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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Take Back Seat in Affirmative Action Debate

March 13, 1995
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Several Jewish groups long associated with civil rights causes recently took part in planning a news conference designed to shore up support for affirmative action — a policy increasingly under attack.

But when it came time for the news conference itself, which took place March I and was led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Jewish groups were nowhere to be found.

Jewish representatives “didn’t know what positions would be staked out” at the news conference, said the representative of one group involved in the planning stages.

The Jewish groups included the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the American Jewish Congress and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Their partial involvement in the news conference reflected the deep ambivalence within the Jewish community over one of the most volatile issues in black- Jewish relations.

Today, Jewish groups — even those that in the past have strongly favored affirmative action policies or outspokenly opposed them — are approaching the impending political firestorm gingerly.

“It’s little bit early yet to be guessing at how the Jewish Community will react,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the Commission on Law and Social Action at the American Jewish Congress.

“This is going to be a big issue, and we want to see what the Clinton administration does on it and how other political factors play out” before taking our own stand, said the head of one major Jewish group. This leader’s refusal to speak for attribution in itself reflects the sensitivity of the issue within the Jewish community.

The issue has taken on increased prominence since the election of a Republican controlled Congress last November. President Clinton, under political pressure from conservative Republicans, agreed recently to review affirmative action may appear on the ballot in November 1996.

It has been almost 25 years since members of the Jewish community took the lead in opposing the nation of race-based remedies to discrimination in the workplace and on university campuses.

That opposition deeply disappointed black leaders and contributed to a watershed rift in black-Jewish relations from which the historic coalition has never fully recovered.

Affirmative action policies followed on the heels of the civil rights era, when Jews worked together with blacks to enact laws guaranteeing fair treatment for minorities. To many blacks, the hiring and admissions programs based on racial preferences seemed like the logical conclusion of the earlier work.

But to Jews, who make up less than 3 percent of the American population, it was clear that they would lose out if professional advancement were based on racial proportions rather than merit.

The first two major court cases challenging affirmative action policies related to white men trying to gain admission to graduate schools that had rejected them while accepting less qualified minority students.

For Jews, university quotas were chillingly reminiscent of the quotas that had been used by Ivy League universities to keep them out as recently as the 1950s.

In 1973, Jewish groups spearheaded support of a Sephardi Jewish law student, Marco De Funis, whose application to the University of Washington law school had been rejected. He claimed that less-qualified blacks were admitted instead.

A year later, a non-Jewish Vietnam War veteran named Allan Bakke made similar charges when he was not admitted to the University of California Medical College at Davis.

The Jewish community was divided over the case. The American Jewish Committee,Anti-Defamation League and AJCongress filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Bakke.

The National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations filed briefs on behalf of the university.

Still, :Jewish groups were singled out for attack” by blacks who felt that the Jewish community had deserted their cause, according to a new book by Murray Friedman, “What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.”

The spit over affirmative action coincided with a growing sentiment within some civil activists who had been working with them.

“The position of the Jewish community was pretty uniform when this debate over affirmative action started,” said Jack Greenberg, a professor at Columbia University Law School who formerly headed the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was a central player in the civil rights movement.

The affirmative action conflict “really poisoned the black-Jewish relationship and exacerbated the problems” that already existed between the two communities,he said.

In the intervening 25 years, much has changed in the general political climate and in the relationship between the organized black and Jewish communities. Now, a perceived have strained the once-close black-Jewish relationship.

For the past decade or so, most Jewish groups have cautiously favored overcoming discrimination with compensatory training and education programs – but have drawn the line at anything smacking of quotas.

The policy adopted in 1973, and slightly amended in 1975 and 1981 by the constituent agencies of NJCRAC, is an exercise in achingly careful wordiness.

NJCRAC is the Jewish community’s umbrella group of national Jewish groups and local community relations councils.

Its policy emphasizes merit-based opportunity, opposes quotas and advocates “compensatory education, training, retraining, apprenticeship,job counseling and placement financial assistance and other forms of help for the deprived and disadvantaged.”

“The sole criterion of eligibility for such special services must be individual need; the services must not be limited or offered preferentially on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion or sex,” the policy statement says.

Still, today, only ADL supports most white challenges of race-based remedies when the cases reach the courts.

“We’ve long believed that there is no place in our society for quotas or goals and timetables,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of ADL.

But no Jewish group has been out on the front lines of the current debate over affirmative action. Instead, Jewish groups have been moving cautiously and working mostly behind the scenes.

Because of the increased tensions between blacks and Jews in recent years, both Jews and blacks who are committed to working together are “more guarded” about their relationship, according to author Friedman.

Jewish groups are only now beginning to form their approaches to the current debate.

“We’re beginning to coalesce around some of the issues” related to affirmative action, said Karen Senter, NJCRAC’s co-director of domestic concerns.

The National Council of Jewish Women, which had supported race-based graduate school admissions policies in the Bakke case, adopted a different policy in 1993, stating: “We resolve to work for affirmative action programs which ensure equal opportunity for all. We resolve to work for the elimination of quota systems in both the public and private sectors.”

NCJW’s executive director, Rosalind Paaswell, declined to explain the shift and would not hazard to predict what position her organization will take in the current debate. “We have to see what our members say,” she said.

According to Stern of AJCongress,”We’re in the process of setting up a task force to begin a full-fledged review of our policies to see how we ought to respond to the current debate.”

There are clearly new political winds blowing and we have to look at where the taw is and the effectiveness of these programs,” Stern said. “Maybe affirmative action was a pump primer and maybe it’s time to move onto new programs.”

The main vehicle for Jewish support of affirmative action is through the Washington-based coalition known as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Jewish participants in the conference’s steering committee on affirmative action, which is still being formed, include NJCRAC,the Religious Action Center and AJCommittee.

This time around, the issue is emerging not as one of Jews vs. blacks, but one pitting conservatives vs. liberals and Congress vs. the Clinton administration.

Observers say that because Jews are not out in front this time opposing affirmative action, there is no need for the Jewish community to create waves in the already unsteady seas of black-Jewish relations.

“Ten or 15 years ago, affirmative action was the key issue dividing blacks and Jews, but these days there are so many more issues dividing us, like [Louis] Farrakhan and the Nation of Isalam. The affirmative action debate is an issue blacks and Jews acknowledge they will never agree on,” said Jonathan Kaufman, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal covering race relations.

Kaufman wrote “The Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America,” which was recently re-issued by Simon and Schuster.

However, Kaufman warned, “If there is a roll-back on affirmative action, it will be seen [by blacks] as another example of how whites and Jews betrayed them.”

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