’m going to read to you three statistics.

Statistic #1: In the conflict between Israel and Hamas, who do you support more, Israel or Hamas? If you’re over 65 years old, according to the Harris Poll, 96% of people say Israel. If you’re between the ages of 18 to 24, 50% of the people say Israel. OK? Now, the next question. Do you think the Hamas killing of 1200 Israeli civilians can be justified by the grievances of Palestinians or is it not justified? If you’re over 65 years old, 91% of people say, no, it’s not justified. If you’re between the age of 18 to 24, 60% say it can be justified by the grievance of Palestinians.

So far, this is irrelevant to our conversation. Let me make it relevant. Next question. Do you think that Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors or is that a false ideology? Okay. 91% of people over the age of 65 years old say that is a false ideology. If you’re between the age of 18 to 24, 67% of respondents said that Jews as a class are oppressors. What’s your reaction to that?

Mijal: Well, it’s horrifying and it’s really scary. And I understand…

Noam: Is it related to our conversation? It is related, but come on, it’s related. It’s gotta be.

Mijal: We didn’t even get into it. I think what you’re saying, Noam, and if it’s what you’re saying, I agree with it. I think in many ways, the DEI industry has been based on ideologies that have given this idea that Jews are oppressors and that pretty much we’re seeing support for Hamas, a terrorist, some of these ideas in DEI. Professor Jonathan Haidt has written a lot about this. And I think there’s something really dangerous about basically taking entire groups and saying these groups are oppressors. And in this case, it’s Jews, although I don’t think it’s good for any group to basically just say these groups are oppressors and these groups are oppressed. I think it’s bad in general, especially for Jews with our history.

Like when you were talking before about your grandfather, we can each tell stories of our ancestors and the ups and downs of Jewish history and like Holocaust within living memory. I think what I hate about this is that it’s both dishonest and in my opinion ends up just being immoral. It can help immoral ends.

Noam: Yeah. It’s scary to me, Mijal, it’s scary to me that a group of people who have historically been remarkably, in a historic sense, historically oppressed people, the Jewish people, that two thirds of young folks think that Jews are oppressors.

It’s hard to describe that in any other way than I’m afraid. And I’m not, I want to be clear. I’m not anti-diversity. I’m so pro-diversity and I’m not anti-inclusion. I am so pro-inclusion and I’m not anti-equity. I am so pro-equity exactly like the way you said about the values that it could make the world a better place. But I’m also deeply afraid of a world in which a result of anything that has to do with this classification of peoples could dub the Jewish people oppressors. Fear. That’s what I feel.

Mijal: Yeah, yeah, I agree. I think that it’s scary. I also think we have so much work to do. I mean, like as a mother, as an American, when I think about what’s gonna happen in 20 or 30 years, and people who might have answered this poll eventually becoming leaders, right, in our country. I think it’s both fear and also just thinking, you know, we’re gonna write history. And you know what, let me just say one more thing Noam. The reason that I was talking about the well-meaning people and the ideologues and then the people who make a lot of money off DEI, that was my three-part explanation-

Noam: Yeah. Wait, say that three part again. I want to hear it again. Go for it.

Mijal: Okay. Normal people with good intentions, ideologues, and people who are trying to make money off DEI, okay? We have all three. So I think you can have a perfect storm, right? That ends up with some really bad stuff. Even if the majority of people are like just good people with good intentions, because if you end up giving so much power to the ideologues and if they’re like ideologues who look at a Jew and immediately think oppressor. They look at somebody and they think group good or bad, nothing else. And you empower them and then you put an industry that benefits a lot from the growth of this financially. And then you give it language that makes it sound really good for most good people. That’s almost like a recipe for just like bad stuff.

So that’s why I think it’s really important to name, that there can be really good intentions. And it can also end up in bad ways, which doesn’t mean that we then throw away diversity. I think we have to do it in different ways.

Noam: Agreed. Okay, give me two different ways that we could do diversity work differently.

Mijal: Okay, great. So one way is that diversity has to include class analysis. So what this means is that you don’t just talk about like country of origin and accent, but you think about like socioeconomics in a way that doesn’t just make it about group identity. So that’s like one way that would actually really bring in diversity in a big way. A different way is that you take diversity work and you move it away from like elite, I’m going to use jargon forgive me for a second, elite spaces of cultural and knowledge production. What I mean is like this.

Noam: Thank you for translating. Thank you for translating for people like me. Yes, please.

Mijal: Okay, all right, so I’m gonna give an example. So you very often in DEI, you like bring people who are let’s say like Hispanic, but you bring in like professors and activists, and they end up representing Hispanics. I’m like, what if you were to bring blue collar worker, it’s similar to what I said before, but maybe I’m just saying it again. But if you really bring in people who are much more representative of the actual population, you will automatically kind of like have a much more complex understanding as opposed to like, you know, this group is like this and everyone is like that and it’s only privileged or it’s only oppressed. So that to me are just like some of the ways that I think about it.

What about you? How would you do diversity work in a way that is better than what we see right now?

Noam: I think it’s really important to bring a lot of different groups together in general. I think that one of my favorite ways to do that is through viewpoint diversity. I’m just a sucker for viewpoint diversity. I love seeing so much more of that. I like when we’re teaching, when we learn, we are seeing three different perspectives on. I love to make sure that there is a wide contour of dispute when we’re thinking about whatever the difficult issues are. I think it’s really important.

That type of diversity, I think, enriches the viewer, enriches the learner, enriches the listener. We gotta do more of that, a lot more of that. So that’s one way. The other is that there are groups out there, you know? So like, shout out to Chloe Valdary, a former colleague and a friend of mine. To those who don’t know Chloe, she’s a woman who is strong in her identity. She comes from the South. She’s proudly a pro-Israel and Zionist. She’s a black woman and she’s incredibly, incredibly thoughtful about how to do this work on diversity and how to build up others, how to view others through this theory that she calls the Theory of Enchantment, to be enchanted by others. And that’s another route to be going about improving the world.

So there are a lot of different ways to be doing this. And then there’s also the Jewish background where the Jewish world has said there is a list of laws, and I’ll say them in Hebrew first, whether or not it’s Leket or Peah. And these are different laws that help address the inequalities that some people have, where people can get the produce, the additional produce, laws from a couple thousand years ago, from people who did not have as much as the other and built into the fabric of society was this need, not this charitable need, but this need to give portions of your field to those who did not have. And I think that sort of ideology is a wonderful and it’s, dare I say, a progressive worldview that says that even if you did not have this through your own merit, whatever that merit means, you as a human being are entitled to something that will sustain you and society is entitled and society demands that you who have this privilege of this field need to make sure that others have that. So I think that the Jewish world could really help us think about this.

And I think there are many different ways to think about the question of diversity. Maybe in addition to DEI, maybe you’re again, your first articulation of DEI of who benefits from it, maybe that’s the way the world of DEI could really continue in a way that will service everyone and make the world a much better place. That’s what I think, Mijal.

Mijal: Yeah. Amen. By the way, Noam, that’s what I’m much more sympathetic to, like a socialist versions of social justice. The ones that you just mentioned as opposed to identity, group identity based ones. And in that way, I feel, yeah, I feel like a progressive in that way. But okay, Noam, do you have a takeaway? I know we just had this like, conversation on DEI that went to many different places.

Noam: I have three takeaways. Takeaway number one is your first articulation of DEI is very important to me. Making the world a better place and making sure that individuals can live in a better place and a better world in a more fair world I think is really important.

Second takeaway that I have is, I want to explore DEI more. I’m not here to attack DEI and I’m not here to support DEI. But I do think that we should all be exploring the merits and the demerits of DEI while ensuring that there is a more equitable world no matter what. And then finally, my number three takeaway is that any world in which 18 to 24 year olds are thinking that the Jewish people are oppressors by the numbers of two to one, that world needs to look inwards and say, what are we doing wrong that can lead to that being a takeaway? What about you?

Mijal: Yeah. So my takeaway is maybe less generous. So I want to just insist on continuing to be pro diversity, pro inclusion, and at the same time, speaking up, critiquing what I think are just like bad programs out there. Sorry, that’s not the most optimistic way to end, but that’s honest at least.

Noam: Love it. You know, it’s authentic and let’s leave with some authenticity. That’s for sure.

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