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Legislating Fairness

I’d like to take a moment to talk about American law, and race, and we the (Jewish) people. It came up when the Supreme Court decided that Brown v. The Board of Education never happened, and it comes up all the time when I want to talk about affirmative action. I find many Jews—at least socially liberal, economically comfortable, white-passing Jews—have a real mental block about affirmative action (which was certainly related to the recent Court ruling—it’s still affirmative action even if the parties in question are fourteen). I think a lot of that block is the sense that if Jews, a minority that certainly did tend to arrive in America with almost nothing, have been able to “make it,” then certainly any and everybody should be able to. I think such a train of thought, although entirely misguided, does display a continuing value placed on education, work, and self/communal-reliance. Nothing wrong with that, but it ignores a few basic points, the first of which is that Jews did have something like affirmative action here in the U.S. They called it the G.I. Bill. One of the most pinko pieces of legislation to get rammed through a Congress, the G.I. Bill did things for the “white ethnic” working class (Jews, Irish, Italians, etc.) that would have never been otherwise imaginable. Free education?! Our current vet packages should be so nice. Among the thousands of soldiers (mostly white, from a segregated armed forces) who received a free college education this way were both of my grandfathers—the first in their families to go to college in this country. Yes, education is a value in the Jewish community—no doubt. But yes, we got something from the government too, once. It leveled the playing field—not such a horrible thing.

It’s important to note that the G.I. Bill helped men far more than women—and that shows, too, in a pay gap that still has not resolved itself, despite the pretty permanent place of women in the workplace now. I’m not going to get into the various theories about why such a pay gap exists—and there are plenty—but just put on the table the fact that it’s sexist and wrong. I’m as in favor of a meritocracy as the next citizen, but I’d love something in place to help modulate fair hiring practices and make sure I can sue for equitable wages.

And finally, we’re part of a religious and, to some extent, a cultural community that absolutely dictates fairness in our business conduct. More than the requirement to allow extra wheat for gleaners—that’ll come when we discuss welfare—and even more than the exhortation “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” we have very specific instructions about how we are to conduct ourselves in the business realm:

“Thou shall not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small. Thou shalt not have in thy house divers measures, a great and a small. A perfect and just weight shalt thou have, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have.” (Deut. 25:13-15)

Fairness, real fairness even where we might lessen our own profits, is a commandment. Justice and fairness sometimes require a small sacrifice on our part, in the sense of not taking that which might not be ours by right. Not every group has access to such an ancient and meaningful system of holy obligations, and it’s time that we support their implementation in our day to day lives.

–Mel Weiss