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Jewish Journal

Speaking Truth to Power—Not

by James D. Besser

April 1, 2004 | 7:00 pm

There's nothing bashful about Jewish organizations, but in 2004, many suddenly go mute if the subject involves potential conflict with the Bush administration. 

The silence epidemic has been particularly evident in the ongoing Capitol Hill battles over President Bush's proposals for new tax cuts and some of his archconservative nominees to the federal bench.  But it has also shown up on a host of other issues, including one traditionally close to the hearts of many Jewish activists: church-state separation. 

The reasons for this uncharacteristic reticence can be summed up in one word: fear. Jewish leaders fear that clashing with the president on his top domestic priorities might affect his support for Israel, and they fear losing precious White House access. 

There's one more factor at work here, as well: the growing gap between the megadonors who increasingly dominate Jewish communal life and rank-and-file Jews, who remain remarkably true to the community's political moorings. 

Talk to almost any director of a Jewish social service agency and you'll probably get the same answer: The mounting budget crisis in Washington threatens their operations and their clients. 

Bush insists his big tax cuts, and the additional ones he wants to enact this year, are needed to spur the economy, but critics say they are producing record deficits that are already forcing Draconian cuts in discretionary spending, starting with health and social services.

But while Jewish agencies, funded by a blend of government and philanthropic money, are direly threatened, Jewish groups have almost all shunned the tax cut issue. With the exception of the Reform movement, the response to queries on the tax issue is generally, "We don't have a position, because we don't have consensus." 

Overwhelmingly, Jews remain pro-choice on the touchy question of abortion, despite a vocal minority.  But only the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women have been aggressively involved in the Senate fight to block some of President Bush's anti-choice nominees to the federal bench. 

The hundreds of judges appointed by this president will reshape American jurisprudence for a generation, yet, when asked, most Jewish groups have the same response: "We don't get involved in judicial nomination fights." 

Even on church-state issues, some Jewish leaders are spiking their big guns when it comes to confronting an administration that is transforming the church-state landscape with its aggressive faith-based initiatives. 

Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee continue taking a tough line on school vouchers and public school prayer, but overall, the community's response to the administration's faith-based revolution has been surprisingly tepid. 

The reasons aren't hard to fathom, starting with concern about an embattled Israel. 

There is an acute awareness in Jewish leadership circles that this administration has been surprisingly supportive of the kind of Israeli government that usually produces U.S.-Israeli strains -- a hardline Likud government one. 

With Israel isolated and under siege, there is a strong reluctance to jeopardize that support by challenging the administration on the home front, and especially on its top domestic priorities. 

Top pro-Israel leaders these days talk about the need to reward an administration that has been good to Israel -- in part by muting opposition to its domestic policies. 

There is also the question of access. 

The Bush administration didn't invent the policy of punishing political opponents by keeping them away from the White House, but many observers say it has carried vindictiveness to new heights. 

Jewish leaders crave the meetings with top administration officials and the White House receptions and photo-ops, things they need to maintain their own input into policy decisions -- and to satisfy their lay leaders that they're on the job. 

There's one more issue out there limiting Jewish criticism of the current administration: the growing dominance of a handful of big givers in Jewish communal affairs. 

Their importance to the Jewish world is unquestioned -- would the United Jewish Communities be able to fund countless critical services across the country and in Israel without them? But they also tend to skew the community's activism. 

Many of these megagivers are much more conservative and much more Republican than a community that remains strongly Democratic and liberal. 

And many favor the things that many workers in their own organizations fear, including big tax cuts and "trickle-down" economic policies. 

The Jewish community is caught in a bind. It needs the big givers to fund increasingly expensive operations -- but the growing gap between top leaders and rank-and-file Jews could be a factor in the drift away from communal involvement outside the activist core. 

In the real world, knowing when to fight and when to compromise is always tricky.  It's become much harder -- and the stakes have become much greater -- now that we have a president who is doing exactly what he promised to do, and a Congress eager to go along with him.  

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