On Sunday, February 23, the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America convened its first Conference on Law and Public Policy in New York City. The conference, entitled “Race, Rights and Responsibilities,” discussed the contentious issues of voting rights and affirmative action from the perspective of Jewish law as well as from more general political considerations.
During the morning session on voting rights, Rabbi Eli Clark delivered a scholarly presentation demonstrating that medieval Jewish law developed a substantial system of self-governance that dealt with issues confronting American society today – issues such as the rights of minority populations to be represented on governing bodies. Rabbi Clark noted the “essentially democratic” nature of Jewish governing institutions and the concern of some medieval authorities that all segments of the population be represented in the governing body.
The panelists for the morning session that responded in part to Rabbi Clark’s presentation and engaged in a broader discussion of voting rights issues included Federal District Court Judge John Gleeson (who only days earlier declared the voting scheme of the Town of Hempstead, Long Island to be a violation of the Voting Rights Act), Washington attorney Nathan Lewin and Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress. Mssrs. Lewin and Stern debated whether intentionally designing election districts to assure minority representatives would win elections from those districts was a policy the Jewish community ought to favor. Judge Gleeson stated that “from the judicial perspective, we hold greater hope for American society when we believe that a color blind society – where a white congressman can fully represent a majority-black district [and vice versa] is possible.”
The conference’s afternoon session focused upon the contentious issue of affirmative action. Rabbi Barry Freundel, spiritual leader of the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown Law School, asserted in his presentation that Jewish sources heavily weigh against affirmative action programs. He based this upon Jewish law’s commitment to equal justice before the law and rejection of “visiting the sins of the fathers upon the sons.” Rabbi Freundel noted, however, that redress for past wrongs could be resorted to temporarily if in doing so it was clearly recognized that it was a extraordinary step.
The panelists discussing the broader policy considerations surrounding affirmative action were Harvard Law Professor Christopher Edley and author Richard Kahlenberg. Mr. Edley related to the sizable crowd some of his experiences during 1995, when he served as Special Counsel to President Clinton and directed the White House review of federal affirmative action programs. Among many compelling arguments, Edley noted that in America, 30% of blacks are discriminated against in the housing market and the median net wealth of blacks is 8% of that of whites. Thus, he argued, America is still a society which requires effective affirmative action programs. Mr. Kahlenberg, in contrast, argued for a system of affirmative action based upon socio-economic disadvantage rather than racial categories. Such a system, said Kahlenberg, “would do better in trying to really address those who are disadvantaged in our society.”
With regard to the conference, in general, IPA Director Nathan Diament stated that “this was an important moment for the IPA; this is one of many programs we are initiating to get the Orthodox Jewish community more engaged in the public policy challenges facing American society.”