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Jews and Affirmative Action: What the CUNY Diversity Plan Gets Wrong

Jews and Affirmative Action: What the CUNY Diversity Plan Gets Wrong

The logic that recently led CUNY to carve a specific category for Jewish faculty members—“White/Jewish”—for its new Diversity Actions Plan makes sense. Apparently many Jewish faculty members felt that “White/Caucasian” didn’t adequately define their sense of ethnic affiliation. But in the past two weeks since the news broke—the New York Post, true to from, put it on everyone’s agenda with its klieg-lit headline, “New Minority Label at CUNY: ‘Jewish’”—the criticism against the decision has been immense.

Peter Wood pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “identity group labels seldom work as their proponents hope. Especially when it comes to Jews in academia “they can be used as tools of exclusion if a group is judged to be ‘overrepresented.’” It can also result in some truly misfortunate, insensitive requests. One Jewish professor at CUNY’s business school told Wood that the university’s diversity office had asked him for “a list of either who were the Jews or the number of Jews in our department and in the School of Business in general.”

Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading Jewish cultural historian, put the issue in much-needed historical perspective. In the 19th and early-20th century, she wrote on her blog, Jews actually sought out to be counted in censuses. They wanted to show that they were active participants in American wars—in other words, to assert their patriotism—and that they were not, when anti-Semitic suspicions swarmed around new Jewish immigrants, any more criminal than the rest of the population.

But that changed by the mid-20th century. First, the relish for being counted diminished when Jews found out that elite universities were tracking their numbers surreptitiously, to keep their numbers down. Then came the Holocaust, when the Nazis made the counting of Jews a tool for mass murder. Given the most recent history, it’s not only surprising that some Jewish faculty members would ask for their own group label. It also makes sense that several other Jewish professors have already spoken out against it.

There is larger issue here, too, of course, one that gets at the heart of the matter—the culture of diversity-boosting and affirmative action. These two things are often conflated, but Wendy Kaminer, in The Alantic, probably has the most illuminating and biting words to say about it. In her attack of CUNY’s broader plan to aim for greater faculty diversity, which is what the new “white/Jewish” category is intended for, she points out that diversity for its sake was not—and shouldn’t be—the aim of affirmative action.

The original intent behind affirmative action was to promote certain groups—blacks, Latinos, women—who had been historically disadvantaged, and who, even after formal laws against discrimination were passed, still suffered from informal, less blatant hiring and acceptance biases.

“Instead,” Kaminer writes, “at CUNY and other schools, affirmative action is being transformed, expanded, and institutionalized by a bureaucratic cult of diversity. It's not aimed at righting historic wrongs but at creating ‘inclusive’ and ‘nurturing’ environments for individuals, while giving universities like CUNY the benefits of ‘a multitude of skills, perspectives, and experiences in order to better advance its mission of research, teaching, and service.’”

The problem with this, especially at universities, is that it assumes members of any particular ethnic groups all think the same way—something we Jews know never is or was the case. And it also devalues universities’ other cherished value: freedom of speech.

The culture of ‘nurturing diversity’ for its own sake has, in effect, has muffled once impassioned debates for fear of offending certain cultural sensibilities. An atmosphere of extreme relativism—of everyone ‘agreeing to disagree,’ but rarely ever disagreeing at all—has usurped a culture of intense intellectual debate. This is not to argue that ideological rigidity is the preferred alternative, but that a certain amount of thick skin is sometimes necessary to debate difficult issues. After all, it’s only through the direct engagement with the problems at hand—through clear, even harsh speech—that we can come to a greater sense of meaning.

And yet, so fearful are we to offend, that we end up staying silent. This culture of respectable disagreement isn’t only bad for Jews, it’s bad for everyone.

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