Jewish Americans have recently suffered yet another wave of antisemitic violence. Synagogues have been vandalized in several major cities, and Jewish Americans have been attacked while simply walking down the street — incidents that, several commentators have pointed out, we might have thought belonged to another era.
There is another kind of antisemitism that we may equally think of as a bygone relic of the suburban boom: discriminatory zoning. Yet, excluding Jews from certain neighborhoods or entire towns is still a vibrant practice that disproportionately affects Jewish Americans. While Jews make up roughly 2% of the American population, nearly 15% of all reported federal religious land use cases involve Jewish assemblies or institutions.
The first zoning codes were developed in the 1920s, and in 1926, the Supreme Court ruled that zoning codes were generally a proper exercise of the government’s police power. Many zoning codes were created for benign reasons, others for overtly bigoted ones, but for the next 60 years, zoning codes expanded in scope and proliferated, largely unchecked by the courts.
In 1985, in Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, the Supreme Court finally struck down a zoning code for discriminating against the intellectually disabled in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But the decision did little to slow zoning and land use as one of the most powerful and effective ways to direct the future of a community.