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Jewish World Review April 7, 2000 / 2 Nissan, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Injustices & Impositions

Jewish paranoia notwithstanding, there are some traditional concerns that still merit outrage -- TO LISTEN to some American Jews — particularly the over-50 set — you’d think the date was 1938, not 2000. I refer, of course, to the Jewish paranoid conviction that Auschwitz looms just around every corner, even in the United States of America.

I have little patience for this kind of talk. Such fears are as unproductive as they are generally unfounded. Unfortunately, it is very hard for many of us to wrap our brains around the concept that all non-Jews — especially religious Christians — aren’t anti-Semites. because it’s based on fear, not reality or Jewish interests. Too many of us waste too much of our precious time and slender resources chasing the ghosts of yesteryear, instead of concentrating on the needs of the present and the future.

But, as Henry Kissinger was fond of saying, just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. There are still more than a few traditional Jewish concerns that merit our attention.

It is probably impossible for most Americans to understand why sectarian prayer in public schools ought not to be allowed. Perhaps you have to be a member of a religious minority or a dedicated civil libertarian to see the harm in public-school prayers. That’s why polls consistently show the majority of Americans — who see such activity as unthreatening at worst and culturally beneficial at best — support prayer in the schools.

And that’s why politicians seeking to capitalize on this sentiment are always looking for a way around court decisions on the issue. The latest case involves a Texas school district’s policy of allowing students to read prayers over the public-address system at Friday-night football games.

Given the obsession with high school football in that state, this is sort of like mixing religion with religion. And, like many issues that inspire passion, there are misconceptions on both sides.

Many people — including unfortunately, some school administrators — wrongly believe that court decisions have effectively banned religious speech in public schools. That isn’t so, as President Clinton made abundantly clear in an admirable 1995 statement that clarified the rights of students and teachers to religious expression.

But, those rights stop at efforts that, in the key word of the First Amendment, “establish” a religion. No one ought to have the right to compel students at public-school functions to sit through sectarian sermons or prayers — not even, as in the Texan case, if it is a volunteer student who has been chosen by a ballot of his or her classmates to be the one leading the prayers. That practice clearly “establishes” the majority religion in a way the Constitution should prohibit.

Purely voluntary prayer and nonsectarian observances are, for the most part, legal and do not threaten religious minorities. But this attempt to slip in a student election for a local state religion ought to be ruled out of bounds.

This doesn’t justify the separationist mania that attempts to disassociate government from religion under every circumstance. Items such as the existence of vouchers and public funding for private and parochial colleges and universities (a fact that opponents of vouchers for primary and secondary schools conveniently forget) as well as Congressional chaplains and the engraving of “In G-d We Trust” on our coinage, all testify to the fact that the “wall of separation” is by no means impenetrable. Nor should it be. But the movement to compel prayer in public schools does remain a threat.

Another ongoing source of outrage is the short shrift our legal system and the Congress continue to give legal immigrants.

Welfare reform was long overdue when the Congress finally took it up in 1995 and 1996. The result of decades of legislative good intentions gone awry had wreaked havoc on America’s poorest populations. This created a multigenerational culture of dependency that cried out for reform.

But when Congress finally did address the issue and forced the states to do the same, they included an element of unfairness that had the potential to wreak a good deal of havoc as well. The problem was, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 was passed on the backs of legal immigrants. Successfully feeding on both the need to save money and the backlash against illegal immigrants, the bill targeted legal immigrants.

The savings that the bill promised all came from denying legal immigrants access to items such as food stamps or Supplemental Security Income, which most recipients spend on housing. And people admitted to the United States as refugees were made ineligible for benefits seven years after they arrived in the United States.

There were two dangers inherent in this legislation.

The first was that many legal immigrants who are not yet citizens or who are so elderly that they find the naturalization process extremely difficult, were put at risk by these measures.

Even worse, from my point of view, is the fact that these laws treated legal immigrants as a lower class of person, denied equal access to the law and governmental help that others enjoy. Talk of an open-opportunity society — which is so blithely put about by both the Republican Congress and our Democrat president, who signed the bill — is inconsistent with legislation that stigmatizes legal immigrants.

Though some of the worst cutbacks were eventually restored, many are still in place. Recently, advocates for immigrants vainly sought to use the federal courts to reverse the legislation. The court wisely said that a legislative problem required a legislative remedy.

In the days before Passover, when Jews are commanded to remember what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land, this is a good time to speak up for repealing those laws that treat immigrants differently from the rest of us. Yes, elderly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union are particularly hurt by these laws. And Jewish volunteers groups like HIAS and Council Migration Service and the Jewish Family and Children’s Service are doing their best to help.

But make no mistake about it, the Pat Buchananite, nativist trend that both parties have pandered to with anti-immigrant legislation is a threat to American democracy — and perhaps a greater one than all the school-prayer amendments and Christmas trees on the green that so many of us worry about.

Vladmir Putin’s election as president of Russia was a foregone conclusion going into last month’s balloting. But why did Putin choose to go out of his way to pillory Boris Yavlinsky — a liberal democratic challenger with Jewish roots — as someone controlled by Jewish interests?

If the election of a career KGB agent as democratic Russia’s new leader doesn’t scare us, the fact that he is willing to openly use anti-Semitism to get votes should. While the situation in Russia ought not to be portrayed as totally bleak, this is not the first time the tiger of Russian nationalism has been unleashed on Jews.

And that is bad news for everyone who has counted on a house-trained Russian bear not spoiling the new balance of power in a united democratic Europe.

So, Jewish pessimists looking for the worst in our golden age of prosperity need not despair. There are still plenty of things for a paranoid minority to legitimately worry about.

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