Last week on April 18th, while Israel began its observance of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a New Jersey court addressed anti-Semitic discrimination in the workplace in the case of Cowher v. Carson & Roberts. The law at issue, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq., was originally enacted in 1945––the year that saw the end of the Holocaust––to “eradicate the cancer of discrimination.”(1) This case of harassment, though, is somewhat unique.
Myron Cowher was a truck driver in New Jersey. For over a year, two of Cowher’s supervisors continually uttered slurs about Jews, directed at him. After he stopped working at the company due to disability, Cowher sued under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
The problem: Myron Cowher is not Jewish.
The New Jersey Superior Court had held that Cowher could not sue under the LAD, because he was not part of the group which was the focus of the discrimination in this case––i.e., he is not Jewish. However, on appeal, the Appellate Division, allowed Cowher’s claim to proceed because he was perceived to be Jewish and was subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of the anti-semitic slurs. The appellate court explained that “there is no reasoned basis to hold that the LAD protects those who are perceived to be members of one class of persons enumerated by the Act and does not protect those who are perceived to be members of a different class, as to which the LAD offers its protections in equal measure.”
The Appellate Division stated further that the derogatory comments in this case were severe enough to create a hostile work environment. Quoting another case of anti-semitic workplace discrimination, the court stated that the comments here “could not but have cause the reasonable Jewish listener to ‘harken . . . back to thoughts of one of the lowest times in mankind’s history, the Holocaust.’ ”
The fact that the New Jersey court’s ruling was issued on the same day that the State of Israel commemorated the tragedies of the Holocaust is quite appropriate. Although the victims of the Holocaust suffered through far worse than the verbal attacks at issue in this case, verbal aggression and humiliation can have severe effects as well. As Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and Holocaust survivor, wrote in his book, Out of the Depths (p.9):
“Today, looking back on the six years of that war, I realize that the worst thing I endured in the Holocaust was not the hunger, the cold, or the beatings; it was the humiliation. It is almost impossible to bear the helplessness of unjustified humiliation.”
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and the court’s decision in Cowher are steps in the right direction.