JCRC backs affirmative action, stays mum on state initiative

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The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council reaffirmed its support for affirmative action last week but remained silent on a state ballot initiative that would abolish most preferential treatment programs.

The council's statement on affirmative action, which passed 34-5 on Wednesday of last week, capped more than eight months of debate and research on the views of Bay Area synagogues and Jewish organizations.

"It didn't please the very conservative, and it didn't please the very, very liberal. Yet everybody could live with it," JCRC board chairwoman Judith Chapman said.

The statement calls for more strictly enforcing anti-discrimination laws, ameliorating past discrimination through vocational and educational training, and increasing efforts to recruit qualified minority and women job candidates.

At the same time, the statement opposes quotas "under any guise in hiring, promotion, contracts and admissions" — except when court orders require temporary quotas to make up for proven discrimination in the past.

But the JCRC did not take sides on the proposed California Civil Rights Initiative, which is expected to qualify for the November 1996 ballot. The measure would eliminate most forms of affirmative action in the state.

Debra Pell, JCRC board secretary and head of its task force on affirmative action, said member groups decided informally not to comment on the ballot initiative in their statement.

This initiative isn't officially on the ballot yet, she explained, and other initiatives regarding affirmative action could still surface. In addition, Pell said, the JCRC as a consensus group must be careful to reflect the majority Jewish opinion on issues. And so far, JCRC knows only that Jews are split on this particular ballot initiative.

"As it gets closer, I think we'll make the right decision when it comes to taking a stand," she said.

The JCRC, which represents the views of about 70 Bay Area synagogues and organizations on public affairs issues, last approved a position supporting affirmative action 20 years ago.

According to JCRC officials, the most controversial section of the organization's new position is its final sentence, which says that "race, ethnicity or gender can be considered as a factor — but not the sole factor — in evaluating equally qualified applicants when an entity seeks to voluntarily engage in temporary policies to remedy its own bias or to promote the goal of diversity."

This sentence caused a stir among some JCRC board members who argued that affirmative action should only include programs — such as extra education and training — that help women and minorities compete on the same level as white men. Once a woman or a minority is actually vying for a position, their gender or race should not give them an advantage, they maintain.

For this reason, David Kiachko, a JCRC at-large board member, cast one of the five votes against the statement.

"It was just a question of one line, the last line," said Kiachko, a San Francisco resident who is also on the JCRC's affirmative action task force. "It was the only point in the entire statement that said preferential treatment based on race is acceptable."

Added Kiachko: "Preferential treatment of one person because of race is discrimination against another person because of race."

But Pell said many JCRC members felt the controversial sentence in the statement was necessary because they understand that discrimination against minorities and women continues today.

"The majority of people feel we don't live in a colorblind society. We'd like to, but we don't," she said.