Jewish groups warm to Clintons set-aside positions

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — When President Clinton issued his resounding defense of affirmative action, coupled with a directive to review race- and sex-based preference programs, he echoed many views in the organized Jewish community.

Standing before the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives here on Wednesday, Clinton defended the broad need for affirmative action.

"When affirmative action is done right, it is flexible, it is fair and it works," Clinton said.

Jewish organizations hailed Clinton's defense and his directive to all federal departments to eliminate or reform any program that "creates quotas, creates preferences for unqualified individuals, creates reverse discrimination or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved."

Welcoming Clinton's directive, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said: "We Jews bitterly remember how people both here and abroad have used quotas to exclude us.

"On the other hand, we Jews remember all too well what it was like to be told, with a wink and a nudge, that this particular promotion, or that particular raise, really was not suitable to `your kind of people,'" Saperstein said, underlining his belief that some affirmative action programs are necessary.

Saperstein, who sits on the executive board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was one of about 18 civil-rights activists who met with Clinton last week as he put the final touches on his initiative.

Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, also attended the White House meeting.

"The president struck the right balance," Rubin said after Clinton's speech.

"We believe affirmative action is essential and important in opening opportunities," Rubin said.

NJCRAC, an umbrella organization of local community councils and national agencies, recently reaffirmed its two-decade-old policy supporting affirmative action and opposing quotas.

"NJCRAC has consistently favored affirmative action in employment and education as a central and legitimate approach in attempting to achieve equal opportunity for individuals disadvantaged by discrimination and deprivation in ways that do not victimize others or unjustly infringe upon their rights," NJCRAC chair Lynn Lyss said in a statement Wednesday.

In addition to the broad-scale federal review, Clinton also called for a new federal set-aside program to benefit businesses, regardless of their owners' race or sex, that are located in distressed areas.

Independent of the Small Business Administration program that reserves contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses, the president's plan for a new program is designed to head off Republican calls to end affirmative action altogether.

Clinton tapped Vice President Al Gore to head a Community Empowerment Board to develop the set-aside program.

Now some Jewish groups are waiting to see how federal agencies respond.

While welcoming the general direction of the president's initiative, the Anti-Defamation League cautioned, "The devil is in the details."

"The principles the president has outlined must be applied in a manner which will ensure that race or gender not become the predominant factor in employment or other decisions," said ADL's national chairman, David Strassler, and national director, Abraham Foxman.

"Affirmative action `done right' may still be our best hope of building a society in which every American has an equal shot at achieving the American dream," the ADL leaders said.