What Is Antisemitism, and How Can Workplaces Avoid It?

Antisemitism is once again dominating the news. Recently, Twitter was criticised for not acting quickly enough when UK grime artist Wiley posted a series of anti-Semitic tweets. The social media platform had to make a public apology after waiting six days to ban the artist from their website permanently. However, this is not the first time that antisemitism has made public headlines. It’s been a common phrase in politics, entertainment and every industry in between.

While it’s a lesser-known form of discrimination, discussions around antisemitism are becoming more and more prevalent, and rightly so. It’s reported that anti-Semitic attacks rose by almost 60% in the US in 2017 and in Europe, anti-Semitic attitudes also appear to be on the rise. In 2018 France reported a 74% increase in the number of offences against Jews and Germany said the number of violent antisemitic attacks had increased by more than 60%.

This year has been a period of change. Thanks to social media making discrepancies and offences public, many of us have had our eyes opened towards discrimination which still exists today. We’re seeing injustices clearly and are becoming a lot less tolerant. In 2020, with the current discussions around Black Lives Matter, it’s clear that, quite rightly, many people will no longer stand for discrimination of any kind. Much like racism, sexism or homophobia; antisemitism has no place in the workplace regardless of industry or environment.

HR departments must ensure that all their employees can work comfortably with no risk from bullying or harassment. If addressing antisemitism isn’t included in your efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, then you run the risk of losing talented people to a place where they feel their voices are heard and their needs are met. It could also have longer-term implications on your future hiring efforts.

What is Antisemitism?

To fight against antisemitism, business leaders and employees must first understand what it is.

Antisemitism is, put simply, beliefs or behaviours of hostility towards Jews because of their religion. It can include everything from prejudice and stereotypes to isolation, oppression and harm of Jewish people. Antisemitism dates back thousands of years.

Jewish people are considered a hidden minority. Religion is often less evident than race, gender or sexuality when you first meet someone, particularly if you do not follow religious dress codes. This makes casual antisemitism common. Colleagues and acquaintances don’t often realise someone is Jewish before making passing comments which could be discriminatory.

How can businesses take a stand against antisemitism?

Open the door to HR

Much like with any discrimination, it’s vital that all employees know that your HR has an open-door policy and are available to have meaningful conversations. HR teams should ensure that employees know who to contact and how to contact them. While you should be open to hearing all complaints and acting upon them, it shouldn’t be the only time that issues of religion and antisemitism in the workplace are discussed. Conversations should be ongoing, to highlight anything employers can improve on, to provide comfort when controversial issues hit the news and to simply ensure all employees feel secure and supported within your company culture.

It’s a simple step in supporting employees but really could make all of the difference and strengthen your employer brand. Knowing someone is available to discuss any issues in an objective way will genuinely enhance the employee experience for all, and your company culture will flourish. People are the centre of your business, and more often than not, it is their diversity which makes you great. Celebrate it, support them and be an ear for any worries or concerns.

Address micro-aggressions through education

As antisemitism is not as widely talked about as racism or other kinds of discrimination, it is often that employees may not realise that something they say is offensive. Micro-aggressions include passing comments, subtle words or phrases and unintentional racism towards a minority group. By encouraging learning throughout your organisation, leaders and employees can pick up terms that may be deemed offensive and ensure it is commonly known that they have no place in the workplace. This applies to all kinds of workplace discrimination if employees are not educated in language or passive actions which may upset or hurt colleagues, it is hard to encourage equality at work – how can you change if you aren’t aware there’s a problem?

Ask for your Jewish employees help with this, in the same way, you might ask a black employee to help you understand issues of race or a transgender employee to help you address transphobic abuse. They understand better than anyone. Working together to educate the wider team will make your commitment to diversity and inclusion clear, enhancing your employer brand and ensuring your Jewish employees feel supported.

Be aware of religious holidays

In traditionally Christian countries, we’re very used to being allowed time off for Christmas and Easter. In fact, we don’t even question it as in the UK they are national holidays. However, it’s vital that organisations are aware of all religious holidays and offer all employees the same opportunities to celebrate with their loved ones. You cannot assume they’ll book it off and really, they shouldn’t have to. Imagine being a Jewish employee who has to work over or use their annual leave to cover Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah when they have Christmas Day and Easter Monday off work. It doesn’t seem fair. Plus, sometimes asking for annual leave isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially if you know a lot of other employees may need the same day off. So, if you have a high number of Jewish employees, it may cause problems for many.

Employers must actively ensure they are aware of all religious holidays and offer their employees the opportunity to take time off and celebrate with their loved ones if they wish to level the playing field and create a culture of equality. If anything, doing so addresses ignorance and recognises a diverse culture within your workplace.

Recognise cultural differences and traditions

Our calendars are very much influenced by Christianity, and so are our working days. Most of us are accustomed to a 9-5 workday five days a week, but it’s essential to recognise that this may not be the case for all cultures and religions.

For example, in Judaism, The Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest, and no working activity should be carried out. While the Sabbath occurs on a Saturday during the winter months, it can begin as early as a Friday afternoon. Employers should recognise this and talk with Jewish employees to ensure they’re happy to work into the Sabbath. If flexible working is an option in your organisation, maybe you could consider offering early finishes on Fridays to help. Having a simple conversation with individuals about whether working hours has an impact on their faith can help hugely and is the best beginning of a solution.

Similarly, in the Jewish religion, funerals are supposed to take place very soon after a death, which means that grieving employees may need time off at short notice. They’re also required to pray three times a day, and this could often fall into working hours, so it could be an idea to provide a safe, quiet space for them to do so. HR leaders and employers should be aware of all religious customs, not just for followers of the Jewish faith, to create a truly equal, diverse workforce.

Address any antisemitic occurrences

Once your team are educated around ideas of antisemitism, it must be treated in the same way as any other kind of discrimination. Ensure that if an issue arises, you address it in the same way you would a comment or offence regarding race, disability, gender or sexuality. If you wish to create an authentically inclusive and diverse culture, you must take an active stance against any form of discrimination. This will encourage your employee’s confidence in you as an employer and will have positive repercussions throughout the business thus enhancing your employer brand.

Although it’s difficult to discipline employees if they are making others feel uncomfortable at work, and this clashes with your company culture, it must be acted upon. An ignorance of antisemitism should not be tolerated and will affect your diversity and inclusion efforts in future recruitment.