Law as Social Action: A Life in Advocacy Recalling Five Jewish Justices

How One Man Changed the Rules

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 09, 2004, issue of January 09, 2004.

In 1945 Will Maslow set out to defend the lives of Jews across America with something no one had ever considered a weapon: a law degree.

Until that point, the American Jewish community had attempted to fight antisemitism and prejudice largely through “brotherhood meetings” and other quiet strategies aimed at conciliating and persuading the Christian majority. But Maslow left all that behind in 1945, when he was hired to lead the American Jewish Congress’s newly-founded Commission on Law and Social Action. Under his leadership, the CLSA aggressively took the fight against discrimination to the courts and legislative chambers.

“He pioneered the whole idea of law as a form of social action,” said Lois Waldman, who was hired by Maslow in 1951, and still works today as co-director of the Commission. “He believed you didn’t have to wait and try to get people to do things through exhortation. He saw law as the ultimate educating force.”

Within two decades of his hiring at the CLSA, the legal sanctioning of discrimination in America, both racial and religious — meaning, mainly, against blacks and Jews — was almost completely eradicated. Today Maslow, now 96, lives a quiet life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. His story, one of the proudest chapters of American Jewish history, has been all but lost to history precisely because of its incredible success.

Before the 1950s, Jews in America confronted an institutional racism that is hard to imagine today. Restrictions made it impossible for Jews to buy property in many neighborhoods across America, and colleges and companies maintained legal limits on the number of Jews they would admit or hire. Maslow, who grew up in Chicago, was a bright enough star that he was able to win admission to Cornell University under quotas on Jews. At the university he rose to become one of the first Jewish editorial writers on the Cornell Daily Sun.

While studying at Columbia Law School — and moonlighting as a reporter for the New York Times — Maslow began to encounter law firms that would not consider his counsel because of his religion. His career path was set.

Shortly after graduating Maslow went to Washington. World War II had begun, and President Franklin Roosevelt, under prodding from the black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, had created the Fair Employment Practices Committee, the first modern federal civil-rights agency, to investigate discrimination in firms with defense contracts. Maslow was director of field operations. After the war, the committee was abolished in a Senate action clearly aimed at getting the government out of civil rights.

At that time, the only organizations pursuing legal challenges to discriminatory hiring and education practices were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, each with a handful of staff lawyers.

In August 1945 Maslow was hired by the American Jewish Congress with a mandate to bring those new tactics to the defense of Jewish rights. He hired seven lawyers, creating the nation’s largest ever civil rights team, and quickly went on the offensive. His commission sued Columbia University over discriminatory admission policies. It brought suit against the Stuyvesant Town Housing Company, an enormous New York apartment complex with restrictive racial policies.

Maslow’s staff also went to state capitals to propose and then lobby for legislation. In 1947, Maslow submitted a comprehensive civil rights program to President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. Two years later he mounted a successful campaign to enact laws in New York State, the first in the nation, ensuring fair education and housing practices.

In the early days of Maslow’s leadership, these aggressive tactics did not sit well with much of the rest of the organized Jewish community. Some groups disliked Maslow’s confrontational approach. Others, AJCongress staffers recall, objected to Maslow’s linking of Jewish rights with the rights of other minorities.

“At the time, it was considered a waste of Jewish resources to defend the rights of blacks,” said Phil Baum, AJCongress’s executive director emeritus, who first joined Maslow’s commission as a law student in 1949.

In particular, AJCongress’s tactics were contested by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee during meetings of what was then called the National Community Relations Advisory Council. Through the end of the 1940s council meetings repeatedly turned into clashes between AJCongress and the other two groups, until Maslow’s approach was ultimately triumphant.

Maslow has trouble today remembering those fights, but he does remember his response to detractors. “Nobody kept the American Jewish Congress quiet,” he told the Forward.

Maslow’s commission worked closely with civil rights groups like the NAACP, and wrote influential friend-of-the-court briefs in cases like Brown v. Board of Education. In 1963, he was part of the seven-person administrative team that organized the famous March on Washington.

Maslow fought these battles partly out of his own deep-seated commitment to equality, but also because he believed that “in a country that discriminated against any group, Jews would never be safe,” said Naomi Levine, one of the many female lawyers Maslow hired in those early years. (Levine eventually succeeded Maslow as executive director of AJCongress and is now executive director of the New York University Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.)

The CLSA under Maslow broadened its mandate to challenge more than just discrimination. Maslow brought in the legendary attorney Leo Pfeffer, who argued many of the foundational cases outlawing school prayer and solidifying the line between church and state.

By the time Maslow moved on to become the executive director of AJCongress in 1960, the carefully chosen legal battles he led had already knocked down most governmental acceptance of the unequal treatment of Jews.

“Maslow’s work at the commission broke down the ghetto,” said Marc Stern, currently assistant executive director of AJCongress and co-director of the CLSA. “Access to education, access to housing, the end of school prayer were matters of real importance, and they came because the commission decided to stop asking politely and start demanding.”

In the process, there was a revolution not just in the way that Jews were treated in America, but also in the ways that Jewish organizations operated.

“These methods spread quickly to other groups,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “A whole community developed that learned to use the law as a major weapon to obtain rights for the Jewish community.”

Even after retiring as director in 1972 Maslow did not leave the legal battlefield. He continued to work as a CLSA lawyer. A devoted Zionist — he is a nephew of David Ben-Gurion — he helped lead the fight to bar American firms from complying with the Arab boycott of Israel.

Though he always showed appreciation to his staff, Maslow was never an easy boss, staffers recall; anything less than perfection was a problem. Above all, though, former employees remember his unrelenting humility and willingness to give credit where it was due. “Every press release went out with someone else’s name on it,” remembered Levine.

“The Jewish community today is scrambling to try to find the issues that are half as clear,” said Baum. “Now you have to justify everything you are doing; in those days the relevance of the issues was clear enough.”

The memory of battling those issues may fade with Maslow’s recollections, but the legacy of his work has been preserved in the everyday fabric of Jewish lives across America.



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