What Labour’s anti-Semitism problem should teach employers
Julia Rampen is the digital night editor at the Liverpool Echo, a former digital news editor at the New Statesman and financial journalist.
In February, the MP Luciana Berger quit the Labour party. In her parting speech, she said she was “embarrassed and ashamed” to remain in the party, which she had come to believe was “institutionally anti-Semitic”. Berger, who is Jewish, had faced years of online abuse and enough physical threats to merit police protection. Britain’s equality watchdog is now investigating the way Labour handled complaints about anti-Semitism.
But Labour party members didn’t seem to hear her: a 2018 poll found 30% believed anti-Semitism was not a serious problem at all. And this lack of awareness isn’t restricted to the Labour party. A 2017 report by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism found that 42 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women endorsed at least one anti-Semitic statement, with those over the age of 60 most likely to hold such prejudices. Anti-Semitic incidents are at a record high.
This includes the world of work. According to a 2018 report by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, among European Jews who had experienced serious anti-Semitic harassment, 16 per cent faced it from a colleague. Meanwhile, one in ten felt discriminated against in areas such as employment because of their religion, but the vast majority did not report it. “I have had anti-Semitic comments made to me at work such as ‘all Jews are rich’,” one young British woman told the survey. “I am confronted with anti-Semitic comments from colleagues at work. And I actually work at the police department,” a Dutch woman said.
The lack of public awareness of what is anti-Semitism, and the lack of reporting from those who do know what it is, means that the problem may be invisible to those promoting diversity in the workplace.
So what is anti-Semitism? There are countless articles about the subject, but the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition is a widely accepted definition. Although some aspects of the definition have been challenged, and it’s not legally binding, the UK government formally adopted it in 2016. This means that it’s likely to be a reference point in any court case or tribunal concerning discrimination or hate crime.
According to the IHRA definition, anti-Semitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”. This includes repeating dehumanising stereotypes, such as the conspiracy theory that “Jews control the world”, most infamously propagated by the Nazis. It also includes denying the Holocaust and holding Jews collectively responsible for the action of an individual.
Most British employees – you would hope – should recognise such behaviour as anti-Semitic. But the IHRA definition also discusses forms of anti-Semitism that may not always be so quickly called out. These include describing Israel as having no right to exist or comparing the behaviour of Israel to that of the Nazis.
It’s these parts of the IHRA definition that have sparked the most debate, with critics claiming they won’t be able to criticise Israel. Any employer trying to investigate a complaint of anti-Semitism should be prepared for the defence “it was just free speech.”
The difficulty for employers is that “free speech” may often be coded anti-Semitism. Paul Spicker, a Scottish Jewish leader, has a useful test. Pakistan was created at roughly the same time as Israel as a home for Muslim South Asians, and has a strong religious identity. “Put the word ‘Pakistan’ instead of ‘Israel’ in any of these statements, with ‘Muslim’ for ‘Jewish’, and you should be able to see (I hope) why disregarding this advice is racist,” he wrote in Common Space. It’s worth noting that although Zionism is a political movement, and one which not all Jews subscribe to, the term Zionist is often used as a dog whistle term for Jewish by anti-Semites.
Accommodate religious practices
Having a clear policy against anti-Semitism is one thing, but employers who really want to foster inclusiveness in the workplace should consider how they accommodate Jewish religious practice as well. Although the majority of British Jews are not orthodox in their interpretation of their faith, the 2018 IJPR survey found that 5% were not able to take time off work to attend an important religious occasion, and 4% felt unable to express religious customs.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews has a useful guide for employers, which sets out the details of religious belief. For example, employers that require shifts on a Saturday should be aware that observant Jews would usually feel unable to work on their Sabbath (but many also believe this rule could be disregarded if it is necessary to save a life). Enforcing a certain uniform may clash with the belief of some observant Jews that they should dress modestly and cover their heads. Having somewhere quiet in the workplace for observant Jews makes it easier for them to carry out their commitment to pray three times a day, and checking dietary requirements for a business lunch will help include anyone following kosher. Even Jews identifying more with the culture than the faith may still have to take time off work to attend a funeral at short notice, in line with the Jewish practice of burying the dead as soon as possible.
The dignity of difference
In promoting diversity, employers can draw inspiration from the words of the British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who in a 2017 speech reflected on the “dignity of difference”. Life, he said, is “encountering difference and diversity”, and the countries that embraced this “went on to greatness”, while others declined. “If we were completely different we wouldn’t be able to communicate, but if we were all exactly the same, we’d have nothing to say,” he concluded. “That is how we have to do it, strive to find our common humanity and then celebrate our differences.”
Ultimately, if employers aren’t sure how to make Jewish employees feel comfortable, there’s a simple thing they can do – ask, and then listen. When she resigned, Luciana Berger made it clear she had tried many times to change the culture of her party from within, and the reason she left because things were getting “worse, not better”. Hopefully other organisations learn from Labour’s mistakes.