Dressed in a print cotton shirt, jeans and sneakers, Eugene Volokh looks more like a graduate student than a law professor out to shake the political and social beliefs dear to most American Jews.
For starters, he posits that the predominantly liberal Jewish community is way out of date in supporting affirmative action, rigid separation of church and state, gun control and the Democratic Party.
Although he is not yet as prominent as the cadre of young Jewish neo- conservatives in New York and Washington, Volokh, like his East Coast brethren, is constructing the intellectual underpinnings for a right-wing swing in the nation’s social and economic agenda.
The 28-year-old Soviet immigrant is legal adviser for the campaign to pass the California Civil Rights Initiative. The measure, set for November’s state ballot, would in effect ban all affirmative education programs, based on race or gender, in education and the workplace.
Only two decades ago, when the Volokh family left its native Kiev to settle in the United States, Eugene was seven and already a certified Wunderkind.
Educated at home by his father, a computer programmer, and his English-speaking mother, Eugene was reading and doing math problems at age 3 and solving algebraic equations at 7.
He entered the University of California at Los Angeles at 12, simultaneously founding a successful software developing company with his father.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in math-computer science at age 15.
When he turned 21, he decided on a career change, enrolled at the UCLA Law School, and three years later graduated as the top student in a class of 322.
After serving as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Volokh was named acting professor of law at UCLA, equivalent to an assistant professorship.
He now teaches constitutional law, copyright law and the law of government and religion.
“I switched to law because I wanted to participate in the great debates of the day,” Volokh said during a recent interview at his office.
His first such venture has landed him in the midst of the highly charged affirmative action debate.
In a multiethnic state such as California, doling out preferences and benefits according to skin color “is a recipe for disaster,” Volokh says with considerable emotion.
“By helping some, we are hurting others, and the results of playing political games along ethnic lines will be disastrous.”
While some assistant professors keep their noses to the academic and research grindstone to qualify for tenure, Volokh seems unfazed by such pressures. He has found both the time and inclination to expound his beliefs in public, and has recently engaged in a number of debates in Jewish forums.
Apart from affirmative action, Volokh, who categorizes himself as a Republican/ Libertarian, holds equally strong views on other topics, none likely to endear himself to most American Jews.
The predominant Jewish support for a strong wall of separation between church and state is “provably wrong,” Volokh says.
“The concept that nobody should put a cross in a public park because some people might consider this a government endorsement of a religion represents outrageous discrimination against religious freedom of speech.”
He opposes raising the minimum wage, saying that it would hurt the economy and cause higher unemployment.
He also opposes gun control.
And he says Jews should reconsider the view that Democrats are the party of social justice, which can be achieved through government regulations.
Although Volokh considers that his opinions are shaped by dispassionate weighing of the evidence, he grants that his intense distrust of government interference may stem in part from his parents’ loathing of the Soviet regime’s constant intrusion into the citizenry’s private lives.
Volokh knows that few American Jews share his political and social outlook.
“Many Jews are hung up on attitudes shaped 30, 40, 50 years ago,” he says, “I think their attitudes are more reflexive than reflective. All of us fall into certain habits of thinking, but it bugs one more when it happens to one’s own group.
“I want to shake things up a bit.”