Contending that the Jewish community must voice its support of affirmative action, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay recently voted to oppose the California Civil Rights Initiative appearing on November's ballot and is urging other Jewish organizations to do the same.
If passed, the CCRI would immediately abolish all race and gender education and hiring preferences enacted by state and local governments.
"The legal, philosophical, economic and governmental issues regarding affirmative action are profound," Oakland attorney Gary Sirbu wrote in the JCRC position statement. "The sudden elimination of affirmative action by government would needlessly increase racial and ethnic tension in our state and is a wrong approach to the problem."
While the JCRC vote was almost unanimous, the initiative promises to be a controversial one. It marks the first time California voters have been allowed a substantial voice in the affirmative action debate since the policy was installed via executive order by then-President Richard Nixon.
Sirbu, a member of the East Bay JCRC's executive committee and affirmative action task force, admits affirmative action policies are not without fault. However, the JCRC's concern is that "the sudden elimination takes a sledgehammer approach to issues which can be settled on a case-by-case basis," he said.
"Put another way, if you have a problem with a portion of a tree," he said, "you prune it rather than cut the whole tree down."
The East Bay JCRC position calls for "full public debate and review of these issues": subjective questions of reparations, discrimination and economic need.
The S.F.-based JCRC has not issued a statement on the initiative at this time.
Sirbu, who studied affirmative action policies for an entire year before presenting his findings to the JCRC, said the JCRC resolution supports the state in maintaining affirmative action policies "in those situations where it's demonstrably necessary as a remedy. One does not use race-conscious remedies except when absolutely necessary."
But CCRI supporters say affirmative-action policies have, at times, been used in an arbitrary manner to achieve diversity in situations where there is no clear-cut evidence of discrimination.
They say they are not opposed to recruiting qualified candidates who are members of various minority groups. But they are opposed to quotas of any kind.
Jews, who do not hold minority status and are not directly impacted by affirmative action policies, fall on both sides of the issue.
In the past the Anti-Defamation League has taken a stance against affirmative action, while the American Jewish Congress has strongly supported it.
"We know where Jews stand on this issue: all over the place," said Rabbi Allen Bennett, executive director of the East Bay JCRC. "Perhaps it was possible to pretend there was a monolithic Jewish community once upon a time, but no longer.
"Those who were once silent are not anymore."
Nonetheless, Bennett believes there is a distinctly Jewish response to the CCRI.
"It's not a Jewish question. But it deserves a Jewish response," Bennett said. The CCRI compromises "Jewish values of social justice and equal opportunity."