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"Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb": A New Departure in American Jewish Defense?

Naomi W. Cohen
Jewish History
Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 95-108
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20101060
Page Count: 14
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Abstract

The 1987 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb reveals the adoption by American Jews of a new defensive posture that would have been unthinkable one hundred or even twenty years ago. The novelty was the way in which the Jews chose to approach the government. The case was one of vandalism -- the painting by eight young men of Nazi symbols and related slogans on the walls of the Shaare Tefila synagogue building in November 1982. Following a criminal trial, the synagogue filed a civil suit based on a post-Civil War statute passed by Congress to protect blacks, which determined that "all persons" should enjoy the same security as "white persons". The congregation also relied on Federal Court precedents that had protected whites against racial discrimination. The aim of the complainants was not to have Jews classified as members of a distinct race, but to seek redress on the grounds that the perpetrators, by their own admission, had made such a classification. Although major Jewish organizations were at first dubious, amicus curiae briefs were eventually filed in support of the congregation by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which were later joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others. This new defensive strategy marked the abandonment of an earlier strategy based on First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom. The Jews now were claiming rights as an ethnic group. Such a defense was hazardous, since it might be exploited to argue that the Jews indeed constituted a race. The decision of the Supreme Court, in favor of the congregation, carefully avoided this pitfall. Beyond the specifics of the case, and the new defensive strategy, Shaare Tefila v. Cobb reveals the willingness of American Jews in the 1980s to have themselves identified as a people, no longer solely as members of a religious denomination. /// [Abstract in Hebrew].

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