U.C. Regents vote leaves Jews struggling for solution

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The potential impact of last Thursday's vote by the University of California Board of Regents to end affirmative action in hiring, contracting and admissions is only beginning to come into focus.

As politicians stake out positions, local Jewish leaders are trying to figure out where they stand on the complex issues at hand.

Just a week after the controversial vote, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League have already taken strong — and contradictory — positions.

While AJCongress has roundly condemned the regents' decision, the ADL calls the vote "a positive step" towards creating equal opportunities for "all peoples."

Tracy Salkowitz, regional executive director of AJCongress, said, "We're extremely disappointed in the vote that was taken and disheartened by the apparent lack of support for extremely important programs."

Affirmative action programs, she maintained, have not been in place long enough to reverse inequities resulting from years of discrimination against women and minorities.

"The goal is certainly to have everything be merit- based, but until we've achieved a society where prejudice and discrimination, overtly or covertly, do not dictate hiring or enrollment, we cannot let go of these programs," Salkowitz said.

AJCongress is also fighting the 1996 California ballot initiative against affirmative action, which would outlaw preferential treatment in public hiring and contracting, and public school admissions.

One reason why AJCongress has become so involved in the affirmative action debate, Salkowitz explained, is its belief that Jews have an added obligation to ensure that other American minorities are given a chance to succeed.

"As Jews, we understand all too well the impact of being discriminated against," she said.

However, that same argument is also used by others in the Jewish community to criticize U.C.'s affirmative action policies.

While setting goals to admit certain percentages of minorities to its programs, critics charge, the university unfairly limits access to other students who are more qualified.

Although U.C. officials contend their admissions "goals" do not constitute a quota system, some Jews see these targets as a chilling reminder of the quotas used by Ivy League universities, as recently as the 1950s, to keep them out.

"We believe there is no place for quotas, goals, timetables or preferences that are race-based," said Anastasia Steinberg, regional director of the ADL. "We see it as being contradictory to the American ideal of being judged on your own merits."

The ADL has come out in favor of the regents' decision on the grounds that hiring and entrance requirements to educational institutions should be entirely race-neutral, Steinberg said.

However, she added, the organization supports implementing apprenticeship and tutorial programs before college to help minority students compete.

In addition, while the ADL wants admissions to be race-neutral, it does favor considering such factors as socio-economic disadvantage.

Other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and local Hillels, have yet to issue positions on the regents' vote.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro, director of U.C. Berkeley Hillel, is reluctant to discuss the issue as a representative of Hillel. But from her perspective on campus, she is concerned about how the regents' vote will affect Jewish students when they return to classes next month.

"It's likely, or possible, that the Jewish community will be scapegoated, blamed for being against affirmative action," she said.

"Jews are often in the position of being blamed, and the Jewish community has been divided on this issue, so we can be seen as the whites in power who didn't back this and let it fall."

Shapiro said U.C. Berkeley students reflect the larger community's confusion and ambivalence about this difficult issue.

She pointed to a survey released last month of 903 Bay Area Jews. In a section on affirmative action, 64 percent said that "affirmative action has gone too far."

At the same time, 68 percent said that "certain minorities still need a `helping hand' from the government because of centuries of deliberate oppression."

Shapiro said, "Those are the same people. Jews are divided, even within themselves."

As Jewish groups such as Hillel struggle to resolve their positions on the issue, the S.F.-based AJCongress chapter seems to be the only local group taking action on the U.C. vote.

Already, the group is distributing printed information to Bay Area synagogues and scheduling panelists to speak on the subject at congregations and other venues.

Salkowitz said AJCongress will be monitoring events on campus, as well as the possible repercussions of federal funding cutbacks if the U.C. system dismantles its affirmative action programs.

She hopes federal requirements for affirmative action programs will mitigate the impact of Thursday's decision."If the regents repeal programs too aggressively," she asserted, "they stand to lose big sums of money."