Guests crowded into Temple Emanuel in Newton recently for a discussion titled "Israel, Antisemitism and the Crisis in Education." What they got instead was a blistering attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programs used by schools to address racism.

Speakers from CAMERA, a pro-Israel group that organized the meeting, said policies “that promote diversity, equity and inclusion have been contaminated by antisemitism," according to a person in attendance.

During the two-hour gathering, speakers argued that DEI initiatives distilled complex issues down to the oppressors vs. the oppressed. They say white Jews have been labeled oppressors, bypassing the historical and modern oppression they experience — and that framing fuels hatred of Jewish people, especially as it relates to the crisis in Gaza and Israel. The speakers condemned teachers’ union support for a ceasefire in Gaza and student-organized walkouts in support of humanitarian aid to Palestine.

“It was very oriented towards painting a very harsh reality, that antisemitism is everywhere,” said one Jewish parent who attended the meeting and asked not to be identified. “They put DEI against excellence as though they are two opposing goals of the education system. And I was surprised because I wasn't expecting to specifically hear about DEI that evening.”

CAMERA declined to comment for this story, citing concerns about how “objections to illiberal ideas in DEI educational programming” and criticism of “antisemitism in ethnic studies” would be represented by GBH News.

But criticisms of DEI programming as antisemitic are mounting locally and nationally in the months after Hamas' Oct. 7 assault on Israel. Many parents believe Jewish students aren't safe amid rising antisemitic harassment in the schools, and others claim DEI programs foster anti-Israel extremism.

That's left superintendents in Newton, Brookline, Needham and other Massachusetts communities to navigate a similar national conflict that recently cost two Ivy League presidents testifying before Congress their jobs.

Suddenly the DEI programs embraced by many communities after the killing of George Floyd in 2020 are a flashpoint in a cultural battle, one that pits a district's response to racism against its response to antisemitism.

Breaking down the acronyms

  • DEI is a commonly used acronym that stands for "diversity, equity and inclusion."
  • DEIA builds on the base acronym with the addition of "A" for "accessibility" to recognize people with disabilities.
  • DEIB is another variation, with the final letter standing for "belonging."

Newton resident Jonathan Levin called for the suspension of “all diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)-related activities and lessons immediately pending investigation into DEI’s contribution to antisemitism,” in a recent letterto local officials.

“Those defending or celebrating the Oct. 7 massacre frequently frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms straight out of DEI jargon,” he wrote, stating that Jews have been called "white oppressors" and Palestinians "oppressed people of color."

Newton Superintendent Anna Nolin, on the job less than eight months, said she sees fear and mistrust surging in the community and school leaders second guessing themselves.

“No teacher is safe, no administrator is safe to experiment, innovate and explore,” she said. “The very exploring and the untying of the philosophical knots and helping kids understand each other's viewpoints and the world viewpoint is offensive to someone else — in just the doing of it.” She added, "Whose DEI is included in DEI is the issue in Newton."

Unintentional omissions

Newton is not an outlier. School officials in nearby communities of Needham and Brookline — which are also home to significant Jewish populations — face similar complaints.

"Racism is an obvious problem in our country and needs to be addressed in our schools, but I also want a section added in JUST ABOUT antisemitism and the Jewish people," one person wrote on the Needham community Facebook page.

Needham Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst said his district’s DEI work already includes fighting against bias, racism and antisemitism. The district embedded lessons from Facing History and Ourselves in coursework more than a decade ago because Facing History’s curricula uses lessons of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide to teach about hatred and bigotry.

“We're all committed to that,” Gutekanst said. “This work around antisemitism, in my view, is something that's been going on for a while and predates DEI directors and programs.”

That’s true for the town of Brookline as well, which also uses Facing History’s materials.

Brookline Superintendent Linus Guillory said Facing History’s mission dovetails with DEI’s objectives.

Guillory said he’s hearing from Jewish families concerned that they’re not seeing antisemitism in diversity statements, for example.

“And by not seeing that, there's a perception that it [DEI] does not include them,” he said.

Guillory said the crisis in Gaza and Israel presents an opportunity for the district to correct any “unintentional omissions" in DEI and strengthen an implicit guarantee that DEI is all-inclusive and applies to everyone.

Despite Guillory’s efforts, he has become a target of criticism.

He was condemned by some Brookline residents after he wrote a letter to teachers that “finding certainty in uncertain times is challenging” as it relates to the war.

A Brookline Town Meeting member describedthe letter as “tone deaf.” Parents complained that Guillory didn’t directly condemn Hamas and further objected to his reading suggestions for teachers that included Human Rights Watch materials and a website called Decolonize Palestine.

CAMERA branded him as part of a group of educators offering “wrongheaded guidance about how to teach about events in the Middle East,” and condemned any “attempt to draw a moral equivalence between the savagery perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists and the legitimate war on terrorism by Israel.”

Guillory apologized in a follow-up letter and said he fell short by not directly condemning the Hamas attacks as acts of terror. He also said the reading material did not “rise to the standard to which we hold ourselves for educator support in presenting balanced perspectives.”

“For both of these failures, we apologize,” he said echoing the recent apologies of college leaders navigating backlash from high profile donors and activists.

‘Oppression Olympics’

Colette Phillips, a Black woman and a recent convert to Judaism, is the author of a new book titled “The Includers,” about white males who have taken leadership roles against racism and antisemitism.

“I've had this conversation with people who think that Jews are white, and they are part of the hierarchy of white supremacy and oppression of groups, and therefore should not be included as part of DEI,” she said.

That is not DEI, she said.

“You cannot speak about inclusion and then exclude groups of people,” she said.

Colette Phillips lead.jpg
Local entrepreneur Colette Phillips, owner of Colette Phillips Communications.
Jim Harrison
“You cannot speak about inclusion and then exclude groups of people.”
Colette Phillips, author

Experts on both DEI and antisemitism contacted by GBH News said they supported the value of DEI initiatives — with reservations.

Peggy Shukur, deputy regional director of Anti-Defamation League of New England, said DEI programs serve a good and essential purpose, but that the antisemitism piece is “often neglected.”

Shukur said that antisemitism is the world’s “oldest hate,” but often ignored because most people don’t understand implicit or unconscious bias. Antisemitism is rampant, she said, “but it often had this cloak of invisibility on it.”   

A 2020 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 63% of young people did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Shockingly, 11% of U.S. millennial and Gen Z respondents mistakenly believed Jews caused the Holocaust.

Nazi stormtroopers fill the aisles as the crowd sings 'The Star Spangled Banner' at the opening of the German-American Bund's 'Americanization Rally' at Madison Square Garden.
Nazi stormtroopers fill the aisles as the crowd sings 'The Star Spangled Banner' at the opening of the German-American Bund's 'Americanization Rally' at Madison Square Garden.
Larry Froeber NY Daily News Archive

Steven Becton, chief officer of Equity, Inclusion & Belonging at Facing History and Ourselves, encouraged his colleagues to more closely consider “Jewish identity’s place in DEI from an historical perspective.”

But he said it’s not an “Oppression Olympics” — pitting one group’s historical suffering against another’s.

“I'm troubled by the binary: Should Jews be included in DEIB or not?” Becton said.

Jewish people have been historically targeted as a group, much the way other groups have, Becton said, and many Jewish people also “show up as white and enjoy white privilege.”

“Dealing with that dichotomy is what DEIB is about to me. It's about the complexity of our many intersecting identities,” he said, “and how we make space for each other.”

Lawyer Kenneth Stern, director of the the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and a former antisemitism expert at the American Jewish Committee, cited the “problematic” nature of “the oppressor vs. oppressed” view of the world advanced by some, not all, DEI specialists.

Stern has conducted DEI antisemitism training in public schools and said it’s not like “today we're going to talk about antisemitism. Tomorrow we're going to talk about racism.”

“There are relationships between how these things work in the real world that I think need to be explored more,” he said.

Many within Jewish communities are pushing back against the notion that DEI is antisemitic, and how antisemitism is defined. 

Stern said he’s concerned that some critics of DEI have conflated criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition includes “certain expressions of animus toward the Jewish State of Israel.” In this context, some believe that calling for a ceasefire in Gaza is antisemitic. Stern disagreed with such an expansive definition.

“At its core, antisemitism is believing that there's a conspiracy of Jews to harm humanity … from the death of Jesus to the Black Plague to Marjorie Taylor Greene retweeting Jewish space lasers.”

Becton of Facing History said DEI was created to bring students and workplaces together to discuss difficult subjects without resorting to violence.

“This is not just Kumbaya,” Becton said. “We are professionally trained to explore difficult conversations and leave people and us as a community better than we found it. And there's no room for antisemitism.”

Leading the way

Guillory in Brookline said he’s faced tough questions and said many doubt the district’s commitment to equity for all. So he proceeds cautiously with every proverbial “t” crossed and every “i” dotted.

“We don't want anyone questioning, ‘Oh, you used this word and not that word. You said this and that. You acknowledged this group, but you didn't acknowledge this group,’” he said. “You know, all of those things that add to mistrust.”

CAMERA and some Jewish parents’ groups question the state’s guidelines for teaching history and social science, focused on “Palestinian loss of land and the creation of refugees by Israeli military action” as part of Israel’s statehood.

Anonline petition titled “Combating Antisemitism via Proper Education” has demanded that Newton schools offer a “special educational session so that all the students can gather for a history lesson, and to learn about current affairs, specifically about the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.”

Nearly 500 residents have signed the petition.

Nolin, the Newton superintendent, said the intense scrutiny led the district to begin the creation of a special website for parents to review what’s being taught in the schools.

“So here I am, a former curriculum superintendent, I know what I'm supposed to do,” she said, “and now there are about 30 groups that want to review curriculum with me in Newton, to tell me what that should be.”

She said she hopes her efforts will ease parental concerns about what is and isn’t taught in the schools about the fighting in Gaza and other topics. But it’s hard to tell.

“Like during COVID, a lot of trust is gone between the community and government institutions and schools. So in prior times, we could have a bank of trust that families would have and it would make them feel safer about schools. And I just think that's depleted.”

Needham, Brookline and Newton, as well as Sharon and Lexington, have all buttressed their DEI offerings to cover antisemitism and Islamophobia more explicitly.

Gutekanst said schools must show leadership “in teaching … students to be anti-racist, and not to be antisemitic.”

In difficult times, he said, it’s a role school leaders must embrace.