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Governing with Valor

A righteous political leader serves her entire community. Justine Wise Polier believed that to be a Jew meant to value and protect the rights and dignity of all people. As the first woman Justice of New York, Polier valiantly worked to improve the family court, fought for the rights of children and poor families, and tirelessly lobbied to ease quotas on Jewish refugees. Libby Schaaf, the 52-year-old mayor of Oakland, California, also fights for the inclusion of all people. In a time when asylum seekers are jailed, families are torn apart, and “build the wall” is not uncommon, Libby Schaaf’s leadership is a radical force of hope against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Both Polier and Schaaf have expressed that their cities’ governments must support everyone, not just society’s most privileged. Their work has bolstered the belief that immigrants make America great, and that the United States needs to be a welcoming place. Both of these powerful Jewish women have recognized the importance of truly serving whole communities, and of bringing social justice ideals to their everyday work.

Justine Wise Polier

As a Jewish leader, Justine Wise Polier was outspoken against anti-Semitism. She used her powerful position as Justice of New York to urge her fellow Jews and politicians to champion inclusivity.

In the 1920s, Congress imposed restrictive yearly quotas on how many European immigrants were permitted into the United States. Therefore, in the 1930s, as the genocide of European Jews began, Jewish families were unable to find refuge in America. Polier was relentless in her efforts to convince the President, Congress, and the State Department to make America a place of sanctuary for refugees of the Holocaust, especially Jewish children. Polier found her most influential ally in Eleanor Roosevelt. The two women frequently corresponded in order to lobby the president to change his policies on immigration. Only in 1944, after millions had already been murdered, were Polier and Eleanor Roosevelt finally able to convince President Roosevelt to admit war refugees into the United States. This was by no means Polier’s only cause. Throughout Polier’s long career, she lobbied politicians on behalf of victims of persecution.           

Polier was an activist judge, meaning she viewed the law as a means to change society. She opposed racial and religious discrimination, especially when it affected services for the children of New York. For example, Polier was key in initiating the 1971-78 class action lawsuit, Wilder v. Sugarman, against foster care agencies for racial discrimination. Another example of Polier’s push for inclusivity was her opposition to the matching theory in adoption. Polier said that she opposed the matching theory because accepting it meant justifying “the denial of loving family care to children who look different, speak differently, or have cultural backgrounds different from the stereotype of the American majority.”

While Polier professed egalitarian views on adoption, it’s important to note the recent ethical controversy that has arisen regarding the adoption agency Polier’s mother founded, which she ran. The recent documentary Three Identical Strangers has brought to light the inhumane and disturbing psychological experiments conducted on twins and triplets through her agency. There are still many unanswered questions about this very troubling episode.

Nevertheless, the positive reforms Polier brought to New York remain her legacy. Throughout her career, Polier coupled law and reason with her egalitarian Jewish values to make lasting change in New York and beyond.

Libby Schaaf

Libby Schaaf, the Mayor of Oakland, California, is a powerful, radical advocate for the rights of immigrant children and families in her city. She stated, “I am committed to protecting our neighbors from the devastating impacts of family separation and deportation.” As a compassionate leader, Schaaf refuses to vilify her neighbors. She acknowledges immigrant families as a vital part of Oakland, just as Polier understood the underserved families of New York to be integral members of the community she served.

Schaaf was elected to the Oakland City Council in 2010. Before her election to office, Schaaf, who was born and raised in the city of Oakland, co-founded the non-profit, “Oakland Cares.” Schaaf coordinated hundreds of volunteer projects, and also founded the first centralized program for volunteers in Oakland’s public schools. Schaaf was inaugurated as the city’s mayor in January of 2015.

Schaaf is only the second female mayor of Oakland in the city’s history. She has worked to make Oakland’s government a space that’s more hospitable to women. Schaaf swore in the city’s first female police chief in 2017. Now, women hold all of the major leadership roles in Oakland’s government: mayor, city administrator, the city administrator’s three top deputies, police chief, and fire chief.

Schaaf is a leading figure in the resistance against President Trump’s policies of persecution against immigrants and refugees. In February 2018, Schaaf made the radical and courageous choice to alert her constituents of planned ICE raids in Oakland, enabling them to seek sanctuary and avoid possible arrest or deportation. Schaaf sent the message that Oakland would not cooperate with ICE, and that the city would actively resist the deportation and detainment of immigrants in their community. She put the safety of undocumented immigrants above her own political and legal security, actively defying the federal government.

As mayor, Schaaf has led with the guiding principal that all people are equally deserving of her city’s protection. She sees it as her “duty and moral obligation as mayor” to protect the residents of Oakland. She said in a statement defending her decision, “As the mayor of Oakland my priority is safety. And that means safety for everyone.” Although she made this statement in relation to immigration particularly, it is clear that this statement speaks to Schaaf’s values, in general.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Weiner, Molly. "Governing with Valor ." 15 January 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/governing-with-valor>.

New York Justice Justine Wise Polier (left), and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (right).

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