Though a statewide vote remains more than a year away, the American Jewish Congress has launched a campaign to defeat the proposed ballot initiative designed to end most affirmative action programs.
AJCongress leaders hope Jews for Equal Opportunity will counteract the California Civil Rights Initiative that late last month began collecting the nearly 700,000 signatures required to put the measure on the November 1996 ballot.
"I believe the initiative can be defeated and we're going to do it," said Tracy Salkowitz, AJCongress regional executive director. "This initiative goes too far, way too soon."
Though Salkowitz acknowledges that affirmative action needs review, she said it's too early to abolish the policies across the board.
Jews for Equal Opportunity's plans include sending speakers into the community, mobilizing college students, registering voters and helping collect 1 million signatures of affirmative-action supporters.
But AJCongress may be fighting an uphill battle to gain Jewish allies. Though a few other groups are reaffirming support for affirmative action in general, AJCongress so far is the only established Jewish organization to begin actively opposing the ballot initiative.
The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League are still assessing their stances on the initiative.
And the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, an umbrella organization of 70 Bay Area synagogues and groups, had planned to vote this week on a new version of its affirmative action views — although the ballot initiative was not on the agenda.
AJCongress is not totally alone, however. State leaders in the National Council of Jewish Women have decided to oppose the initiative, but haven't started to organize against it.
Some Jews aren't waiting for the organized Jewish world to respond: A small group of Bay Area activists has formed the grassroots Jews for Affirmative Action to combat the initiative.
Salkowitz wishes most Jewish groups would unite against the initiative, as they did against last fall's anti-immigration Proposition 187. She isn't expecting such an alliance this time.
"The American Jewish Congress has historically taken unpopular and progressive positions," she noted.
Joe Gelman, campaign manager of the California Civil Rights Initiative, agreed.
In fact, Gelman, who is Jewish, believes AJCongress is out of step with Jewish views on affirmative action. He calls the group "knee-jerk supporters of any leftist status quo" who believe the only way to solve the problems of racism and sexism is by "rigging the system."
AJCongress "favors an ugly kind of social engineering," he said from the initiative's campaign headquarters in Los Angeles.
Gelman acknowledges that no established Jewish groups have come out publicly in favor of the California Civil Rights Initiative. And though he plans to seek organized Jewish support, he concedes most Jewish groups probably will decide to remain neutral.
He sees even that scenario as a triumph, however.
"There is no question we'll at a minimum split the Jewish vote, and hopefully win it," Gelman said.
No one will know whether the initiative will qualify for the ballot until after the signature-gathering deadline Feb. 21, 1996. But political pundits from both left and right assume organizers will easily collect the required 693,230 valid signatures.
The initiative would abolish most affirmative action programs based on race, ethnicity or gender for public employment, contracts and school admissions. It also comes on the heels of the University of California Board of Regents' July abolition of affirmative action practices in its university system.
The Jewish community has been divided over affirmative action since the first policies were enacted three decades ago. Some Jews supported affirmative action as a way to correct racial imbalances in hiring and admissions, while others harkened back to earlier this century when quotas barred Jews from top universities.
Some continue to believe today that Jews suffer when group identity takes precedence over individual merit — even if policies favor goals and timetables rather than quotas.
Nonetheless, AJCongress plans to do all it can to convince Jews that affirmative action is still vital. Bob Kane, AJCongress regional board president, hopes Jews will seek inspiration from the traditions of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and back the AJCongress campaign.
"Part of tzedakah and tikkun olam is to help people who for whatever reason are at the bottom — to help them and give them tools to prosper," Kane said.
African Americans are still trying to overcome 300 years of slavery, segregation and racism, he said, and 30 years of affirmative action haven't made up for this yet.
Deborah Kaufman, an organizer of the grassroots Jews for Affirmative Action, offers other reasons for working against the initiative.
Jewish women have benefited from affirmative action, Kaufman said, adding that she knows of no proof that Jewish men have suffered because of it.
Moreover, she said, Jews have tried hard to build coalitions with other religious, racial and ethnic groups. If Jews don't work against the initiative, Kaufman said, they might find deaf ears when they turn to other minority groups for support on Jewish issues.
"The perception that Jews do not support affirmative action — which may be inaccurate — will definitely affect coalition work Jews do with other communities," said Kaufman, who is founder and former director of the Jewish Film Festival and a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay.
Right now, Jews for Affirmative Action remains a small group — about 10 women and men who have been meeting monthly since late spring. But Wednesday, Oct. 25, they're hoping to organize and train more Jews at a Berkeley meeting.
At the event, the group hopes to kick off a campaign of fund-raising, letter-writing, speaking and organizing within other Jewish groups.
AJCongress will be making similar efforts in its Jews for Equal Opportunity campaign. Salkowitz said she hopes to pull together 200 volunteers, as well as 15 to 20 students on each college campus. As part of its college outreach, AJCongress will organize speakers of every campus and register young voters.
AJCongress also will try to raise $10,000 to cover expenses and donate to coalitions. Jews for Equal Opportunity already has joined two statewide coalitions, Californians for Affirmative Action and Californians for Justice.
Despite an early start, Salkowitz acknowledges there's a lot of work ahead.
"Unfortunately, affirmative action has become this year's scapegoat to economic frustration," she said.