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Jewish World Review March 17, 2000 / 10 Adar II, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Voyage Into the Heart of Liberal Darkness

American Jewish leaders say, ‘Don’t mess’ with the true separationist faith -- IF THERE’S ANYTHING most American Jews can’t stand, it’s a fanatic. From our lofty intellectual perches, we scorn those foolish rubes of the Christian right who blindly stick to arbitrary, abstract ideological points even when it harms their own interests.

Such fanaticism as you will commonly find in the Christian Coalition on issues like abortion, guns and school prayer is, of course, utterly alien to our mainstream Jewish organizational world.

Right? Wrong.

We may like to pretend that we’re not extremists, but don’t you believe it. When it comes to issues central to the great liberal myths of American politics, we’d rather sink with our ideology than swim with the constitutional tide.

The prime example of this phenomenon is the American Jewish infatuation with the most extreme interpretation of the principle of separation of church and state. The constitutional “wall” of separation is an integral part of mainstream American constitutional thought as well as the political safety net for a religious and ethnic minority such as the Jews. Separation is vital and must be protected.

But, contrary to the catechism of contemporary liberalism, the question of how high that wall ought to be has always been a matter of interpretation. Few Americans — and increasingly fewer of our judges and constitutional authorities — think the separation between religion and all aspects of government can or ought to be absolute.

Yet, separationism, the true faith of American Jewish liberalism, is the principle over which many American Jews and their leading organizations are, seemingly, prepared to fall upon their own swords.

The best recent example of this fanaticism was provided by the Jewish Council of Public Affairs annual plenum earlier this month in Baltimore. The JCPA, the umbrella organization of national Jewish groups and local community-relations councils (such as Philadelphia’s own JCRC), has long been a pillar of Jewish opposition to any compromise on separationism.

In particular, it has been a bulwark of the educational status quo and fiercely opposed to measures offering school choice or vouchers. The group believes that even the indirect subsidy of allowing parents to get some or all of their school tax dollars back to pay for parochial schools is an infringement of the separation of church and state.

Two years ago, after much agitation by Jews who believe that school choice is both good public policy and a potential boon to Jewish day schools, the JCPA commissioned a panel to revisit this issue. But the organization ultimately decided that its original opinion was correct.

Not satisfied with that reaffirmation, this year’s plenum went a step further. By a vote of 318-259, the JCPA voted to oppose any form of government funding of parochial schools. This means they are now on record as opposing even those court-approved exceptions where government money is used for non-sectarian educational benefits, such as textbooks, computers or school buses.

Such exceptions are legal and part of the general American consensus that formed around the three-part secular-purpose test that arose out of the Supreme Court’s Lemon v. Kurtzman decision. But the JCPA’s position on separationism is now so extreme that it would, apparently, like to deprive Jewish day schools of these benefits merely for the sake of liberal ideological purity. Even some JCPA members have sheepishly admitted that they are not prepared to lobby for state or federal authorities to adopt their resolution.

Think about it. At a time when Jewish continuity needs ought to be our highest priority, our major public-policy group has just decided to favor a measure that would decimate Jewish day schools. While I respect the JCPA majority’s devotion to their principles, it shows these people are clearly more comfortable fighting the political battles of the 1940s than in dealing with our current needs.

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I am bashing the JCPA as either unrepresentative or out-of-touch with mainstream Jewish opinion, let me assure you I am not. Though I believe the general trend in Jewish thinking on issues like vouchers is evolving, there is little question that most Jews still hew to the separationist faith.

The JCPA is as democratic a national group as we have. It is also probably as representative of the organized Jewish world as any group could be. The problem here is not so much the JCPA, but what passes for mainstream thinking in our community.

Though the only real danger American Jewry faces is from assimilation and ignorance of our own traditions and faith, most of us prefer to live in the past, when our civil liberties truly were in danger. American Jews may be as much a part of the American political, financial and cultural establishment as Episcopalians, but most of us seem to think we are living in 1900, not 2000.

But groups like the JCPA should do more than merely echo our communal prejudices and fears. They have to provide leadership. Given the proven value of day schools and the essential role they play in our efforts to create a renaissance of American Jewish identity, events such as this JCPA vote are simply irresponsible.

Nor is it appropriate for JCPA members to defend their stance by saying they support the idea of fully funding day schools from Jewish communal resources alone.

While some communities, such as ours here in Philadelphia, are doing more for day schools, it isn’t nearly enough. Rising costs are effectively making our best day schools into private clubs for the rich, and so, effectively excluding the middle class. The creation of a Jewish educational safety net — to ensure that every Jewish child who wants a day-school education has one — should be our top priority, but it isn’t. If the JCPA’s new doctrine on separation were ever adopted, the day-school movement would suffer a near-mortal blow.

The point here is that what we need today from all Jewish leaders is a common-sense approach that will solve our very real current problems — not ideological extremism that speaks to our past.

With all due respect to the good people who voted at the JCPA plenum, is that so much to ask?

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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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin