Jews at U.C. Berkeley raising their voices for affirmative action

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As the battle over affirmative action continues at University of California, more than 150 Jewish students, faculty and staff at U.C. Berkeley called upon the Board of Regents to reverse its July 1995 rollback of minority enrollment policies.

Organized under the name Jewish Students for Affirmative Action (JSAA), the group prepared an open letter of protest to deliver at Wednesday's board meeting.

The one-page letter cites Jewish tradition in opposing discrimination, pursuing justice and offering "strong, unwavering support for affirmative action."

"We felt it was necessary to speak out," said Lincoln Shlensky, a graduate student and member of JSAA.

The group says Jews have benefited from affirmative action policies directly, as women and people of color, and indirectly through the promotion of diversity. The letter also challenges the myth of Jews as a "model minority" that has achieved success without set-asides. The group says affirmative action foes use this term to argue against such policies.

The letter also calls for the regents to rescind their July vote, which eliminated affirmative action; dedicate themselves and their resources to dismantling racism and sexism within the U.C. system; and cease scapegoating.

The affirmative action rollback was postponed for six months after U.C. president Richard Atkinson expressed concern that the university was not prepared to begin an outreach program to minorities that would replace affirmative action.

Meanwhile, the JSAA is pledging to support affirmative action policies both inside and outside the U.C. system and to oppose legislative attempts to outlaw such policies.

Although only 152 signatures were collected, JSAA members believe support for their mission is greater.

"There are many Jews out there working for affirmative action without naming themselves as Jews," said Nancy Ordover, a graduate student and member of JSAA.

Shlensky added that Jews should have a heightened sensitivity to discrimination.

"We read at Passover that `you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.' We have a responsibility to protect other people as we were underlings and discriminated against. We need to protect everyone in society," he said.

In addition to calling for a reversal of the 14-11 regents decision to end affirmative action policies on campus, JSAA is imploring the board to re-examine the manner in which it operates.

That the regents rolled back affirmative action policies despite opposition from students and faculty and concern from the president, "speaks to the problem of the democratic process and the regents' disconnection with what's happening on campus," Shlensky said.

"The regents have not attempted to build any consensus on this issue. Their decision to abolish affirmative action is an affront to the alleged democratic process and to prudent regency in any sense of the terms," Shlensky said.

"Ultimately, we're looking for a more fair and democratic regency which listens to its students."