23 Feb 2024

Antisemitism Working Group Q+A


by Shona Simkin

Last semester, Dean Srikant Datar announced the formation of four working groups to address current issues on campus: Antisemitism, Islamophobia and Anti-Arabism, Classroom Culture and Norms, and Free Expression and Community Values. Below is our conversation with the co-chairs of the Antisemitism Working Group, Joshua Margolis and Kristin Mugford, about their priorities, discoveries, and plans for creating a supportive and inclusive culture for the School’s Jewish community members. Look for additional interviews with the co-chairs of each working group in the weeks to come.

What are the broad issues your group is trying to address?
Joshua Margolis: We are an action-oriented working group confronting the acute challenge of antisemitism—an abhorrent form of hostility and prejudice that is on the rise on university campuses, in the United States, and globally. The past several months and even recent days remind us that Harvard is not immune from manifestations of pernicious antisemitism. History has demonstrated, tragically, how unchecked antisemitism is disastrous not just for Jews but for all of society. At the same time, the entire HBS community can work together to foster a culture that is experienced as welcoming and vibrant by people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Against this backdrop, the Dean has set us a goal of assessing the current state of affairs and generating a set of practical actions that can address antisemitism and create a more welcoming environment for Jews at Harvard Business School (HBS). We plan to gather input and thoughtfully analyze data so as to enhance the experience of those in our Jewish community and expand understanding of antisemitism across our entire community—its root causes and what each and every person can do to help combat antisemitism and hatred more broadly. As part of the School’s mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, we must equip all of our students with that knowledge and skill set.

Kristin Mugford: This is a community-wide effort. People sometimes mistakenly think of antisemitism as the Jewish community’s problem—that it's an issue for Jews and uniquely their responsibility to combat. In fact, antisemitism is an issue for all of HBS, and it is everyone's responsibility to address it as we would any form of hatred, bias, or bigotry. This is why we've intentionally formed our working group to include a mix of Jews and non-Jews.

What are some of the ways that antisemitism manifests itself?
KM: As Joshua noted, antisemitism is pernicious—I've heard it described as a virus that mutates to reflect whatever is most societally unacceptable, whether that be greed or disloyalty. As I have learned more, I have been astonished again and again by the complexity and the nuance of this hate. Over centuries and across countries, Jews have been in the minority. As a result, they are convenient scapegoats. Particularly, a constant of antisemitism revolves around blaming Jews for the perceived ills of the world, for “isms” like capitalism, communism, racism, or imperialism.

Another frequent manifestation of antisemitism is the inability to separate animus towards the current Israeli government policies from animus towards the Jewish people. In other words, the angrier people get at Israel, the more hate is expressed towards American Jews. But holding Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel is in fact an example of antisemitism. Too many people currently miss or struggle with this distinction.

JM: One of the ways that people might perpetuate antisemitic stereotypes is to attribute unusual power to Jews—for example, to take as indicative of Jewish power the success of individual Jews in particular professions. There’s a tendency to cast Jews as a single coherent body of folks, and that also sometimes comes with an implicit view that Jews are acting secretively in a coordinated fashion to advance some nefarious scheme. Unfortunately, just this past weekend we saw many of these false and malicious stereotypes in cartoons posted on social media by several Harvard-affiliated groups. President Garber condemned the posts and the cartoons were taken down, but they point to a deeper problem: Why would anyone have thought they were appropriate to post in the first place?

People also tend to blame Israel, and to condemn Zionism, before understanding either. It doesn't mean that criticism of Israeli policy and practices is invalid. The question is why the criticism and attention are disproportionate when it comes to Israel versus other countries. Why are people comfortable with, and reluctant to speak up against, factual inaccuracies and vitriolic condemnations of the Jewish state that would not be tolerated—and would be vigorously confronted—were they said about some other group or country? It’s also an inability to distinguish between policies or actions with which you disagree from the country's right to exist.

In our HBS classrooms, we want people to be mindful when a protagonist’s religion is mentioned in a case. Let’s ensure we extend the same respect and dignity when we talk about Jews, about Israel, and about Israeli case protagonists as we do toward other case protagonists and contexts. The same goes for classroom visitors.

What are some of the specifics about the working group?
JM: Our group has identified three work streams.

The first is to understand the experience of the Jewish community at HBS: students (including recent graduates), staff, faculty, and our executive education participants. We want to identify experiences of antisemitism and their sources, and we are seeking input and suggestions for what the School might do about them. Our objective is to ensure that all Jews in our community are able to thrive and engage fully in teaching, learning, and working at the School.

The second work stream is to build understanding and broaden learning. We want to help clarify what antisemitism is—how it manifests itself, what its sources are, and how it can arise systemically—and equip people to be alert to it and to address it. That will involve community education about the nature of antisemitism, including its tropes and stereotypes, and sensitivity to when criticism of Israel may be veering into antisemitism. We also want to develop materials we can integrate into our curriculum and ongoing staff and faculty training. We think it's vital that these materials be enduring and have enduring impact. We are excited to draw upon the educational expertise and know-how we have at HBS; we want to be creative and intentional in crafting educational approaches that will last. We hope people will internalize lessons that equip them to be constructive actors in addressing antisemitism both in and outside of HBS.

The third stream focuses on leadership and policy. Here, we want to learn from how events were handled in the fall, and to think about the policies that are or should be in place. It’s also about learning whether some of our policies and procedures are unintentionally creating harm to the School’s Jewish community. Then, how can what we learn help shape the recommendations of the Classroom Culture & Norms and the Free Speech & Community Values working groups?

As Kristin noted, the recommendations and action steps we develop will be the responsibility of the whole community to adopt and implement. Our workstreams can also inform how our Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion can best carry forward lasting efforts to fight antisemitism on campus and create an inclusive environment for Jews.

KM: The best work happens at HBS when we work together—and that will be particularly true here. Our core working group comprises five staff members and four faculty members, with additional folks involved on individual workstreams. We know that student input is critical but their time is scarce, so we are forming a student advisory group that can offer feedback on our proposals. Additionally, we have several second-year MBA students who are working with us on independent projects. We also know alumni input and help will be crucial, too, and are grateful for the ideas and offers of support we’ve received already.

What are your timeline goals?
KM: We have a bias towards action. At the same time, we are approaching our work with “patient impatience.” Antisemitism has no place at HBS and we feel an urgent need to respond. We also must take the time to deeply listen to our community and gather the facts.

JM: This semester, our aspiration is to understand people's experiences at the School and provide some fundamental background on antisemitism to the community. By the start of the next academic year, we would like to have a set of practices in place and action items that are informed by the data we collect. A longer-term project is to build educational materials that will have enduring impact, and by the summer, we aim to have a roadmap for this work. We’re treating this as we do any educational project at the School, which is to apply our distinctive participant-centered learning approach and look for ways to weave materials on antisemitism into the curriculum, while equipping our faculty and staff to address it.

We won’t hesitate to take action sooner when we can, and we welcome any input or recommendations from students, staff, or faculty about actions that we can take in the near term.

How does this work align with HBS’s mission and values?
KM: One of HBS's most important assets is our community values—respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others; honesty and integrity; and personal accountability. They hang on the wall of every classroom, and they apply to students, program participants, faculty, staff, and alumni. These values are part of our ethos, and we uphold and enforce them. We also have values that are essential to our functioning as an academic institution, including free expression. Lastly, the case method, the cornerstone of our learning model, requires us to practice constructive dialog and discussion in every class, every day. Put all this together, and we have the foundational elements to practice freedom of speech within a culture of mutual respect so as to advance learning.

Our challenge is to find ways to better live up to our aspirations. The last few months have raised situations that are new for us.

What are some of the challenges of this work?
JM: It’s hard to create a trustworthy mechanism in which people can share their experiences honestly, and for them to believe something will be done about their concerns. That requires having a culture at the School that is welcoming and inclusive in reality for everyone, not just in words. For that to be the case, we need to better grasp the ways in which our culture sometimes falls short. Equally important, to make progress, we all need a willingness to be self-aware and non-defensive when we learn how the School and sometimes we ourselves are falling short.

People throughout HBS also need a better understanding of Israel and its history, and a better appreciation of the diversity of the Israeli population and of Jewish communities around the world. Just as we ask our students to delve deeply into cases, examine exhibits, and run analyses, it’s important to go beyond the slogans and casual reports about Israel to truly understand the country, its people, its history, and its relationships in the region.

We need people who are not of the Jewish faith to say, “I need to get educated so I am equipped to speak up against antisemitism, and so I become self-aware enough to recognize how I am potentially contributing to a climate that feels unsafe or unwelcoming to my Jewish colleagues. How can I foster a climate at HBS that feels welcoming to people of all faiths and backgrounds?”

How will you measure success?
KM: This starts with self-awareness. Frankly, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I am trying to educate myself, and I am embarrassed that it took me this long. I now recognize antisemitism in places that I never spotted it previously. There is a reason it has lasted for over a millennia—the stereotypes and tropes are widespread and deeply embedded.

Imagine if everyone in the HBS community could deeply engage in a journey of self-awareness and curiosity: to take a little time to learn about antisemitism; to question their own biases and assumptions; to be open to changing their mind. It’s hard, and it takes courage and vulnerability, but we would have a positive impact beyond antisemitism and beyond the confines of our campus.

JM: Success will entail surfacing and addressing pernicious forms of antisemitism. On campus, one key indicator of success will be hearing from our students, and from faculty and staff as well, that they are having the experience they wish to have at HBS. Another will be evidence that the community as a whole is acting to reduce antisemitism. Are non-Jews speaking up when colleagues and friends make questionable statements, even in private conversations? Beyond our campus, I'm hopeful that innovative educational materials we develop might be helpful for and used by other institutions in their efforts to combat antisemitism. Finally, we could look to see whether those who have chosen to pursue a business education and career have the tools and capabilities to address long-standing sources of hatred and misunderstanding, and to build bridges and new possibilities through their commercial endeavors that help to heal long-standing animosities.

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