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Focus on Issues an Impassioned National Debate

President Reagan’s firing of three members of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and naming three others to replace them has put four Jewish organizations, all of them with long established records in the civil rights movement, in the midst of an impassioned national debate.

The controversy has taken on an additional dimension for the Jewish groups since one of the nominees is Morris Abram, former president of the American Jewish Committee and of Brandeis University, and a New York lawyer who fought for civil rights in his native Georgia in the 1960’s.

Reagan has argued that he has a right to replace three commission members, Mary Frances Berry, Rabbi Murray Saltzman and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez as he had two other members of the commission. He has charged that the opposition is due to the rejection by his three nominees of quotas as a remedy for discrimination against Blacks, women and other minority groups.

Civil rights groups, however, have charged that Reagan is seeking to undermine the independence of the commission which has frequently criticized his policies on civil rights.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE JEWISH GROUPS

All the Jewish groups oppose quotas. But they differ in the present controversy. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith has taken the strongest position in favor of the Reagan action, supporting all three Reagan nominees — Abram; John Bunzel, a former president of San Jose State University; and Robert Destro, an assistant professor of law at Catholic University in Washington — as well as the President’s right to make the changes on the commission.

The ADL also supports Reagan’s nomination of Linda Chavez, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, as the commission’s staff director, a position now open. She was given a recess appointment by Reagan.

The American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress have chiefly argued in favor of Abram, urging that the nominations be considered on their merits. The position of the three groups has put them in opposition to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, to which they belong, which has called for the Senate to reject the three nominations.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) is the only Jewish organization also to support the rejection of all the nominees. Saltzman, one of the ousted commissioners, is a Reform rabbi in Baltimore.

The ADL has taken an aggressive position on the issue from the beginning. Nathan Perlmutter, the ADL’s national director, spoke out frequently on the issue and charged that “behind the assaults on the President’s nominations, racial quotas and mandatory busing are being presented as a litmus test, a latter-day loyalty oath to determine one’s fealty to civil rights.”

CITES A NARROW FOCUS

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nominations in July, Kenneth Bialkin, ADL’s national chairman, noted that “all three nominees have devoted much of their professional and personal efforts to securing basic rights and liberties for various disadvantaged minorities in this country.”

But he said the critics have “narrowly focused on one highly controversial issue, characterizing the nominees’ opposition to race-preferential quotas as wholesale abandonment of affirmative action and civil rights.” Bialkin stressed that both the ADL and the nominees’ opposition to quotas have in no way “diminished” their “support and struggle for equal opportunity for all individuals.”

In testifying before the some Senate committee, Howard Friedman, the AJCommittee’s president, also noted that opposition to Abram centered on his disapproval of quotas. “Is it not perfectly clear that his views on that subject are firmly rooted in his bedrock commitment to individual and civil rights?” Friedman asked.

While noting that he agrees with the Leadership Conference that the commission must retain its independence, Friedman stressed that “all three candidates have publicly stated their determination to be independent and that they have made no commitments to the President in any specific issues.” He said since the President has acted, the candidates should be judged on their qualifications.

AN INSENSITIVITY NOTED

Howard Squadron, president of the AJCongress, in a letter to the committee, endorsed Abram as “eminently qualified.” But he noted that the President’s “wholesale firing of members of the Commission indicates an insensitivity to the feelings of minority communities, which have already experienced deep disappointment at the failure of this Administration to assign a higher priority to the enforcement of civil rights.”

In expressing the UAHC’s opposition to the nominations, Albert Vorspan, the Reform group’s vice president, stressed its respect for Abram and his efforts in the civil rights struggle.

“It is not the independence and integrity of the nominees which is at issue; rather it is the independence and integrity of the commission that is at stake,” Vorspan said. “We firmly believe that the President’s actions will retard the progress of civil rights in America.” He said if the nominees are confirmed, “the impartiality and the independence of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will be seriously impaired….”

This seemed to be the position of the Democrats on the committee even though the nominees are all Democrats. Sen. Joseph Biden (D. Del.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that although the nominees had “impeccable” credentials he would vote against them because “at stake is the independence of the commission.”

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D. Ohio) also said he had “no doubt” about the nominees’ qualifications but that “regardless of the merits of the new appointees, the issue before us relates directly to the independence to the commission.”

SUGGESTION FOR LEGISLATION

Squadron suggested this could be assured by passing legislation “which would establish in law fixed and staggered terms for all members of the commission and which would preclude their dismissal except for neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.” There is some expectation that this would be done while at the same time the Senate would approve the Reagan appointees.

But the House, before taking its summer recess, approved legislation that would renew the commission’s charter, which expires September 30, but stipulated that a commissioner could only be fired for “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance.” If the Senate were to approve this before it confirmed the Reagan nominations it would mean that Reagan would not be able to remove the three commissioners he wants replaced.

The controversy could have provided a real opportunity for discussing the issues of quotas and mandated bus- ing and whether they can accomplish the goals of a more equal society, or if not, what should be done. But so far more heat than light has been shed, and with the Presidential election little more than a year away reasoned discussion cannot be expected. For the Jewish community this could mean further exacerbation of the tense situation that already exists between it and some parts of the Black community.

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