Liberalism Gains at Election-Year Policy Forum

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.

BOSTON — With the presidential election approaching, American Jewry’s main policy body shifted hard back to its liberal roots, pushing through several domestic-oriented resolutions, including a call for the repeal of the Bush administration’s most recent round of tax cuts.

The resolution, which passed with only a smattering of dissenting votes at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, declared that the tax cuts will bequeath the next generation “a society weakened by the fiscal decisions our government is now making.” Delegates representing 13 national Jewish organizations and 123 local community-relations councils also passed resolutions on affordable housing, unionization and affirmative action that diverged from the administration’s stated policies.

In recent years the annual meetings of the JCPA have been dominated, like meetings of many other Jewish groups, by concerns over Israel and the war on terrorism, which have tended to push the community rightward. But with a return to domestic issues — in no small part because of the coming presidential election — the gathering here in the heart of liberal Massachusetts reflected a Jewish community that appears to remain firmly rooted in its own tradition of liberal politics.

“This has been nicely more progressive than the past few years,” said Mahnaz Harrison, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Pittsburgh, who has attended the JCPA plenum for the past seven years. He attributed the shift back to domestic concerns to the receding shock of the intifada and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

This year, the plenum’s program reflected the wide-ranging concerns and politics of the Jewish community. Major workshops were devoted to antisemitism in Europe and community-building in the wake of Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” which has strained relations between Christians and Jews. But this year emphasis seemed to be placed on liberal topics and speakers. The central theme of the weekend was confronting poverty, and JCPA executive director Hannah Rosenthal spent most of her opening speech discussing the almost 36 million Americans living under the poverty line.

“Turning away from poverty,” Rosenthal said, “is morally and strategically wrong for the Jewish community.”

At the plenary session on poverty, attended by all the delegates, the keynote speaker, Larry Brown, director of the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University, took direct aim at the White House. Brown pounded the Bush administration over policies he faulted for exacerbating poverty, and closed by saying that, “compassionate conservatism and tax breaks were lies to give more money to the wealthy in America.”

The Republican-bashing in Brown’s talk was echoed by the other marquee guests invited to address the assembly, including Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat; Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz; and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

Sweeney seemed to be accurately reading the crowd when he said, “I think many of your hearts are in the same place as ours” in the labor movement, which has been strongly critical of the Bush administration.

The politicized speeches left many conservative delegates feeling uncomfortable. Robert Stone, senior vice president of the generally right-leaning Orthodox Union, said, “There has been a heavy dose of heavy partisanship here, which I found inappropriate. They never screamed about deficits and budgets with Democratic presidents.”

Rosenthal said the “partisanship was not with our blessing.” But in debating the tax-cut resolutions, many delegates said it was impossible to talk about the issues of social justice on the table without considering the fiscal policies of the current government.

“We cannot seriously address the issues of domestic spending without addressing the tax cuts,” said Rabbi Marcia Feldman of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Our budget is a moral document.”

The JCPA has developed a reputation for leaning to the left of the wider organized Jewish community. During the last decade, the balance of power within the organization has shifted away from the national organizations and toward the local community relations councils, which tend to attract more liberal activists.

Stone of the O.U. said this year’s plenum proved that the JCPA is “quite a bit to the left of the average Jewish community.”

The degree of truth to this characterization, like everything else during the weekend, was hotly debated. Eric Fusfield, who represented B’nai Brith, said that any shift has occurred because the national organizations have tended to move to the right.

“The grassroots of the Jewish community are still firmly grounded in the left,” Fusfield said. “The feedback that the JCPA has with communities puts it in touch with those grassroots.”

Recent polls, though, have shown rising levels of support for the Bush administration among Jewish voters. This increasing approval has been traced to Bush’s policies on Israel and the fight against terrorism, and as the JCPA focused on foreign affairs during the last two years, the conservative tendencies in the Jewish community came to the fore. While foreign policy discussions were less prominent this year, when Israel came up the delegates still appeared to stand solidly with Bush in his support for Israel and its absolute right to self-defense.

The delegates handily rejected a resolution on social justice in Israel put forward by the National Council of Jewish Women, which called for the Israeli government to recognize the “dire social welfare situation and the harsh economic insecurity felt by an ever-increasing number of Israeli families.” In opposing the resolution, James Samuels of the Cleveland delegation said, “We never want to say publicly that Israel is not taking care of its own.”

In the debate over another resolution on the Middle East, an amendment was defeated that “made reference to the fact that Israel has some responsibility for the peace process,” as David Saperstein, the chairman of the Union’s Religious Action Committee put it.

Notably, the resolutely uncritical statement on Israel that won final approval was written by the Boston and San Francisco community relations councils, traditionally two of the more liberal delegations.

The delegates’ emerging agreement on Israel has allowed the JCPA to focus more of its energy on domestic concerns, participants said. “The intifada made it difficult to focus on concerns about social justice at home,” Rosenthal said. “But during the last year we’ve really started to get some traction on these problems.”

This shift, some observers said, could presage a greater focus on domestic issues in the Jewish community during the coming election.

One social justice matter that was conspicuously absent from the resolution docket was any measure addressing the issue of gay marriage.

A debate on the issue occurred in a small workshop, which happened to coincide with President Bush’s announcement that he would support a constitutional marriage amendment. But no resolution was proposed on the issue. One insider attributed this to fear that any measure supporting gay marriage would be vetoed by one of the national organizations, most likely the Orthodox Union, which has stated its opposition to same-sex unions.

Even without this contentious issue, the O.U.’s Stone said that the domestic politics of the JCPA still leaves him feeling distinctly on the outside. “I am rarely in sync with the domestic policies” Stone said. “I come now mainly to make sure this body doesn’t say anything harmful on Israel — and they don’t.”

But for Ellen Feingold, a member of the local Boston delegation, the politics of the plenum made her feel right at home.

“This feels really nice,” Feingold said. “I’m happy this community is returning to its concern with progressive domestic policy.”



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