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Jewish Journal

Domestic Attention Deficit Disorder

by James D. Besser

May 8, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Last week's release of the Israeli-Palestinian "road map" signaled the start of a new round of U.S. Mideast diplomacy and a new challenge for the pro-Israel groups that don't like some interpretations of the plan.

It signaled something else, as well: It will be even harder to get Jewish groups to focus on the domestic revolution taking place in Washington. Jewish activists involved in the domestic trenches concede that shifting U.S. Mideast policies will have a huge impact on Israel's security for years to come.

But the road map is, at best, the start of a long, arduous process. Meanwhile, much more immediate changes are taking place on the domestic front. And while Jewish groups are engaged, many activists say they have fewer resources -- human and economic -- to fight domestic battles because of the disproportionate emphasis on Israel.

Evidence of earthshaking changes in the domestic firmament are everywhere, starting with the administration's tax and spending policies. Already, Jewish agencies around the country are panicking over prospects of big cuts in a variety of government programs, including Medicaid, as the economy sputters and the 2001 tax cuts are fully implemented. And President George W. Bush is still pushing new tax cuts that critics say will force up the deficit -- and add to the pressure for even deeper domestic spending cuts.

Indeed, many analysts believe the administration is using big new deficits as a bludgeon to beat down despised programs that they haven't been able to kill through more conventional means. While some leading congressional Republicans are balking at the administration's full request, it is all but certain lawmakers will pass a substantial portion of the plan.

The problem is compounded for Jewish service providers because state budgets across the nation are in free-fall. And while charitable giving is flat or declining, demand for the services these agencies provide is growing rapidly. More elderly people need assistance, thanks to the loss of trillions of dollars in the value of stock portfolios and retirement plans; more clients need vocational services as wave after wave of job cutbacks wash across the economy; more sick people need help at a time when health care costs are soaring, but many are losing their insurance.

Jewish agencies are already being called on to do more with less; barring a sharp turnaround in the economy, the problems will only multiply in the next few years.

Jewish leaders are fighting to protect critical programs, but few are wading into the real battle -- the fight over tax and budget policy. One reason: their preoccupation with a Middle East in turmoil, and a desire not to alienate an administration that has been unusually supportive of Israel.

Now that the road map is on the table and Washington is under strong international pressure to implement it quickly, they are even less willing to lock horns with a strong, confident president.

Israel isn't the only reason Jewish groups have been uncharacteristically quiet as the tax fight plays out on Capitol Hill, but it is a big and compelling one. A similar dynamic is in play in the escalating church-state wars.

Activists from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and others are still lobbying hard against new programs to funnel government money to religious groups (Orthodox groups are working on the other side of the issue). But the imbalance in Jewish activism means these groups have fewer resources to devote to such domestic concerns. Israel-related conference calls alone eat up hours that might otherwise be spent working on church-state coalitions.

And again, there is a reluctance to push too hard at a time when the administration's Mideast policy is in flux -- especially because this is an administration that holds grudges. Jewish groups still criticize administration actions that they see as eroding the church-state line, but they may be pulling their punches because of their concerns about Israel. Meanwhile, the administration is moving aggressively to implement much of its faith-based agenda through executive action, without congressional approval -- the biggest shift in the church-state balance in decades.

"Our determination to be involved in these debates is undiminished," an official with a Jewish church-state group said recently, "but there's no question that as an organization, we are distracted by what's happening in the Middle East."

The list goes on and on. The disproportionate focus on Israel is one reason so few Jewish groups have gotten involved in the high-stakes fight over the administration's judicial nominees; activists can't get many Jewish leaders to pay attention to the nation's badly broken refugee program for the same reason.

Building and maintaining support for Israel at this critical juncture is a fundamental responsibility of Jewish groups. But so is protecting the community's traditional social justice interests -- and the self-interest of the thousands of vulnerable clients of Jewish agencies whose government-funded services will soon be in jeopardy.

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