Lurking behind the new culture war flare-up over affirmative action in the Trump era lie two eye-popping statistics that tell the sweeping story of Jewish assimilation in America in miniature: At the turn of the last century, Jews made up 7 percent of the student body at Harvard; a generation later, in 1925, the number had soared to 27.6 percent.

A year later, an unofficial quota against Jews was put into place at the university as applicants were, for the first time, asked to provide photographs of themselves, presumably the better to reveal their Jewish looks.

Edward Blum, 65, is a student of that piece of educational history, even though he grew up in Houston in the 1960s, and was not affected by the infamous quota system at the Ivies.

The Jews of Houston were aware of another unofficial quota, closer to home — a ban on hiring Jewish engineers for the Texas city’s economic engine, its oil companies. “Everyone knew about it,” Blum told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “My parents talked about it.”

Blum is a visiting fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute who has become an outspoken advocate for conservative causes in the higher education community. And he called his Houston memories an inspiration for his campaign against what he calls a race-based affirmative action system that gives preference to students of color who apply for college admission.

Those policies, said Blum, who is president of Students for Fair Admission, discriminate against Asian students — the “New Jews,” as they are called by some. Their numbers, he claims in several lawsuits he has brought against Harvard and the University of Texas, his alma mater, have remained constantly low at elite universities in recent years. This, despite Asian students’ proven record of superior academic success in high school and on standardized tests like the SAT.

Blum’s lawsuits are gaining attention as the Justice Department has just announced that it is launching an investigation to re-examine affirmative action policies to determine whether whites are being discriminated against in college admissions. That re-examination, critics fear, may be the beginning of a process to roll back affirmative action for minorities and part of the Trump administration’s general thrust to firm up the president’s base of white voters.

“We welcome it,” Blum said of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ probe, adding that he has “no role whatsoever” in the effort.

The new spotlight on affirmative action has illuminated some old divisions in the Jewish community.

Harvard University (Wikimedia Commons)

For Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, the comparison of quotas that kept Jews out of elite universities with those that restrict the number of Asian students doesn’t hold up. Their intent is completely different, Stern said, adding that the AJC is among several prominent Jewish organizations that supports the idea that race should be considered as one of a number of factors in determining college admissions.

“Race and ethnicity should not be used to help you in life or hurt you in life.”

“Harvard does not have something against Asians in the same way it did against Jews — it was an anti-Semitic quota,” Stern said. “The Harvard Asian matter is a manifestation of the increased ethnic diversity in the country. When affirmative action began, the issues were largely seen as binary — whites and blacks.

“Now the picture is far more complex, and sorting out affirmative action is correspondingly more difficult.”

Even so, Blum argues that college admission should be colorblind.
“Race and ethnicity should not be used to help you in life or hurt you in life,” he said. While the Supreme Court has declared that race can be considered as one criterion for a student’s college admission, race has come to be the primary factor, overshadowing other parts of a student’s background, Blum said.

Even an avowed liberal like Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor, has re-examined his earlier carte blanche support for affirmative action. “The idea of discriminating against Asians in order to make room for other minorities doesn’t seem right as a matter of principle,” he said recently.

The Justice Department’s recent move follows the filing by Blum of a lawsuit against Harvard in 2014 that claims that the university’s race-based admission criteria violate civil rights law by holding Asian Americans to a higher standard than other applicants.

“The idea of discriminating against Asians in order to make room for other minorities doesn’t seem right as a matter of principle.”

Nearly a century ago, several universities, fearful of admitting a disproportionate number of Jewish students, tweaked their admission requirements to limit how many Jews were admitted; no longer would admissions be based solely on merit. Admissions officers at Harvard, writes Jerome Karabel in his 2006 book, “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton,” were instructed “to interview as many applicants as possible to gather additional information on ‘character and fitness and the promise of the greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education.’ Henceforth, declared the faculty, a passport-sized photo would be ‘required as an essential part of the application for admissions.’”

Said Blum: “The same thing today is happening with Asians.”

“The same thing today is happening with Asians.”

He has refiled his suit against the University of Texas in Texas state court after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him last year; his suit against Harvard in federal court is in the early stage of discovery, with attorneys obtaining and reviewing relevant documents, and could be headed for the Supreme Court.

Like the early 19th-century Jews who were largely the over-achieving children of immigrant families, today’s Asian students are penalized for their disproportionate academic success in high school, being admitted — in favor of African-American and Hispanic applicants — in smaller percentages than their grades would indicate.

Jonathan Tobin

Bowing to public pressure during the civil rights movement, in 1971 the Harvard administration developed the “Harvard Plan,” a policy that allowed recruiters to take applicants’ race and ethnicity into account. In practice, this has meant increasing the number of black students and capping the number of Asians.

A recent Newsweek headline made the historical parallel: “At Harvard, ‘Too Jewish’ has become ‘too Asian.’”

“Discrimination is discrimination,” Blum said. His lawsuit alleges that Harvard’s admissions process constitutes an illegal quota system.
“African Americans, Hispanics, whites, receive an unfair advantage preference because of the quotas on Asians,” including students from a variety of backgrounds, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian, he said.

Most mainstream Jewish organizations still support affirmative action.
The AJC, Stern said, “remains committed to the principle that the use of race as one factor in a holistic approach to admissions is acceptable. We don’t see any reason to reconsider that core principle.”

The Justice Department’s new position on affirmative action is “clearly a retreat from [the liberal positions of] the Obama administration,” he said, declining to speculate if it is a ploy of the Trump administration to court white support but adding: “Clearly, white nationalists would be opposed to affirmative action.”

The Anti-Defamation League released a statement saying it has “significant concerns about reports that the Justice Department is changing its direction on affirmative action, particularly given its demonstrated diminished commitment to police reform, LGBT rights and civil rights enforcement. We continue to support affirmative action programs that take race into account as one factor among many, which the Supreme Court has upheld.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, said in a letter to Sessions that he is “ deeply concerned by the notion that already stretched resources at the Department of Justice will be redirected toward efforts that undermine a key driver of racial justice.”

Blum remains unmoved.

“It saddens me,” Blum said, “that so many Jewish advocacy groups have come out and supported” existing affirmative action policies.
He cites public opinion polls in the last few years that indicate that a majority of people in this country, including African-Americans, oppose race-based affirmative action policies. “It seems likely to me that Jews line up with the same percentage.” The leaderships of Jewish organizations “are out of step with their membership.”

But, in fact, public opinion on affirmative action is hard to pin down. While a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that Americans, by a 63-30 percent margin, considered campus-based affirmative action programs a “good thing,” a Gallup poll last year found that nearly two-thirds of the people surveyed disagreed with the Supreme Court decision upholding the University of Texas’ affirmative action program.

“Affirmative action has become mired in race-baiting politics.”

Jonathan Tobin, a contributor to National Review Online (and a Jewish Week columnist), said affirmative action “has become mired in race-baiting politics” and that a policy that was originally designed as a temporary remedy for inequitable admissions policies “has become permanent.”
“It’s solely based on race. There is an inherent injustice in that,” he said.

Tobin called Jewish support for affirmative action “an argument between ideology (socially progressive values) and self-interest (the possibility that affirmative action might reduce Jewish students’ college admission rates).

“Ideology has generally prevailed,” he said.

“The effort to use admission to institutions of higher education as a grand experiment to redress America’s racist past is liberal orthodoxy that may not be questioned even if it uses a tactic of racists — de facto racial quotas — to advance a social-justice goal,” he wrote in an essay for National Review.

Blum agrees. Raised in a Reform household, he spent three months working on a kibbutz during college and subsequently twice took part in the Volunteers for Israel program. He said his Jewish dedication to fairness and his memories of anti-Jewish quotas in the Houston of his youth motivate his work. “You remember you are a member of a minority that has suffered from academic, employment, residential quotas.”

A self-described “amateur litigant … legal yenta,” he has helped file about a dozen lawsuits targeting affirmative action since 2009.
Blum said the main concern of his activism is not whether his lawsuits “will benefit Jews, will benefit Catholics” or members of any other minority group. “Who benefits,” he said, “is all of us.”