Justice Marshall Mourned by Jews As Champion of Minorities’ Rights
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Justice Marshall Mourned by Jews As Champion of Minorities’ Rights

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The death of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall means the passing of a man who struggled on behalf of justice not just for blacks, but for all minorities, and whose tenure is seen as having advanced the standing of Jews in American society.

Marshall, who retired from the bench in June 1991 because of declining health and died Sunday of heart failure, was considered by legal experts at Jewish organizations to be a great jurist whose interests intersected with the Jewish community’s throughout the course of his career.

“A law attacking discrimination benefited Jews. Strengthening the whole doctrine of equality was good for us,” said Will Maslow, general counsel to the American Jewish Congress.

Maslow worked with Marshall in the 1940s, when Marshall worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Maslow worked for the federal government’s Fair Employment Practice Committee.

“It is precisely during Marshall’s long tenure on the court that the courts’ expansionist interpretation of the rights of women and minorities allowed Jews to move from the periphery of American society to the very center of American political, professional, educational and economic life,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Though most famous for arguing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case before the Supreme Court when he was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Marshall played a critical role in cases directly relevant to the Jewish community.

One he argued before the Supreme Court in 1947, Shelley vs. Kramer, eradicated the restrictive real estate covenants that had been enforced to prevent Jews and blacks from buying property.


That case was the very first onto which the Anti-Defamation League signed with a friend-of-the-court brief. The group issued a statement Monday saying Marshall’s “wisdom and vision will be sorely missed.”

Marshall was also a lifelong advocate of separating government and religion, a belief for which he was lauded by the Jewish community and one that distinguished him from some of his African American colleagues.

“The black community has not always been supportive of Jewish sensitivities on church-state issues, because in their milieu there is such focus on the church as the only institution controlled by the black community and free of white control,” said Saperstein.

“They’ve not always understood the Jewish passion for separation of church and state, but Marshall always understood that and stood with us on almost all church-state cases,” he said.

Saperstein cited as cases in which Marshall voted with the majority a 1968 school prayer case, New York Board of Regents vs. Allen, and the 1971 Lemon vs. Kurtzman ruling, which established the three-part test still used by the court to determine if the government is advancing religion in violation of the First Amendment.

“When it came to the First Amendment, Justice Marshall was really a giant,” said Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee. “He was great on separation of church and state, and was with us right down the line in opposing creches and menorahs on public property.”

Arnold Aronson, a staff member of National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council for 31 years and, in 1950, a founder of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, worked with Marshall during his days at the NAACP.

“His accomplishments are there on his legal record,” said Aronson, adding, “He was a lot of fun.”

Long before he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967, Marshall won cases at the district court level that opened up long- closed doors to Jews and blacks.

According to Saperstein, when Marshall won cases in the 1930s and 1940s opening professional and graduate schools to minority enrollment, “Jews were the immediate beneficiaries.

“Jews were better positioned, with a long tradition of professionalism, to take advantage of these new opportunities than blacks were in the beginning,” he said.

“We are very sad to have lost the No. 1 champion of civil rights, who was also attuned to issues that concern women,” said Joan Bronk, national president of the National Council of Jewish Women. “He taught us all what equality meant and tried to show us the way.”

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