What Is Anti-Semitism? What Is Anti-Zionism? And How Can You Talk About Them at Work?

Mar 27 2024

Amanda DeMatteis: Hi, Josh.

Josh Goodbaum: Hi, Amanda. What are we talking about today?

DeMatteis: I thought we would talk about the issue that has been going on for such a long time now in Israel and Gaza. And I know, for me, I have a difficult time talking about this – not even just at work but outside of work because I don’t want to say something that is going to be offensive to one group or another. So, I’m wondering what is the right way to discuss one of these issues without being anti-Semitic. And to bring it back to employment law a little bit: what is safe to talk about at work and what isn’t?

Goodbaum: Great question, Amanda, and it’s good to be having these conversations because it’s only through conversations that we increase our understanding of one another.

So, back on October 7th, 2023, there was a terrorist attack by Hamas, which is a Palestinian terrorist organization – at least according to some – in Israel. They murdered a number of Israeli citizens and kidnapped others, and there was a massive Israeli military response and an invasion of Gaza. At the time that we are recording this, that is ongoing. There hasn’t been a ceasefire despite a lot of international efforts.

Now, what we’ve heard from some quarters in the U.S. and around the world, particularly on the left side of the political spectrum, has been a lot of criticism of Israel and its military operation and what appear to be the massive civilian deaths that are occurring in Gaza. Some other people – those who are pro-Israel – say that criticism is anti-Semitic. And since we’re lawyers who represent employees and think a lot about anti-discrimination and civil rights, we wanted to unpack a little bit what anti-Semitism means in the context of this conversation about Israel’s actions.

Anti-Semitism is defined as hostility or prejudice toward Jews, and even being Jewish is a little bit of a contested category because, on the one hand, being Jewish is a religion, but on the other hand, being Jewish is also an ethnic group or potentially even a racial group according to some.

Now, it’s important to distinguish anti-Semitism from the concept of anti-Zionism. Zionism is a political movement from the 19th century and earlier that supported the creation of a Jewish state in what is now Israel. And so some people say that to be anti-Zionist – that is to oppose the existence of Israel – is inherently anti-Semitic. Many people say that because there are very few people who argue for the abolition of any other nation, right? There’s lots of tension, say, between the U.S. and Russia, but nobody here is saying that Russia doesn’t have a right to exist.

So, in that sense, it seems like it feels to some people who are Zionists that any criticism of the existence of Israel is really just a veiled criticism of Jews’ right to self-determination, which is something every other – or at least many other – groups have. I think the Palestinians would probably say, “We don’t have a right to self-determination.” So you know, this is complicated.

What about a criticism of Israeli military policy? Some would say that criticism of Israeli military policy is anti-Semitic because it challenges Israel’s ability to defend itself in light of the October 7th terrorist attacks, which is a right that every other state has. On the other hand, people would say that criticism of Israeli military policy is totally fair game because there have been a lot of civilian deaths in Gaza and they say that the accusation of anti-Semitism by the people who defend Israel is really being used to silence those who are decrying what seem to be these humanitarian atrocities.

So, as I guess you’re probably getting at this point, it’s complicated. If you’re wondering why this is such a contested topic for so many people, hopefully this sheds some light.

Now, to bring it back to your question, Amanda, and to bring it back to employment law – which, of course, is what we do – how do we talk about sensitive topics in the workplace? Well, you don’t have a right to say everything you believe in the workplace. You have a right to say some things, and even if you have a right to express your political beliefs in the workplace – which in Connecticut you do to some extent, even in a private workplace – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to do so. It might be offensive to somebody. It might come across as harassing or hostile to somebody. And those are the kind of things that can wind you up in HR, which is something that nobody wants.

So, I guess my advice as to how do we have difficult conversations is maybe the workplace is not the best place for really difficult conversations. Ultimately, we’re at work to work, and if you wanna ask a question of a colleague who’s also a friend and you feel like could help enlighten your understanding of something difficult that’s happening in the world, I think a question is fair game. But maybe not expressing your opinions as strongly – maybe that would cross the line into making somebody uncomfortable.

So hopefully that gives some guardrails to how we can have a difficult conversation at work and also helps people understand what’s going on in the conversation around anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the context of this ongoing military dispute.

DeMatteis: And if someone has expressed an opinion in the workplace that you disagree with or that offends you in some way, it might be worth talking to an employment lawyer, maybe talking to HR, maybe just having a conversation with that person and saying, “Hey, you know, what you said is offensive to me, and I prefer you not talk about that at work.”

As always, we’re here to answer questions if you have them. Josh, thank you so much for shedding a lot of light on a really complex issue. Thanks for watching. Take care.

Share this Post

amanda dematteis discussing anti-semitism and anti-zionism in the workplace

About the Author

Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti, P.C.

Advocating for Employees
since 1977

Best Lawyers

Let Us Review Your Case

    We will respond to your message promptly. Although we will keep your message strictly confidential, please note that contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship.

    Client Experiences

    During a very difficult employment situation, I was referred to Joe Garrison. Recognizing the volatile and time sensitive nature of my employment situation, Mr. Garrison met with me immediately (on the weekend no less). He listened to the details of my case, was able to think through possible creative solutions to offer the employer, and was responsive to my myriad of questions. He understood my concerns about litigation versus settlement, and he worked to find the best resolution possible. I am grateful to have had his support at a very difficult time. —J.C., New Haven, CT

    You will never meet a more knowledgeable and compassionate professional than Steve Fitzgerald. My employment situation was very complex, and Attorney Fitzgerald kept me focused while remaining extremely adept and “thinking on his feet.” Should the need present itself again, I would never seek anyone else’s counsel regarding employment issues. I cannot recommend him highly enough. — J.R., New Haven, CT

    Nina Pirrotti provided outstanding legal advice and was trustworthy, dependable, and responsive. From the start, I was confident that her knowledge and experience would obtain favorable results. On a more personal note, I enjoyed working with her and her staff and felt I was included in every part of the process. The dedication, concern, and interest in me as a client was greatly appreciated, and Nina has earned my highest recommendation. — J.H., Monroe, CT

    I recently found myself in need of a lawyer in handling a dispute with my former employer. I was fortunate to retain Josh Goodbaum as my legal counsel. His legal skills knowledge and professionalism shone through in every step of the process resulting in a very positive result. I highly recommend Josh if you find yourself in need of legal counsel. — S.R., Guilford, CT

    When I go to a lawyer for advice, I am usually anxious, particularly the first meeting. Amanda DeMatteis was clear in describing my options and immediately set me at ease. Realistic assessment is important, and Amanda was clear as to how to set up the case and the direction she felt we should go. I had total confidence in her abilities and knew I was being well represented against a large corporation. More importantly, we were successful! —N.M., Haddam, CT

    Advocating for Employees since 1977

    American Law Institute Super Lawyers American College of Trial Lawyers Best Lawyers The College of Labor and Employment Lawyers
    Back to Top
    (203) 815-1716