How do you deal with anti-Semitism at work?
July 18, 2018 10:53 AM   Subscribe

People at work are often weird about me being Jewish, even when I don't disclose it. How do I deal with them in a professional way?

I'm Jewish and live in Massachusetts. I previously worked for a company where coworkers posted swastikas on the department Slack channel (with no repercussions) and people thought it was appropriate to come up to me and tell me what they think of Jews and the Holocaust at work.

I just got a job at a new company. Today, one of my coworkers came back from Israel (business trip) and brought halvah for everyone to try. Another coworker asked me if I'd had some of "that candy" and I asked, "the halvah?" And they said, "Of course you'd know what it's called; you're Jewish."

I have never disclosed that I'm Jewish at work, and when I asked why they thought I was Jewish, they dodged and said I must have told them once. (I did not.)

It set off alarm bells for me, and I'm now concerned that I'll have the same experience at New Job that I had at Old Job.

Is this a normal thing in Massachusetts, and if so, how do you handle this crap professionally at work?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Start to document.

When people say things, jot it down, and if they ask, just say, oh, in case a lawsuit needs to happen.
posted by maxsparber at 11:01 AM on July 18, 2018 [33 favorites]

Massachusetts is pretty broad, but I'd say in general, no this is not normal for Massachusetts.
posted by Jahaza at 11:26 AM on July 18, 2018 [5 favorites]

If the only bad thing that has happened at the new job is that one comment, then I think you are overreacting somewhat (understandably based on prior experience). People assume (correctly) that I am Jewish based on my appearance and name and sometimes make somewhat weird comments revealing that they have assumed this. (Frequently, though, it is Jews who do this!) It's off-putting, and probably stereotyping, but not what I would call anti-Semitic, which I would associate with animosity or negative stereotyping of some kind.
posted by Mid at 11:27 AM on July 18, 2018 [17 favorites]

Is this a normal thing in Massachusetts

Not in my experience, I've definitely never experienced anything like that and I am pretty open about my Jewish identity with my coworkers. But every place has its bigots I suppose, and if you're Orthodox it's probably different than if you're "just Jewish."

Are the questions in good faith, or intended to be hurtful? If they are just kind of ignorant but well-meaning you can decide for yourself whether it's worth the effort of explaining--you don't have to, but you can. I like my coworkers and I don't mind awkwardly explaining the history of Tisha B'Av to them. But if they're intended to be hurtful, the best thing you can do is be icy and polite. The moral high road isn't fun but it's better for you when you go to HR with your documentation. Write it down, all of it, and look to see what your company's policies on discrimination are. The example you gave sounds uncomfortable, but not like a pattern of discrimination unless you have a lot more examples, but being polite and keeping your notes will help you figure that out in the future.
posted by epanalepsis at 11:35 AM on July 18, 2018

Half my family is Catholic, so notallCatholics, but there’s a certain type of New England Catholic who gets really weird about Jews, in my experience as a Rhode Island Jew. It’s like they’ve just got the memo that we live up here, too. I’ve found that it manifests either with intense curiosity or with swastikas and horn references.
posted by Ruki at 11:43 AM on July 18, 2018 [5 favorites]

I mean, regardless of whether it rises to the level of being actionable, these definitely qualify as microagressions and you are within your rights to tell people to cut that shit out.
posted by maxsparber at 12:09 PM on July 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have to agree with Mid, that remark alone is pretty innocuous. There are lots of ways someone could have guessed you were Jewish. Do you take off for the high holy days? Do you not make a big deal out of Christmas? Do you simply have a name that, for better or worse, people identify as Jewish? There is a long way between speculation and benign assumptions about your religion (like not being surprised that you know the name for halvah) and the posting of swastikas. And in fact, someone from your office went to Israel and came back with halvah, not racial aspersions, and even shared the halvah! I find that reasonably non-threatening.
posted by ubiquity at 12:11 PM on July 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

I have to agree with Mid, that remark alone is pretty innocuous.

It's not, though, even if it was said without ill-intent. When you live your life as part of a group that other people express hatred towards, it's a real jolt to have someone verbally assign you to that group when you hadn't previously spoken about it. It starts as a jolt, and then it turns into wondering how on guard you need to be, and how much you need to start protecting yourself.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:28 PM on July 18, 2018 [24 favorites]

Clarification: That was the general "you," and I actually meant "me." Didn't mean to speak for anyone else's experience.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:29 PM on July 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

[One comment deleted. Folks, if you're not Jewish or in Massachusetts (ideally both), please consider whether you might not have the fullest perspective to answer this, and certainly not to answer it dismissively.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:31 PM on July 18, 2018 [22 favorites]

Is this a normal thing in Massachusetts

No! I grew up in Massachusetts (and now live in VT) as someone who legit didn't even know I was Jewish until nearly college and I will agree that people being slightly weird is normal, but usually in a friendly way like they would if you'd told them you were from Myanmar. Like they know two things about it, sort of know the subject is touchy, and are congratulating themselves on not mentioning the "touchy" things without realizing that they are being weird.

And I'll be honest, I'll come right out to people and be like "Is this a problem?" if they say anything that is weird. If they are people I'm friendly with I usually get it out of the way how Jewish I am (not much, but a little more than just "culturally") and that I am not down with what Israel does do Palestine (though also that I do not, will not, would not, talk about such a thing at work). None of this is their business, but it usually makes me feel more comfortable. And then if there is any shit like swastikas in a Slack channel you can bet I'll be at HR before someone can say "Just kidding" because I don't play that way.

So again, there are a lot of different ways to deal with this but I would have been like "No seriously, I'm not out as Jewish at work, where is this coming from?" I have found straight-out anti-Semitism (like obvious negative statements about Jews/Israel/Holocaust or white nationalist garbage) to be really rare though a little more common either in tech (where there's an ugly libertarian streak that can border on outright racism) and also in less-educated rural populations that just may not know a lot of different types of people and have been swept up in some of the national ugliness. And cops. So some of this depends where you are (and you do not have to say) but no I think pushback against anti-Semitism is an ok thing to do without worrying too much like you are endagering yourself further.
posted by jessamyn at 12:40 PM on July 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

Hi. I'm Jewish. I think it's absolutely possible it's innocuous...but I'd still document it for your own sake, in case things escalate. And like Jessamyn above, if there is any single instance of overt antisemitism, I'd be at manager/HR's desk instantly.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:44 PM on July 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I look Jewish, have Jewish roots and a Jewish name, work in Massachusetts, and would be shocked and horrified if the swastika shit happened at my workplace. I absolutely wouldn't consider it within the range of normal.

Little weird assumptions totally happen. Yesterday I had someone assume, with no prior context, that I spoke Yiddish, which nobody in my family ever has and which very few secular people my age do either. Stuff like that is annoying and baffling, and if I let myself think too much about what's going on in the heads of the people who do it, I can drive myself a little crazy. But it's never, in my experience, been a precursor to full-on swastika-drawing awfulness.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:45 PM on July 18, 2018

Yeah if the question is "is it a normal thing in Massachusetts for someone to make a remark like, 'of course you know what halvah is, you're Jewish'" and "is it normal for a co-worker to figure out that I am Jewish when I don't remember explicitly telling them that". Then this Jew and former Massachusetts resident gives another vote for yes, that is pretty normal. I also don't think it's fair to be upset with your co-worker that they figured out that you are Jewish without your telling them -- when somebody knows something about you that you think is personal, that can be startling and discomforting, of course. But obviously there *is* something about you that is Jewish enough that people can tell you are Jewish, or you did say or do something that implied you were Jewish and you forgot. And none of that has anything to do with your co-worker's attitudes towards Jews.

I guess maybe you're weirded out by the Jewish = Israeli thing because it's an association a lot of anti-Semitic people make? But it's also a really common association that a lot of people make, maybe especially someone who just got back from Israel and being surrounded by Israeli Jews. I think it is slightly ignorant but not anti-Semitic. If you need to respond I'd probably say something like, "oh, I've actually never been to Israel, I know about halvah because there was this great Lebanese place on the corner that used to make it, do you like Lebanese food..." or whatever.
posted by phoenixy at 12:51 PM on July 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

Mass can b e incredibly parochial just past 128 and pockets, perhaps not more than other areas of the country but perceptible due to the short distance between urban and not and ultra educated and less so. Boston also has a large number of almost ghetto communities, Armenian in Watertown, Central America in Eastie, etc, all that isolate their communities in many ways but often invisibly.

I recall a conversation with an israeli, me who attends services but isn't at all religious and an xian, we were both stunned at the misconceptions the third person had, not quite to blood libel level but it was just very casual did not know any accurate info. Ignorance and just accepting wrong ideas. But it's pretty likely that 'New Job' will be very different and accepting. Good luck.
posted by sammyo at 1:06 PM on July 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Massachusetts absolutely has its fair share, and perhaps more than that, of racists and anti-Semites, and not only outside 128. What happened at your first job would still be totally unacceptable.

I have to admit, as a lawyer in NYC, i.e., in a profession that has a significant Jewish population in a city that has a significant Jewish population, I make inferences about whether a colleague is Jewish from time to time--usually because of scheduling issues, but I suppose it might happen in some other contexts. That in itself doesn't strike me as particularly weird or likely to indicate that swastikas are going to ensue? But it's understandable that you're sensitive after what happened in the first place. And, honestly, if you just want to respond to any further such comments with a dry "I'd prefer not to discuss my religion at work, thanks," you'd be well within your rights.

(It's funny, I don't associate halvah with Judaism at all--I was exposed to it as a kid via Arabic grocery stores.)
posted by praemunire at 2:05 PM on July 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Jewish and from MA. Didn’t experience any memorable overt anti-semitism as a kid (mid70s-when I went to college in the early 90s) in the western MA college town where I lived. Had to explain Jewish holidays and occasionally got minor pushback for taking those days off. My family still lives there and I don’t think they’ve experienced anything remarkable in the way of anti-semitism.

Your coworker assuming you’re jewish and thus know from halvah ... a bit odd but not necessarily a precursor to bad stuff. Former colleagues posting swastikas - totally unacceptable to post and totally unacceptable that your colleague wasn’t reprimanded immediately.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:13 PM on July 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't want to minimize but I wonder if the OMG bad interaction at Old Job made you jumpy at New Job, because the New Job interaction, to me, sounds not like cause for alarm. My experience in the northeast was someone might just figure from your last name or appearance. Other Jews can always pick me out anywhere (and I, them!) and in the northeast where people grew up around Jews, the goyim also could I think. The remark is not a well-mannered one but, unless the tone was really off, it seems possibly more like something to roll your eyes at than to be nervous about.
posted by Smearcase at 3:33 PM on July 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hey, I'm really sorry you're dealing with this. People can be so crappy.

I am not Jewish and can't speak specifically to that, so I don't want to intrude if it's unwelcome. But I have a lifetime of experience navigating a similar type of treatment as a minority in the north, from people being weird and insensitive right on up to racist (being deliberately accosted with people's gross racist opinions, apropos of nothing, is definitely familiar territory).

If you feel like any of that experience might be helpful or just want to vent please feel free to memail me. Take good care.
posted by windykites at 5:24 PM on July 18, 2018

I'm Jewish and from Massachusetts, so perhaps I can help. The swastika bit is unbelievable. I would have documented and called a lawyer. If it happens again, please do so.

The Halvah thing I think is different - maybe? In my experience of having lived in Massachusetts as a Jew is that people (Jewish and not) have a pretty entrenched view of what Jews "look like", "sound like", references/jokes Jews make, what qualifies as a Jewish accent and also first/last names. As someone who doesn't "look Jewish" and doesn't have a "Jewish name", I was probably reminded of my non-Jewish look/name/way-I-acted about once a month. Yes, people actually said: "You don't look Jewish..." In the interest of taste, I won't go into details of what made me not look/act/seem Jewish to people inquiring, but you can assume that they are offensive stereotypes.

I'm assuming it works the other way as well - people who fulfill any of the stereotypes probably are targeted as such. It could be as simple as you having dark curly hair or you spelling your name as "Jon" instead of "John". Seriously.

I haven't experienced that anywhere else I've lived, so I think it is a Massachusetts thing. I have no idea why. Strangely, I never interpreted it as malicious, mostly just people being naive. With the halvah, I'd probably assume naiveté, but be on the look out for crap behavior in the future.

Good luck!

P.S. I hate halvah.
posted by Toddles at 10:31 PM on July 18, 2018

I’m Jewish with Catholic inlaws from the Northeast. My mother in law recently conflated being Jewish with being Israeli to the point where she assumed my extended family was from Israel. I would absolutely be enraged by a swastika in a slack channel and probably wouldn’t stop being enraged until the perpetrator was fired or I left the job. But I think the halvah comment was just ignorance (see my dumb MIL) and probably not malicious.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 6:08 AM on July 19, 2018

In my experience of having lived in Massachusetts as a Jew is that people (Jewish and not) have a pretty entrenched view of what Jews "look like", "sound like", references/jokes Jews make, what qualifies as a Jewish accent and also first/last names. [...] In the interest of taste, I won't go into details of what made me not look/act/seem Jewish to people inquiring, but you can assume that they are offensive stereotypes.

I'm assuming it works the other way as well - people who fulfill any of the stereotypes probably are targeted as such.

Sorry to comment again but I wanted to call this out because I think it is an important point. There is still a lot of "Ashkenormativity" in people's ideas of "What A Jew Is," the influence of Israeli culture notwithstanding (and they have their own problems with that). It makes a certain sense, given the millions of Ashekenazi immigrants to the east coast in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it's a stereotype nonetheless and if you don't fit it -- and maybe worse if you do -- you'll suffer from it.

If you are within the 128 corridor, especially roundabouts Allston/Brighton/Brookline where there is a pretty large Jewish community, people may just enough experience with other Jews and expect you will be just like whatever their idea is based on the people they see on the street.

If you're elsewhere, especially in Franklin or Berkshire counties, you may work with people who think they have never met a living Jew and are basing their ideas on the media. (There are Jews there too, strangely enough! Even whole communities and synagogues!). Anyways I've experienced things ranging from stupid questions to outright microaggressions in various parts of MA, but I've never experienced anything like a swastika - I find that shocking and slightly unbelievable, although this year it seems such things are no longer so unbelievable sadly.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:09 AM on July 19, 2018

Regarding whether this is a Massachusetts thing - I've never lived in MA, but I have experienced the same awkward-comments-assuming-I-am-Jewish in lots of places in the Midwest and East Coast. I would be really surprised if MA is different in some way. My sense is that there are a few places in the country where Jews are not seen as unusual or remarkable in any way - like in parts of NYC - and then everywhere else there is a little bit of the "other" that makes even well-meaning people sometimes weird. The swastika stuff is on a totally different level, of course.

One example, just for fun, is that I frequently get told "I thought you were from New York!" even though I was born in the Midwest and have spent most of my life here and don't have anything like a New York accent or whatever. I've come to learn that this really means: "I assume all Ashkenazi-looking people are from New York!"
posted by Mid at 6:27 AM on July 19, 2018

Thanks for this question. I think reading through this question and answers has given me a way to articulate the low level comments I get from an acquaintance.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 6:41 AM on July 19, 2018

Good luck. Did you see the askme the other day about my town north of Worcester? Not my askme, but there's some seriously insular people out here, aside from bigotry freaking everywhere.
posted by turkeybrain at 7:38 AM on July 19, 2018

I'm from Massachusetts. I don't think most people in the general greater Boston area (other than the places, like Brookline, that people have already identified) really come into contact with that many Jewish people. I grew up on the South Shore and there were very very very few Jewish families. This can lead to stilted awkwardness, New England style!

I would never identify someone as Jewish if they had never mentioned it, no matter how much their last name or whatever made it seem likely that they were Jewish. It just seems rude to me to make assumptions about someone's ethnicity/religion/cultural background.
posted by cakelite at 9:13 AM on July 19, 2018


Yes, thank you putting a word to this phenomenon. That is exactly what I was referencing.
posted by Toddles at 8:22 PM on July 19, 2018

I grew up reform Jewish in Cambridge, MA, and I had pennies thrown at me, was asked about my horns, asked about eating babies, told my people killed Christ, etc. It's one of the reasons I live in NYC and don't intend to leave it. It's the only place I don't feel marginalized around my jewishness.
posted by (Over) Thinking at 10:11 AM on July 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

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