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How Republicans are weaponizing antisemitism to take down DEI

Congressional Republicans say that college diversity, equity, and inclusion programs exacerbate anti-Jewish prejudice.

A woman with brown hair speaks into a microphone.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, during a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing in Washington, DC, on December 5. Lawmakers on the education committee grilled the leaders of Harvard, UPenn, MIT, and American University about their responses to protests that erupted after the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas.
Haiyun Jiang/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The discourse about antisemitism on US college campuses has arrived at an unlikely place. As Jewish students speak out about a rise in antisemitic sentiment amid Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Republicans have placed the blame on diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, programs.

According to conservative lawmakers, who have now held several hearings on antisemitism, these initiatives — meant to create welcoming learning environments for students from marginalized communities — are one reason some Jewish students feel fearful and unprotected on campus.

“I think DEI is a fraud and what we’re seeing now on campuses is proof of that,” said Burgess Owens, the Utah Republican chair of the House higher education subcommittee, at a hearing in November.

Since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, critics have lambasted university administrators for doing too little to shield students from antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab racism. Jewish students have said that rallies for Palestine have left them in shock, as some have seen or heard antisemitic language and watched peers brush off Hamas’s atrocities against Israelis. Muslim and Arab students told Vox about slurs being hurled at them, hijabs being snatched off, and unwelcoming institutional messages and policies that ostracize them as pro-Israel campaigns intimidate and dox them. They’ve lamented campus environments that seem silent on Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians.

For Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits, the pain of these communities, particularly Jewish communities, has brought fresh momentum for their growing campaign against DEI and their eternal crusade against higher education institutions, which they see as liberal bastions of progressive indoctrination.

They argue DEI is a bureaucratic industry that undermines merit in favor of giving special opportunities to select groups based on race, which they believe is unnecessary — and that the industry has ignored the needs of Jewish students, increasing the incidence of antisemitism.

The peculiar connection being drawn between DEI and antisemitism is concerning, Jewish studies and DEI experts told Vox — although some agreed that DEI could do more to address the needs of Jewish students.

“There’s been a very strong simmering war of attrition against DEI for some time in universities. And somehow these two things started to merge together to the point where we got these congressional hearings,” said Rabbi Shaul Magid, who teaches Jewish studies at Harvard University and Dartmouth College. “It seemed to me that the issue [at the December 5 hearing] was antisemitism and also not antisemitism. It seemed like it was about DEI and [Rep.] Elise Stefanik’s interest in attacking it, rather than the rise of antisemitism on campus.”

DEI has received mounting pushback since June, when the Supreme Court struck down decades of affirmative action precedent allowing race to be considered in higher education admissions decisions.

Many Republicans want every institution stripped of DEI, in a fashion that would risk squandering the opportunity to thoughtfully reexamine it. “DEI has its problems,” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. He cites the need for institutions to return to the value of diversity itself instead of focusing on checking off a diversity compliance list. “They’ve made a caricature of DEI in this context, and DEI is not the issue here.”

But addressing antisemitism should require more attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion — not less. “There’s no question that DEI programs have not included Jewish community concerns. It’s been evident for a long time and needs to be addressed,” said Stacy Burdett, an independent antisemitism expert who works with the Cohen Institute for Leadership and Public Service at the University of Maine and testified at a recent hearing on antisemitism. “But dismantling a system that protects marginalized minorities has nothing to do with the interest or fears of Jews who want to just live without harassment and antisemitism.”

What is DEI anyway?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, is not specific to college campuses and has become shorthand for a variety of programs and initiatives. The term originated, in both major parties and also in the public at large, in the 1960s and ’70s following the civil rights movement when a number of groups invested in the project of desegregating public schools as well as public housing, workplaces, and hiring practices, according to Bradford Vivian, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University and the author of the book Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education.

A catchall term, DEI includes programs that embody the philosophy that hiring practices and corporate culture should be welcoming to diverse applicant pools and that, after being hired, workers from different backgrounds should be included and treated equitably. By the ’80s, according to Vivian, the ideas behind DEI became mainstays as corporate America “appropriated the ideas” and realized that there was a lot of revenue to be generated through messaging to a variety of communities. “They realized there was a lot to be gained by actively recruiting those populations, hiring them, and getting new ideas in,” he said.

DEI received a boost in 2020 after the massive protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Corporations rushed to double down on their DEI pledges and Americans donated to countless DEI initiatives, recognizing the existence of racial discrimination. But much of the momentum fizzled out within two years, leading DEI proponents to criticize leaders as performative. Corporate layoffs in the past few years have disproportionately affected DEI positions, and DEI pledges are no longer a priority.

Now DEI programs in higher education are facing so much conservative backlash that at least 22 state legislatures have introduced at least 40 bills to ban the initiatives in state university systems and K–12 schools. Florida and North Dakota made the DEI bans state law this year, and many copycat bills are being considered.

Last week, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed an executive order to defund all DEI training and programs in public colleges and all other state agencies. Meanwhile, after a six-month standoff, Wisconsin Republicans approved $800 million in state funds that it had been withholding from the Universities of Wisconsin over objections to campus DEI programs. To receive funding for cost-of-living raises and campus building projects, the UW regents had to agree to freeze DEI staffing for three years and eliminate or redefine about 40 DEI positions.

Much like the conservative arguments against affirmative action and critical race theory, Republicans have argued that DEI amounts to “reverse discrimination” against white people. Conservative think tanks such as the Claremont Institute and the Manhattan Institute and conservative culture warriors such as Chris Rufo argue that DEI should be abolished because it is “radical” and only makes students “see racism where none exists.” As a result, these groups see aspirational “colorblind” policies, which have been proven to hurt diversity, and an imagined meritocracy, which has never existed in America, as the way forward.

After the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action, Republican Tom Cotton sent letters to 51 law firms claiming that the legality of corporate DEI practices was now in question, while 13 Republican attorneys general sent a letter to Fortune 100 CEOs suggesting that they face legal consequences for promoting “racially discriminatory” DEI practices. Stephen Miller’s America First Legal threatened 200 law school deans with legal action if they didn’t stop “illegal racial discrimination.”

Now right-wing lawmakers and pundits say DEI should be abolished because it breeds antisemitism on campuses by refusing to see Jewish students as an “oppressed group.” The turn has brought new life to a movement that lumps together “critical race theory, cultural Marxism, identity politics, and multiculturalism” as threats to “the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reminded colleges and universities that receive federal funding that it is their responsibility under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide students a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. “It is your legal obligation under Title VI to address prohibited discrimination against students and others on your campus — including those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian — in the ways described in this letter,” the department wrote on November 7.

“DEI programs are designed to help universities comply with civil rights law since they are obligated to make sure students are treated fairly,” said Vivian. “We are still in a historical period of ongoing desegregation and are really only in the first generation where we are starting to see more students and faculty of color, in particular, at elite institutions.”

Jewish students and DEI on campuses

The basic critique being made about DEI programs when it comes to Jewish students is that they divide students too neatly into oppressors and oppressed — and Jews now are considered white oppressors, critics say, which leaves little room to address any challenges they face as a religious minority.

These complaints come from Republicans in Congress, but they have been echoed by other commentators who argue that DEI could be more inclusive.

Jewish advocacy organizations told Vox that there is some validity to the claim that DEI offices and programs on campuses could do more to support Jewish students. But they said DEI’s shortcomings related to antisemitism aren’t grounds to dismantle the offices altogether.

In a college survey the Anti-Defamation League conducted before October 7, more than half of students said they had previously completed DEI training, but only about 18 percent of those students had encountered training modules specific to anti-Jewish prejudice. The organization said it’s been working with corporate institutions where Jewish employees have had similar experiences.

“I’ve appeared on many DEI panels where DEI officers have admitted that antisemitism hasn’t been part of the DEI context,” said Adam Neufeld, the senior vice president and chief impact officer at the ADL. “I think there’s a number of reasons for this, ranging from Jews being represented in certain sectors in a proportionate or even more than proportionate way. I also think that it is a blind spot more broadly. Many Jews are white or white-identifying, at least in America, and so as a result it doesn’t fit into some of the DEI frameworks.”

But Neufeld has observed a “significant wake-up” around this issue, particularly since Kanye West’s 2022 antisemitic rant. “People started asking more questions and realizing that this was a significant gap,” he said.

Others are less certain that DEI programs are the right way to address antisemitism. “It’s a very hard argument to make that Jews in America should be a part of an initiative that is supporting those who are in the underclass, because Jews are not the underclass,” said Magid. “Jews are considered to be white. … They’re not seen to be people who have, of late, been denied entry into universities. There were quotas against Jews back in the ’30s and ’40s, but [those] don’t really exist now.”

Neufeld “can’t say” whether DEI programs contribute to antisemitism. “I have no reason to believe DEI programs contribute to the rise in antisemitism, but it is a secondary question that I think is worth exploring,” he said. If the programs do contribute to antisemitism, it’s because they are incidentally sending a signal that DEI does not include Jews, which is a signal that Jews are not a vulnerable population and have never experienced any form of persecution, he explained.

“While we may have lived through the last few decades, a relatively great period of Jewish experience in America, it was by no means perfect. You don’t need to look back many years before many of these same institutions were systematically discriminating against Jews, whether it’s in housing contracts, employment, or university admissions,” Neufeld said.

The exclusion of antisemitism from DEI programming places groups in a zero-sum game, Burdett said. “Addressing antisemitism or Jewish concerns is seen as somehow diminishing the struggles of other people or taking away programs and support that should be reserved for other minorities,” said Burdett. “That kind of thinking about which kinds of minorities are worthy of support, it’s not how antidiscrimination work is most effective. Jewish students and Jewish employees and Jewish community members have every right to want inclusion programs to include them as well.”

Gaps existing in these programs does not make those programs antisemitic — nor does it mean they should be taken apart, Burdett said.

The antisemitic roots of the attack on DEI

Republicans have often lumped DEI in with another term, “cultural Marxism” — a school of thought from the 1920s led by secular Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt School.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s upcoming book, in which he speaks out against DEI, is titled Unwoke: How to Defeat Cultural Marxism in America. Cruz claims Democrats are discriminating against Jewish people.

The term “cultural Marxism” was also used by the Nazis before the Holocaust. “The idea was that Jewish or liberal leftist thinkers were decadent, nontraditional thinkers who were coming to take over German society,” said Vivian. “They warned against Jewish Bolshevism and cultural Bolshevism, which they also referred to as cultural Marxism.”

As Vox’s Aja Romano wrote, “the academic term ‘cultural Marxism’ is a positive one that denotes the spread of Marxist values throughout culture, but its common use today is much more pejorative.” Historian Joseph W. Bendersky explains that it was code for the cultural purging that preceded the Holocaust: “Hitler referred to ‘cultural Bolshevism’ as a disease that would weaken the Germans and leave them prey to the Jews.”

The term was picked up in the United States in the 1990s when extremist groups, influenced by the fight against communism, mobilized to preserve what they saw as traditional American institutions, particularly universities, Vivian said. It gained attention during the Trump administration when a member of the National Security Council said it was a threat and part of a conspiracy to get Trump removed from the White House. The term has been popular on Gab, a social media platform where users often share antisemitic views (including the man who fatally shot 11 Jewish people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018).

It’s important to note that many people invoking “cultural Marxism” as a threat today likely don’t know its early history — although those who do are especially concerning.

“A lot of people who use this phrase don’t understand that history. Now it’s just a way to say that Western or American institutions are being overtaken by radical leftist thinkers. But historically it’s been a way of saying that Jewish figures, Black figures, and groups for social justice are decadent communists,” said Vivian.

After the hearing featuring four university presidents, Rep. Elise Stefanik was criticized for her ties to former President Donald Trump, who associates with antisemites (including Nick Fuentes), and for echoing replacement theory, the dangerous idea that Jews, immigrants, and other groups are threatening white dominance.

What comes next

Conservatives now seem to have turned against the presidents themselves.

After former Penn president Liz Magill resigned following the hearing, Stefanik posted on X, “One down. Two to go. This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America.”

Harvard president Claudine Gay, who kept her position, has been a special target of conservatives who argue that she only has her job because of her race. “Why is it the case that suddenly the first Black president of Harvard in its entire history now becomes an example of someone who’s unqualified to be there?” said Glaude Jr.

Stefanik said in an interview that university DEI offices needed to be investigated. “I fear that this investigation will uncover very, very damning evidence of this abused position of power in academia.”

The irony behind the push against DEI is the reality that many programs are hindered by a lack of resources and a lack of binding university commitments.

“There’s been a lot of talk about how DEI is supposedly taking over universities, but it’s a relatively disempowered part of bureaucracy,” said Vivian. “They struggle for resources, and don’t have much power of enforcement at all. Nobody’s hired or fired in a university because of what a DEI office says. It doesn’t work that way. It’s mostly an advisory or aspirational office.”

Magid agrees. “DEI is a certain kind of taking account of who’s been hired and what these hiring processes are like. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “I’ve never been on a search committee where DEI has said to us, ‘You can’t hire a white man.’ Never.”

Scholars on the left aren’t opposed to making changes. “You want to look at these policies, to see if they’re too draconian, too extreme? That’s fine because policies need to be fixed and tweaked,” Magid said. “But the claim that we should do away with it — do [they] think that doing away with DEI will create equal opportunity in hiring? That’s not going to happen. That’s just not the way these universities are structured.”

Jewish studies scholars say the schools that have developed antisemitism task forces are on the right path.

“Antibigotry work and diversity work will be stronger when it includes an exploration of antisemitism and its effects. Antisemitic conspiracy theories have been at the center of neo-Nazi movements, the Klan, white supremacy, white nationalism in this country for a long time,” Burdett said. “And if we want to fight hate in this country, we need to understand it.”

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