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Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2001 / 20 Teves, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

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Forget about Jews in the Cabinet, 'charitable choice' is the real issue to debate

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE COMPLAINTS were as predictable as they were ridiculous. Once President-elect George W. Bush finished picking his Cabinet, the fact that he hadnít chosen any Jews was seen as a reason to worry.

You would think that a group that makes up 2 percent of the population yet manages to claim 10 percent of the U.S. Senate and two out of nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court would have outgrown this obsession with head counting. But even after the rise of so many Jews to high positions in every sector of American life, it seems that many of us still take a great deal of pleasure in seeing Jews succeed. Conversely, when Jews are not chosen for positions, some of us worry, seeing anti-Semitism behind every bush.

While most Jewish leaders struggled to keep their perspective, others succumbed to the temptation to give vent to a little stereotypical paranoia. Even the normally sensible Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, was quoted as saying that the lack of Jews in the new Cabinet was "a little distressing."

And the editorial page of the Forward ó the reliably knee-jerk voice of old-time Jewish liberalism since the purge of its centrist editor last summer ó referred to Bushís choices as a "symbolic snub."

It wasnít so long ago that the idea of a Jew sitting in a seat of power in Washington was a fantasy. But having broken through the proverbial political glass ceiling when Sen. Joseph Lieberman became the Democratís nominee for vice president, itís as if some of us now seem to think that any time a Jew is not chosen, itís a cause for alarm.

But how much difference did the presence of a Jew at the Agriculture Department under Bill Clinton (former U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas) make to the future of American Jews? Zero. And how happy were friends of Israel with the mostly Jewish foreign-policy team of the Clinton-era State Department?

As for the Jewish presence in the new administration, while not as numerous as in Clintonís time, it will not be insignificant either. The most conspicuous Jew will be White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and there will, no doubt be many lower-level Jewish administrators and policy wonks throughout the executive branch.

FAITH-BASED SOLUTIONS
More importantly, most Jewish groups are closely monitoring the new Bush administrationís domestic initiatives rather than the religious identity of his nominees. The most interesting of these will be the new presidentís support for charitable choice.

Charitable choice is the label for a wide-ranging number of proposals, all of which have as their aim allowing government to fund private religious groupsí efforts to alleviate poverty. Bush convened a conference of religious leaders to discuss the idea last month in Austin, Texas. Among them was Philadelphian Murray Friedman, regional director of the American Jewish Committee here who has been researching the issue as part of a study funded by the Pew Foundation.

While most Americans ó both Republicans and Democrats, including Vice President Al Gore ó support the idea of letting tax dollars back effective programs that service the poor even if they are run by churches, synagogues or mosques, this blurring of the "wall" of separation between church and state has many Jewish organizations worried. The concern is that faith-based programs to provide needed services will inevitably be used to either proselytize the recipients or coerce them into religious affirmations.

These are not frivolous complaints. The power of the government should never be used to coerce anybody into a religious faith, or to intimidate or marginalize religious or secular minorities. But if charitable-choice

programs can be structured to deal with that problem, the question will boil down to whether Jewish groups are prepared once again to let their liberal ideology stand in the way of helping those in need.

This is familiar territory for advocates for the Jewish communal agenda. When it comes to school choice or vouchers, liberal allegiance to separationist dogma has made Jewish organizations powerful foes to programs that might help poor, inner-city minority students escape failing schools. Nor has the prospect of choice making the exorbitantly expensive Jewish day schools more accessible to middle-class parents and students tempered the ardor of Jewish liberals to torpedo such programs. Indeed, so fanatic is their opposition that last year the umbrella group of Jewish community-relations groups passed a resolution opposing a court decision that allowed day schools to receive computers from state money.

Similarly, liberal groups are gearing up to oppose charitable choice with all their might. But as with vouchers, the cost to Jewish philanthropies of this opposition might be considerable.

Thoughtful American Jews should be wondering whether such hard-line liberalism is as antiquated, and as useless to the Jewish community as the obsessive discussion of whether or not a famous person is Jewish.

Anti-Semitism may not be dead, but Jews here are now as secure as Episcopalians ó and maybe even more so. Whether or not some Cabinet official or movie star had a Jewish mother should be treated as the irrevelancy that it has become.

TIME TO RETHINK OUR POSITION
Charitable choice is not a panacea for poverty, nor should we overlook the difficulties involved in making it both workable and free of religious coercion. Yet the idea that we should be deciding our positions on critical issues about how to help the poor based on our fears of religious oppression is ludicrous.

On this score, as with education, letís not forget that helping the poor is not just an issue about ideology. It is about people. The fact that Jewish poverty is a reality few of us wish to face (in Philadelphia and elsewhere, many of our elderly are in need and dependent on Jewish communal efforts to keep them afloat) ought to heighten our interest in initiating a re-evaluation of our ideas about issues like charitable choice. And, as with vouchers, those who are adamantly opposed to any federal aid to faith-based programs that help the needy must be challenged to produce alternatives to charitable choice. Given the fact that Jewish communal and synagogue programs to fulfill the needs of those in poverty are not currently able to do all we need them to do, if we reject charitable choice, do its opponents have a better option?

The Bush presidency may be a bitter pill for liberals to swallow. But it should also be a time for Jewish agencies, organizations and rank-and-file citizens to be re-examining the ideological shibboleths that have guided our stands on critical issues.


JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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