By Sarah Levin
April 25, 2023
Last month, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) director was fired as faculty director for the Office of Equity, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California. Dr. Tabia Lee, who is Black, had served in that role for two years. She shared her story of that professional experience—and why she was fired—recently in Compact Magazine.
In short, her story shows the power of a few vocal people with rigid views of identities and social constructs to obstruct DEI efforts that deviate from their worldview. They do not identify and address antisemitism as a form of hate within DEI frameworks. Ms. Lee, a veteran of this work, never subscribed to this view.
Instead, Ms. Lee’s DEI trainings are premised on open dialogue and viewpoint diversity, rather than the tenets of critical social justice, which “understands knowledge as relative and tied to unequal identity-based power dynamics that must be exposed and dismantled.” Lee’s approach was rejected, rather than being seriously engaged with and discussed. She shares:
“At every turn, I experienced strident opposition when I deviated from the accepted line. When I brought Jewish speakers to campus to address anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, some of my critics branded me a “dirty Zionist” and a “right-wing extremist.” When I formed the Heritage Month Workgroup, bringing together community members to create a multifaith holiday and heritage month calendar…my officemates and dean explained to me that such a project was unacceptable, because it didn’t focus on “decentering whiteness” [one asking] me if it was “about all the Jewish-inclusion stuff you have been pushing here” and [my multifaith] workgroup was denied support.”
Shortly after, colleagues of Lee called for her immediate termination at a Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees meeting. The wheels were set in motion to bring that to fruition.
So why is this on JIMENA’s radar? Because we were a part of her antisemitism workshops for which Dr. Lee was lambasted and ultimately lost her job. JIMENA, an organization representing Middle Eastern Jewish-Americans, does not fit into the distorted paradigm through which Lee’s critics view her and Jews. Those critics, blinded by their own prejudices, only see Jews as White and privileged regardless of what’s in front of them. Two of JIMENA’s speakers at Dr. Lee’s workshops were immigrants whose families came from Iran, Libya, and Tunisia, fleeing oppressive, state-sanctioned antisemitism as stateless refugees. Despite their diverse identities and orientations, JIMENA speakers shared that the oppression that impacts them the most is antisemitism. This reflects JIMENA’s conversations with a diversity of Jews who say that they are most threatened by the dramatic increase in antisemitism as reflected in the recently released ADL statistics on rising antisemitism, currently at the highest level since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.
These speakers, both Middle Eastern immigrants, People of Color, and one queer, should be the embodiment of the diversity DEI practitioners advocate for. Yet, they are Jewish. If included they would fog critical DEI personnel’s black and white binary lens. Lee shares, ““For those within the critical-social-justice-ideological complex, asking questions, encouraging other people to ask questions, and considering multiple perspectives—all of these things, which should be central to academic work, are an existential danger.”
Dr. Lee’s termination is indicative of another problem in K-12 public education exclusion and/or rejection of antisemitism within DEI frameworks. In 2021 and 2022, Governor Newsom and the California legislature entrusted the California Department of Education with a $20 million for the State’s new Antibias Education Grant program. The legislature was clear: the California Department of Education must ensure those funds are granted to schools which promise “emphasi(ze) preventing and addressing anti-Semitism.” Yet, despite the tremendous opportunity for California educators to learn about antisemitism alongside other forms of biases, only four of the 74 grantees CDE selected specified how they intended to use the grant on antisemitism education in their applications. This is yet another missed opportunity to address and develop corrective interventions to combat the rising incidences of antisemitism in our public schools.
Speakers like those JIMENA provides should be welcomed by DEI trainers on college campuses and in public schools. What a teachable moment it is to present Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants to American audiences. With this approach, DEI trainings would advance their cause to address bias or prejudice based on stereotypes of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, immigration status, language, or other defining trait.
Thankfully, Dr. Tabia Lee is not alone in raising the alarm bells and working to push the field of DEI forward. American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Director of Training and Education Dr. Saba Soomkeh is an Iranian-born Jewish scholar who leads DEI training for universities and large corporations. In an AJC podcast on antisemitism and DEI, Dr. Soomkeh noted a number of incidents in which Jews were discriminated against within DEI trainings and frameworks. Dr. Soomekh reminds us to recognize that there are great DEI practitioners doing impactful work with antisemitism education who can make our learning and workspaces safer and welcoming for everyone, including Jewish Americans.
Like Dr. Soomekh and Dr. Lee, JIMENA is committed to DEI because our workplaces and learning spaces must be safe spaces for people from all communities and backgrounds, including Jewish Americans. Yet DEI efforts themselves—and the trainers and administrators who lead them—must not become the problems. Instead, they need to model openness to learning and understanding of others, including from people who reflect and share the diverse Jewish experience in this country. If DEI “experts” and practitioners carry anti-Jewish biases, then they certainly are not the right people to lead this critical work. Let’s elevate those like Dr. Lee and Dr. Soomekh who demonstrate a commitment to dialogue, critical thinking, and the well-being of all individuals in a community.
You can read a version of this article published in the J Weekly here.
Sarah Levin is the executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an advocacy and education institution based in San Francisco.