Bow and Take Off Your Hat: The value of respect
prejudice; religion; business; discrimination; stereotypes; intersectionality; ethnicity
The context for this case is an international business meeting featuring a royal envoy from an Eastern European country to the United States.
Elijah is a quiet and thoughtful person who tends to think very deeply and thoroughly about his decisions. He is meticulous and neat, often standing out for his tidy appearance and organizational skills. Elijah loves getting to know people on a deeper level, but can be shy when first meeting new people.
Elijah’s somewhat introverted personality stems from a deep religious background, growing up as part of an isolated and private Orthodox Jewish community in the United States. His parents, Moroccan immigrants who were able to find a degree of security and belonging as part of the religious community, were reluctant to allow their only son to stray too far from home. However, Elijah eventually put himself out of his comfort zone to pursue a four-year degree in finance at an accredited American college.
After arriving on campus, Elijah began to feel alone and targeted as a dark-skinned religious Jew on a predominantly secular, white, Christian campus. He found solace in quietly displaying his identity every day by wearing two ancient and traditional Jewish religious garments that can be seen by anyone upon first glance- the kippah, a skullcap that represents eternal reverence to a higher power and the tzitzit, a fringed undergarment which serves as a reminder to spread love and goodwill through good deeds every day. As a result, Elijah receives stares and hurtful, racist remarks for his appearance. He also faced many stereotypical anti-Semitic jeers in his business and finance classes. Regardless, Elijah keeps his head up and wears these garments daily.
At Middle East and North African cultural clubs, he feels slightly more at home at first, but then is berated with questions about his religious identity. At religious services and events, he stands out and notices that people seem to be afraid of him.
Eventually, Elijah’s excellent work ethic and organizational skills distinguish him in his upperclassman courses and he graduates near the top of his class. When accepted to a prestigious internship program during his senior year, Elijah trains in intercultural business practices and diversity along with fellow interns. There, he meets an extremely diverse group of individuals for the first time and appreciates the opportunity to hear the experiences of others who have gone through discriminatory and uncomfortable episodes similar to himself. Elijah learns how to better explain his complex identity to others and remains extremely proud of his parents for working hard to overcome obstacles while staying true to who they are. His perception of the world expands greatly as he learns how to interact with cultures and individuals that he has not encountered before. Elijah also feels understood and accepted for the first time since leaving his community and family. At the end of the internship program, Elijah becomes the first in his family to obtain his undergraduate degree. Due to a connection he made during his time interning, a large company hires Elijah to work developing the international interests of the company.
Elijah is happy to be a part of a professional organization and feels he is finally being judged based on the quality of his character and work ethic, rather than stereotypes and confused assumptions. To better understand how to foster communications with foreign business partners, respect the national and organizational cultures of his future partners, and adapt to their customs as a display of goodwill, Elijah participates in intercultural training. Fortunately, his work pays off and he is able to send money back to his parents who are struggling to work into their old age. This job becomes even more important to Elijah and his family, and he devotes himself to the company through long hours and hard work.
On Fridays, Elijah takes off work three hours earlier than his coworkers to honor the religious period of “Sabbath” or Shabbat in the traditional ways. Although he is concerned this will look bad to his superiors and peers, Elijah makes sure to work late the rest of the week to make up for lost time. Even though they think it is strange, Elijah’s superiors approve of this schedule and the workplace continues to be an efficient and friendly environment.
After a few months at his job, Elijah assists a team of upper-level associates in signing a lucrative deal with an Eastern European Duke—the largest sale of the last five years. There is much celebration around the office, especially when the company announces the Duke would be coming to visit the team that had worked on the deal. Weeks go by quickly and soon Elijah finds himself walking into the office on the morning of the Duke’s visit. He is nervous for a moment of what the Duke will think of him and the traditional Jewish clothing he wears. His grandparents fled the Duke’s country in World War II to escape persecution and he had heard that anti-Semitism was rising again in the area over the past several years. With a deep breath, Elijah sat down for a debriefing on the big meeting.
The team leader shared the agenda and goals of the meeting with Elijah and his senior colleagues, ending with an important statement on the cultural traditions and norms of the Duke’s homeland. Elijah froze and suddenly became very uncomfortable, as the team leader mentioned everyone was expected to show respect to the Duke as he walks into the meeting room by taking off any hats they might be wearing and bowing. Elijah’s discomfort arose out of a conflict with his core religious principles, which teach that a member of his faith may never bow or kneel before any mortal man, rather reserving this act of reverence for only the worship of God himself, and that the kippah and other garments he was wearing should not be removed in public.
Before he is able to make a decision, the Duke enters the room. Many thoughts rush through Elijah’s head as he looks around the long table and sees his colleagues and superiors each remove their caps or dress hats and one-by-one bow deeply to the Duke. As the process makes it around the table to Elijah, he comes to an impasse. If he participates in the customary show of respect and honor, then he will be in good standings with his superiors, yet violate the traditions that he has considered such a monumental part of himself up to this point. He needs this job to financially support his parents and he has ambitions within the company. Elijah finds himself being stared at as his turn to bow and remove his kippah approaches.
As you consider this case, discuss:
- How would you describe Elijah’s dilemma in this situation?
- How might Elijah’s religious practices influence his everyday decisions?
- How might the outcome of this situation affect Elijah’s standing in his company?
- Could Elijah show respect while maintaining his authenticity? If so, how?
- Could better communication have helped the situation? If so, in what way?
- How might Elijah’s decision impact the deal with the Duke?
- How could Elijah’s prior experiences with racism and Antisemitism impact this situation?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.
- Fukayama, Frances, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition
- Encyclopaedia Judaica. Corrected ed., Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1996.
- Gottreich, Emily Benichou, Jewish Morocco: A History from Pre-Islamic to Postcolonial Times
- Silverman, Eric, A Cultural History of Jewish Dress
- Brettschneider, Marla, Jewish Feminism and Intersectionality
Levine, Jacob, American University, Washington DC, District of Columbia, United States. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org