A Louisiana judge has ruled that Jews can be viewed as a race and thus are protected in the workplace by federal anti-racial-discrimination law — a decision experts say is unprecedented. Some are hailing the decision as a civil rights victory while others say it could embolden white supremacists.
U.S. Magistrate Mark Hornsby delivered the judgment in a civil case football coach Joshua Bonadona filed in February against his Baptist alma mater, Louisiana College. Bonadona says the school’s president, Rick Brewer, refused to hire him for an assistant coaching position because of what Bonadona says Brewer called his “Jewish blood.”
A lawyer for Louisiana College had asked that the case be dismissed, arguing Bonadona’s claim that his Jewish ancestry counts as race is implausible and has no basis in “law or jurisprudence.” Hornsby declined that request July 13, meaning the suit will likely move forward — depositions are slated to begin next week.
Hornsby wrote in court filings that Jews deserve the protection afforded to racial and ethnic groups by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which specifically deals with employment. It forbids employers from discriminating based on sex, race or religion, among other categories.
Legal experts said this is the first time Jews have been treated as racially protected in the workplace, though courts — including the Supreme Court — have repeatedly held that discrimination against Jews can count as racial discrimination.
“Jewish citizens have been excluded from certain clubs or neighborhoods, and they have been denied jobs and other opportunities based on the fact that they were Jewish, with no particular concern as to a given individual’s religious leanings,” Hornsby wrote. “Thus, they have been treated like a racial or ethnic group that Title VII was designed to protect from employment discrimination based on membership in that group.”
James Bullman, the attorney representing Bonadona, said in an interview that he and his client are “absolutely thrilled” by the Friday ruling. A spokesman for Louisiana College said the school plans to file an objection to Hornsby’s decision. Brewer has repeatedly denied Bonadona’s allegations and said the coach was simply not his first choice.
Bonadona was born to a Jewish mother in Baton Rouge and grew up attending Beth Shalom, a local synagogue in which his mother is heavily involved, according to Bullman, a longtime family friend. After leaving home to attend and play football at Louisiana College, Bonadona converted to Christianity and often led the football team in prayer.
Several years after graduating, he applied for a job helping coach the football team at his alma mater. Bonadona claims he interviewed with Brewer and was all but told he’d secured the position. Then he got a call from Coach Justin Charles informing him Brewer would not hire him because of his “Jewish descent,” the suit alleges.
Asked to comment this week, Brewer pointed to a news article and accompanying picture that showed him leading a prayer at a recent Holocaust remembrance event held at Louisiana College.
The question of whether Jewishness is a religion or a race has spawned heated debates in scientific and religious circles. Some geneticists have found evidence of a biological basis for Jewishness. Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York who has researched the issue, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that Jews “are a demonstrable ethnic group.”
But David Wolpe, the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, said most rabbis would argue neither category is accurate.
“We’re not a race because you can’t convert to a race. You can’t decide to be black tomorrow,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s not a religion because you’re not born into a religion. It’s a category that does not fit neatly into 21st century American ways of thinking. It’s sort of a religious family.”
Bullman said he is proud the case will allow him and his client to “fight for the protections of the Jewish community” as a racial group under Title VII.
“Our country is going through a current rise in anti-Semitism so, as those unfortunate facts and people come out of the woodwork, it is so important now that members of the Jewish community have an additional shield of protection,” Bullman said.
David Barkey, senior religious counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, acknowledged Hornsby’s ruling might boost legal protections for American Jews but called it “a double-edged sword.” He and others at the Anti-Defamation League are concerned white supremacists will use the judgment to bolster their assertions that Jews are members of an inferior race. Wolpe said characterizing Jewishness as inherent in someone’s DNA is “helpful” for those who hate.
Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States soared last year, spiking by 57 percent — the largest increase since the ADL started tracking anti-Semitic activities in the 1970s. White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have also grown more confident in their attempts to recruit young people and in their public demonstrations — most famously during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year, when hundreds lofted torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
Whether the far right pays attention, the ruling may stir discomfort by reminding some Jews of how Nazis used the notion of Jewish racial inferiority to justify murdering millions during the Holocaust, said Nina H. Mandel, the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Sunbury, Pa.
Still, Eric Goldstein — a professor at Emory University who studies Jewish history and identity — said some younger Jews may take pride in the idea that their religion counts as an ethnicity in a court of law.
“In today’s context, where Jews are concerned about assimilation and concerned about losing their specific identity, many are happy to have Jewishness validated in that specific kind of way,” Goldstein said.