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Growing tensions II: Affirmative Action

Unit 3, Lesson 3

Assess Jewish attitudes towards Affirmative Action as an example of how individuals and communities try to manage competing priorities.


Enduring Understandings

  • By the end of the 1960s and into the following decades, the activists, organizations, and communities that had been part of the Civil Rights Movement had many different and sometimes conflicting ideas regarding the next priorities for securing African American civil rights and for the Movement as a whole.
  • Within the Jewish community, opinion was (and remains) divided on policies of Affirmative Action and its implications for Jews and for African Americans.

Essential Questions

  • How did responses to affirmative action raise tensions between and within the African American and Jewish communities?
  • In the decades after the Civil Rights Movement, what changed in Jewish and African American feelings about their respective relationships to civil rights?
  • How do Jewish responses to affirmative action reflect some of the conflicting priorities found within the Jewish community?
  • How, if at all, does Black-Jewish conflict and the controversy around affirmative action relate to our experiences today?

Materials Required

  • Medium sized post-it notes in 4 different colors
  • Document Studies (each of the two documents is examined by a different group)

Notes to Teacher

The current version of this lesson plan offers two examples of Jewish organizations that were critical of affirmative action. Other Jewish organizations were more supportive of affirmative action. JWA will be adding a document offering this point of view in a future version of this lesson plan.

Introductory Essay(s)

Tensions in Black-Jewish Relations

by Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive

Siblings in Oppression?

There is a long history of black-Jewish partnership in the American Civil Rights Movement, and just as long a history of tension and misunderstandings. From the beginnings of organized civil rights activism in the early 20th century, Jews were prominent leaders, participants, and financial backers of the Movement, counting among the founders and lead supporters of organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League. On the judicial path toward the advancement of civil rights, Jews played important roles as lawyers and judges.

American Jews have often felt a kinship with African Americans, based on shared minority status and the cultural memory of slavery (albeit a much more immediate history for African Americans). In the mid-20th century, certain conditions contributed to this sense of identification. The recent history of the Holocaust made many American Jews more attuned to discrimination and racism and more committed to opposing it. In addition, the widespread postwar financial success of American Jews bolstered their confidence that the American ideals of equality and meritocracy from which they had benefited could also work for African Americans, not realizing that anti-black racism made the African American experience significantly different from the Jewish case. For their part, some African Americans, who drew strength from biblical stories of slavery and God's redemption and witnessed Jews' active commitment to civil rights, also saw Jews as partners in their struggle.

At the same time, latent tensions always existed between the two communities. Some blacks, viewing the inequality and asymmetry between the experiences of the two groups, resented Jewish feelings of moral proprietorship in the civil rights struggle. The geographic closeness of the two groups, who often shared neighborhoods (frequently as a result of the exclusion of black and Jews from other areas) could lead to tension as well. African Americans' main contact with Jews was often in the form of landlords or shop owners, and some resented Jews for making a profit off their community. When many Jews, participating in "white flight," left inner-city neighborhoods for the suburbs and better educational opportunities for their children, their African American neighbors often felt abandoned, blamed for urban problems, and resentful that they did not have the same opportunities to move elsewhere.

These tensions sometimes took explicit shape in public anti-Semitic statements among African Americans and anti-black statements among Jews. Jews often felt particularly betrayed by African American anti-Semitism, arguing that blacks should be more generous given Jewish support of civil rights and that African American leaders should more quickly and roundly condemn expressions of anti-Semitism in their community when such statements were made.

The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power

The latent tensions became more prominent within the Civil Rights Movement as it moved north and into the cities in the mid-1960s. In the South, Jews – despite having white privilege – clearly did not have the same power as other whites. In the North, Jews did not seem as different from other whites, and were often the ones who wielded the most power in black neighborhoods. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the Kerner Commission), which investigated the causes of the 1967 race riots, found that Jews owned about 30% of the stores in black neighborhoods like Harlem and Watts and that many of the largest stores were owned by Jews and/or had Jewish-sounding names. (See Jonathan Kaufman, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times between Blacks and Jews in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1988., p. 137).

The mid-1960s also brought a shift within the Civil Rights Movement from a focus on integration and alliance-building to one of separatism. In 1966, SNCC and other radical civil rights groups made Black Power the new basis of their activism, calling for racial pride among African Americans and black self-determination within the Civil Rights Movement. Proponents of Black Power pointed out that blacks could not achieve true freedom unless they led the movement themselves; otherwise, whites retained a degree of power and authority over them. They emphasized the need for black self-sufficiency, as well as black cultural pride (e.g. "Black is Beautiful"), and encouraged white activists to work on their own issues, in some cases expelling white leaders from their organizations.

These ideas were not entirely new; Malcolm X – influenced by his conversion to the Nation of Islam, a black separatist religious sect – had advocated a platform of separatism in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, however, Black Power had fundamentally changed the structures and assumptions of the Civil Rights Movement and had inspired new organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, as well as a new wave of "Afro-centrism" in African American culture (as demonstrated by the use of African names, African clothing styles, "Afro" hair styles, etc.).


The Six Day War provided another spur to black-Jewish tension. After Israel's surprising military triumph in June 1967, many American Jews experienced a surge of pride in Israel, an underdog nation that had succeeded in becoming a power to be reckoned with, and felt a new or renewed commitment to Zionism. Some African Americans also saw the Jewish state as a model for a historically oppressed people empowering themselves. At the same time, many civil rights activists began to develop a more critical approach to Israel, identifying with the Palestinians as an oppressed group seeking self-determination, and castigating Zionism as a colonial, racist movement. These tensions around Zionism came to a public head in 1977, when Andrew Young, a civil rights activist and the first African American Ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This meeting sparked an uproar, in which Jews were prominent among those who loudly condemned Young, and which resulted in President Carter asking Young to resign, which he did. Many felt that Jews had forced his resignation.

Ocean Hill-Brownsville

Another symbolic rupture in black-Jewish relations was the controversy around the decentralization of Brooklyn's Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools in 1968. The city of New York had proposed decentralizing the school system by breaking it into neighborhood districts to be run by community boards. This would give parents a stake in their children's schools and make the schools more accountable to them. Ocean Hill-Brownsville – a majority African American community – was one of the three districts chosen to test decentralization. Parents, with the support of white teachers led by Sandra Feldman, a Jewish member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union, had already been organizing in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and supported the decentralization plan (which they referred to as "community control," emphasizing that from their perspective, this was an experiment in self-determination, not just a change in bureaucratic models).

The tensions around decentralization focused primarily on the question of whether the community board had the power to hire and fire teachers without regard to the teachers' union's system of due process. Though the issue was about district decentralization and administrative protocol, the situation came to be understood as one that pitted African American interests against Jewish interests. This was in part because parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were concerned by the fact that the teachers were overwhelmingly white (and Jewish) and the students overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican. In 1967, approximately two-thirds of New York teachers, supervisors, and principals were Jewish (See Kaufman, p. 137). The community board wanted more non-white role models for the students. In May 1968, after months of tension between teachers and parents, the community board fired 19 teachers and administrators whom they perceived as most hostile to the decentralization experiment. The teachers' union, UFT, voted to go on strike until they were reinstated.

In September, the debate over decentralization erupted into further acrimony when Albert Shanker, the head of the UFT, distributed copies of an anti-Semitic leaflet that had been put into the mailboxes of teachers at the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The focus of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy now became black anti-Semitism. The community board accused Shanker of deliberately fanning fears of anti-Semitism and defended itself against these accusations, pointing out that more than 50% of the teachers they had hired to replace the striking teachers were Jewish.

In November, after two months of strikes, the Board of Education suspended the community board, ending the experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But the debates over the role of anti-Semitism in the community continued, further enflamed by the reading of an anti-Semitic poem written by a student in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and dedicated to Albert Shanker on the radio show of Julius Lester, a black writer with a weekly show on WBAI. (Lester later converted to Judaism and became a professor of Jewish Studies.)

Affirmative Action

Another educational issue that divided some blacks and Jews in the 1970s and beyond was affirmative action. Many Jews were wary of affirmative action programs for several reasons: having benefited from meritocracy, they believed strongly in individual merit as the basis of equality of opportunity; they had negative associations with any program that smacked of quotas, which historically had been used to exclude Jews from schools, clubs, and workplaces; and they perceived that Jews would not benefit from policies that gave preferential treatment to African Americans over whites. The case of Marco De Funis, a white Jewish man, highlighted the Jewish perspective on this issue. In 1971, De Funis was denied admission to the University of Washington Law School. He brought a suit against the school claiming that he had been the target of discrimination because other students with admission scores below the cutoff (as his were) had been admitted while he had not. The original trial found in De Funis' favor, but the Supreme Court of Washington reversed the decision. Because De Funis was Jewish and affirmative action already a heated issue in the Jewish community, the case attracted a great deal of attention from Jewish organizations and the Jewish press, with a range of viewpoints expressed both in favor and in opposition to affirmative action policies. In 1974, the case came before the Supreme Court and organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League submitted briefs supporting the original decision. (The US Supreme Court ultimately decided that the case was moot because De Funis, who had been provisionally accepted to the school while the case was pending, was about to graduate.)

Over the years, other incidents, such as Jesse Jackson's off-the-record reference to New York as "Hymietown" (using "Hymie" as a derogatory term to refer to Jews) during his 1984 presidential campaign, and the riots between blacks and Jews in the heavily Hasidic and West Indian Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1991, have flared tensions between the two communities, provoked in Jews a mixture of anger and nostalgia about a perceived "golden age" of black-Jewish relations, and made the subject of black-Jewish relations one of public concern, addressed in mainstream media. Of course, some argue that there never was a real alliance, just a checkered history of connections and collaborations. But for some blacks and Jews, this history of cooperation led to higher expectations regarding their relationships with one another than with other whites, and when those expectations were not met, the disappointments on both sides were even sharper.

Lesson Plan

Introduction: Review Growing Tensions I: Black-Jewish Relations

  1. If you did not teach the previous lesson (Growing Tensions I) give your students some brief background on black-Jewish relations during the civil rights era using that portion of the essay that accompanies this lesson. If you did not teach the lesson African Americans and Jews: Siblings in Oppression? you may want to summarize that portion of the essay as well.


    If you did teach Growing Tensions I: Black-Jewish Relations, either use the beginning of this class period to stage the Poetry/Spoken Word Slam students prepared for at the end of the last lesson or ask students to reflect on what they learned from the Poetry/Spoken Word Slam they held last time. You also may want to discuss with your class the issue of cultural appropriation. (See that lesson for more details and suggestions relating to the Slam.)
  2. Fun with Post-its
    1. Give each of your students 3 post-its, one each of 3 different colors. Divide the board or wall space into three spaces marked "Causes of Tension" "African American Response" and "Jewish Response." (Or indicate which color equals which category.)
    2. On one color post-it have them write down one thing they learned about the causes of tensions between African Americans and Jews during the Civil Rights Movement, on a second color post-it have them write down one way African Americans responded to these tensions, and on a third color post-it have them write down one way Jews responded to the tensions.
    3. Divide your class into small groups and have students share within their group what they've written on their post-its.
    4. Have each group come up one at a time and stick their post-its on a wall or white board, organizing them by color (i.e. all the blue post-its together, all the yellow post-its together, and all the pink post-its together).
    5. When all the post-its have been stuck up in front of the class, have one or two representatives from each group come to the front of the class to begin organizing the post-its into new categories that make sense to them (for example, they might find that there are a bunch of post-its related to financial tensions between African Americans and Jews in the tension category). After they've had time to make a few categories, invite the next set of representatives to come up. (If you're using a wall, rather than a writing surface, be sure to have a fifth color of post-its on hand for the categories.)
    6. Review the categories and some examples with your class.

Text Study: Jigsaw

  1. Explain to your students:
    In the late 1960s and the 1970s new tensions arose between African Americans and Jews. Today, we're going to explore one subject of those tensions: affirmative action policies. (More information can be found in the Affirmative Action section of the introductory essay.)
  2. Divide your class into two groups and give each group one of the document study guides. (If you have a larger class, make more groups and each document will go to two or more groups. Then use groups of four instead of groups of two for part d.)
  3. Have the groups read and discuss their document. Then they should prepare to teach their document to another group by working on the "Teaching Preparation" section of their document study guide.
  4. Split into new groups of two (or four) students, with each student (or pair of students) having studied a different document. Have each member of the group teach the other students about the document s/he read.
  5. Have your students come back together as a class and discuss the following questions:
    • Would you be willing to "give up" your spot at your first choice college so that another student from a historically underserved minority could go to that school? Why or why not? In what, if any, circumstances would you feel differently? (Be sure students who themselves are members of a historically underserved minority have a chance to contribute to the conversation.)
    • Why do you think Jewish communal organizations took official positions on affirmative action? Do you think this is an issue of particular concern for the Jewish community? Why or why not?
    • If you were in charge of designing a just and equitable admissions policy for a university, what would it look like and why?

Wrap-up: More fun with Post-its

  1. Give students 2-3 of a fourth color of post-it notes.
  2. Using their new post-its, ask students to respond to the following questions:
    • How did the responses to affirmative action reveal tensions between the African American and Jewish communities and within those communities?
    • What do you think is relevant for today? Why?
  3. Have your students add their post-its to the categories and sub categories from the beginning of class. They may also start new sub-categories if they feel they are necessary.
  4. Choose a few ideas related to issues that are still relevant today and discuss these with your class.

Document Studies

NJCRAC Position on Affirmative Action

NJCRAC Position on Affirmative Action


NJCRAC, now known as The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is a non-profit organization that speaks on the behalf of national and local Jewish organizations across America. Its stated goals are to protect Jews in America, support Israel, and help promote a just society in America. In keeping with these goals, in 1975, NJCRAC adopted a position on affirmative action, which was later revised in 1981. An excerpt from the 1981 position can be found below.

National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council Position on Affirmative Action (adopted June 1975) as amended January 1981, Excerpt

We recognize that past discrimination and other deprivations leave their mark on future generations; that, in the words of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Until we overcome unequal history, we cannot overcome unequal opportunity.”…

A just society has an obligation to seek to overcome the evils of past discrimination and other deprivations—inferior education, lack of training, inadequate preparation—by affording special help to its victims, so as to hasten their productive participation in the society.

If it fails to do so, our society will harbor inequality for generations, with attendant increases in inter-group hostility. The security of Jews as a group will not be immune from those consequences.…

Merit and Qualification: We believe that individual merit is the touchstone of equality of opportunity. At the same time, we recognize that individual merit is not susceptible of precise mathematical definition and that test scores, however unbiased, are not the only relevant criteria for determining merit and qualifications are such factors as poverty, cultural deprivation, inadequate schooling, discrimination, or other deprivation in the individual’s experience, as well as such personal characteristics as motivation, determination, perseverance, and resourcefulness; and we believe that all such factors should be taken into account.

Quotas: Experience has shown that implementation of affirmative action programs has resulted in practices that are inconsistent with the principle of nondiscrimination and the goal of equal opportunity such programs are designed to achieve. We oppose such practices, foremost among which is the use of quotas and proportional representation in hiring, upgrading, and admission of members of minority groups.

We regard quotas as inconsistent with the principles of equality; and as harmful in the long run to all, including those groups, some individual members of which may benefit from specific quotas under specific circumstances at specific times.


Excerpt from Chanes, Jerome A., “Affirmative Action: Jewish Ideals, Jewish Interests,” in Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States. Jack Saltzman and Cornel West, eds. NY: Oxford University Press, 1997. p. 316. Permission to use granted by The Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Discussion Questions

  1. Review: Who wrote this document? When was it written?
  2. What audience was this document written for? How might that have influenced its content and format?
  3. What do you think the authors of this document meant by individual merit? What might be some examples of individual merit in your life?
  4. According to this document, what are the problems related to relying just on individual merit? Do you think NJCRAC supports taking other criteria into account? What evidence supports that? What might a college admissions policy that takes other criteria along with merit into account look like?
  5. How do the authors of this document feel about quotas? Why do they suggest that they feel this way? What might be other reasons besides the ones mentioned in this document that the authors and/or other Jews would not support quotas?
  6. Why do you think NJCRAC – a Jewish communal organization – took an official position on affirmative action? Do you think this is an issue of particular concern to the Jewish community? Why or why not?

Teaching Preparation

Your group will be teaching another group what you have learned about Jewish positions on affirmative action. Be prepared to share the following:

  1. Background about your document.
  2. An explanation of what the document is about (in your own words).
  3. The new tensions between Jews and African Americans that you see reflected in these documents. How Jews reacted.
  4. How this issue is or is not still relevant today, and why.

ADL Amicus Brief for DeFunis Affirmative Action Case

ADL Amicus Brief for DeFunis Affirmative Action Case


In 1971, Marco DeFunis, a white (Jewish) man, applied to the Washington University Law School and was denied admission. Some "minority students" with similar test scores and grades were admitted. DeFunis, his wife, and parents brought a suit against the school claiming that he had been discriminated against. The original trial found in DeFunis' favor, but the Supreme Court of Washington reversed the decision. Because DeFunis was Jewish and affirmative action was a heated issue in the Jewish community at the time, the case attracted a great deal of attention from Jewish organizations and the Jewish press—with a range of viewpoints expressed both in favor of and in opposition to affirmative action policies. In 1974, the case came before the Supreme Court and the Anti-Defamation League submitted a brief supporting the original decision. Below is an excerpt from that brief.

Brief of Anti-Defamation League as Amicus Curiae in support of Marco DeFunis, et al., Excerpt

The task of filling these 145 places was delegated to an admission committee consisting of five faculty members and two students… By means of a formula combining the law school admissions test score and the applicant’s junior and senior year college grade averages, a law school predicted first year average is established.

With very few exceptions, and almost always with no further consideration, the admissions committee in 1971 admitted applicants whose predicted first year average was 77 or above. The files of applicants whose predicted first year average was below 74.5 and who were not black Americans, Chicano Americans, native American Indians or Philippine Americans [called “minority students”] were examined by the chairman of the admission committee alone. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these applications were rejected by the chairman without further recourse…That left a residual category of applications, which was divided into two groups: those showing predicted first-year averages between 76.99 and 74.5 for applicants who were not …[“minority students”] – the group in which DeFunis was included, with a score of 76.23; and those showing that the applicant was a …[“minority student”] with a predicted first year average below 76.99 as well as below 74.5… The second group, although forming part of the same residual category, was treated distinctly and separately.

…Files in this separately treated group of …[“minority students”] were compared with each other and not with the rest of the applications passed upon by the committee or by its chairman individually.

By this method, the trial court found, 44 … [“minority students”] were offered admission to the law school, the vast majority of whom had lower predicted first-year averages than that of DeFunis, and some of whom, had they been white, would have had their applications summarily denied, presumably by exercise of the function delegated to the chairman of the admissions committee…

The justification for this policy, as the dean stated it, was that the minority racial and ethnic groups whom the Law School now sought to provide with a “reasonable representation” were those which has been “historically suppressed and excluded from participation in what might be thought of, I suppose, the main stream of our society, and certainly in participation in the legal arena.” The stated assumption underlying the policy was that these groups had been and were now culturally and economically disadvantaged, and that the usual method of evaluating applicants were consequently less than usually accurate with respect to them. But there is no pretense in this record that the assumption of cultural and economic disadvantage as applied to any particular individual applicants rested on anything but his race.


Ann Fagen, ed. DeFunis versus Odegaard and the University of Washington; the university admissions case: the record, vol. 1 (Dobbs Ferry: Oceana Publications, 1974),1082; 1088-1089.

Discussion Questions

  1. Review: Who wrote this document? When was it written?
  2. What audience was this document written for? How might that have influenced its content and format?
  3. In what way were minority groups given an advantage over white applicants? What was the reason for using different criteria for judging these applicants?
  4. According to the Amicus Curiae "there is no pretense in this record that the assumption of cultural and economic disadvantage as applied to any particular individual applicants rested on anything but his race." Why was this significant? What is the Amicus Curiae implying was a problem with the University's admission policy?
  5. Why do you think the Anti-Defamation League issued this brief on the side of DeFunis? Do you think they were correct in doing so? Why or why not?
  6. If you were in charge of designing a just and equitable admissions policy for a university, what would it look like and why?

Teaching Preparation

Your group will be teaching another group what you have learned about Jewish positions on affirmative action. Be prepared to share the following:

  1. Background about your document.
  2. An explanation of what the document is about (in your own words).
  3. The new tensions between Jews and African Americans that you see reflected in these documents. How Jews reacted.
  4. How this issue is or is not still relevant today, and why.


Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action

A policy or program, often used in recruitment, admissions or hiring, that gives preference to members of a minority group to redress a history of discrimination.

Amicus Curiae

Amicus Curiae

A Latin word literally meaning "friend of the court." Amicus Curiae briefs are filed with the court by a party that is not part of the court case but feels it will be affected by the outcome of the case.

Black Power Movement

Black Power Movement

A movement that developed in the late 1960s that emphasized the need for black self-sufficiency, as well as black cultural pride. Many of its leaders believed that African Americans needed to take a more militant approach and take control of the Civil Rights Movement. This led many organizations to remove their white members and leaders.



A system in which education and hard work are rewarded by economic and social success. Each person succeeds based on his or her own merit.



A predetermined number. In recruitment, admissions, or hiring, it might be a prescribed number of certain minority groups used either to limit a group considered undesirable or to ensure inclusion of a group discriminated against in the past.

Teacher Resources

Jerome A. Chanes. "Jews and Affirmative Action/Preferences." Encyclopedia of Jewish History, Volume 1. Stephen Harlan Norwood and Eunice G. Pollack, Ed. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2008. pp. 432-435. Available online (Search for "Affirmative Action")

Sharae Wheeler, "DeFunis v. Odegaard: Another Kind of 'Jewish Problem,'" 2008. Published on the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project website.

Wheeler's analysis of the DeFunis case, in the form of a research report written while she was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, also features digital copies of documents related to the case, including the NAACP Amicus Brief and a series of news articles from the University of Washington Daily.

Articles that appeared in Jewish publications in relation to more recent affirmative action court cases:

Kaufman, Jonathan. Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times between Blacks and Jews in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Dollinger, Marc. "A Different Kind of Freedom Ride: American Jews and the Struggle for Racial Equality, 1964-1975," (Chapter 8), Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.


How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Growing tensions II: Affirmative Action." (Viewed on January 18, 2018) <>.


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