Affirmative-action debate shows Jews remain divided

With an anti-affirmative action ballot measure moving toward a November 1996 vote, an emotional Marin town hall meeting last week showed Jews remain torn over the issue.

In fact, four panelists speaking to about 50 people at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael Thursday of last week seemed to agree on only one thing — quotas are unconstitutional, illegal and detrimental. Other than that, opinions both in the audience and on the panel were often split.

"Affirmative action is a painful and tricky issue for the Jewish community. We've been subjected to quotas, excluded from things and included in things," said Tracy Salkowitz, regional executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

So far, AJCongress is the only established Jewish organization actively opposing a proposed ballot initiative designed to end most affirmative action programs in California. The California Civil Rights Initiative will likely appear on the November 1996 ballot, and AJCongress is already lobbying hard against the measure.

"If we don't keep in mind diversity, it won't happen," Salkowitz told the group. "Affirmative action isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we do have a responsibility to have a level playing field, to give everyone an equal opportunity."

While "we believe in merit," she added, it's "much too soon" to end affirmative action in hiring and education.

The issue of merit proved to be a sticking point between Salkowitz and panelist Anastasia Steinberg, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. While the ADL supports affirmative action "from the ground up," in the form of recruitment, job training and counseling, and apprenticeship programs, Steinberg said goals, timetables and quotas should be replaced by "merit-based choices."

In her speech, Steinberg said the price of diversity may be too high.

"To give a preference, even for the right reasons, is still discrimination," she said.

Steinberg also questioned whether affirmative action may breed racial resentment.

"Is there a taint? Do you look at someone in a leadership position who is a minority and say, did they get there because of their race or gender?"

Mark Schickman, president-elect of the San Francisco Bar Association, agreed with Salkowitz about the need to maintain gender and race-based preferences — no matter what the cost.

"If we were a color-blind society, [we wouldn't need affirmative action]. But we're not. Anyone who looks around will see we haven't achieved it," said Schickman.

Because the Jews were enslaved in ancient Egypt, the lawyer said, Jews should be able to empathize with people who are oppressed.

"As a white Jewish male, I may have lost some opportunities [because of affirmative action], but as a white Jewish male, I see it as so much more important to live in a society that accepts and celebrates diversity," Schickman said.

Another lawyer, Larry Siskind, was the only panelist to roundly oppose affirmative action. Siskind, former special counsel to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, called preferences "an incubator of bigotry," and added that "giving people an artificial advantage is not a service."

Siskind also maintained that affirmative action — which he termed "a condescending handout" — could harm the people it's intended to help. He pointed to a Newsweek survey from January 1995, which indicated that 70 percent of college students admitted to school through affirmative action programs don't matriculate.

Siskind concluded, "Would anyone fly on an airline with the motto, `We put diversity first?'"

In a brief but heated post-speech debate , Salkowitz claimed she would fly such an airline to encourage equal opportunity. What's more, she said, there are serious problems with race and gender parity closer to home.

"There are 200 Jewish federations in this country," Salkowitz said. "Not one is headed by a woman. We have some challenges in our own community."