WASHINGTON — As some observers suggest that the threat of terrorist strikes against American targets is intensifying, an increasingly bitter dispute has erupted among Jewish groups over a bill that would provide federal funds to enhance security at nonprofit organizations deemed particularly vulnerable to attack.
The bill, which supporters expect to be introduced in Congress next week by Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, would allocate $100 million from the budget of the Department of Homeland Security to enhance protection for institutions that are considered prime targets for terrorism. It is being opposed on church-state grounds by the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, all of which object to any government funding for houses of worship.
Although the bill, known as the “high-risk non-profit security enhancement act of 2004,” does not specifically mention synagogues, Jewish day schools or Jewish community centers, it was initiated and drafted by the United Jewish Communities, the roof body of local Jewish charitable federations in North America, and the Orthodox Union, a congregational group made up of about 1,000 synagogues, to provide funds for increased security at Jewish buildings.
Jewish groups estimate the total cost of providing Jewish institutions with basic anti-terrorism fortification, including concrete walls, shatter-resistant windows and hardened gates, at more than $1 billion.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the American Jewish Congress are also supporting the legislation.
But several Jewish communal officials said that now was not the time to abandon long-standing principles.
“We have long taken a position that there should not be a direct government transfer of funds to houses of worship, which is at the core of this legislation as it is now,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “Such funding is not only something that we oppose but that the Supreme Court has never upheld,” he said. Asked if this position applies even when dealing with security, Saperstein said yes, but added that there are ways in which local authorities can provide security to religious congregations.
While the Reform movement, ADL and AJCommittee are resisting pressure to support the bill, it appears that they have not yet decided whether to actively lobby against it, sources said.
Meanwhile, this week, both the UJC and the O.U. held their respective annual Washington lobbying campaigns, during which they asked members of Congress to support the bill. Joining the two Jewish groups in lobbying for the bill are the American Red Cross and the American Association of Museums, which view their branches and member organizations as potential terrorism targets.
The bill received boosts from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and Senator Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, during appearances earlier this week at the UJC’s young leadership gathering in Washington. Clinton said Tuesday that the $100 million fund would address “the concern that there is extra vulnerability attached to being a Jewish institution in this war on terror.”
“Many of the organizations you work with, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the technical knowledge” to deal with terrorist attacks, Clinton told the crowd.
Marc Stern, the assistant executive director of AJCongress, who advised the UJC on drafting the bill, said the measure is worded in a way that should satisfy church-state separation concerns and withstand constitutional challenge. “Instead of providing a cop or a SWAT team in front of a synagogue, you provide a hardened wall that has the same effect. And the government is only paying for the cost of hardening the wall,” Stern said. “The bill is written so it only pays for the incremental cost of infrastructure necessary to repel terrorists. That makes all the difference, constitutionally.”
Supporters of the bill say that they have worked for months to draft compromise language that would satisfy opponents in the Jewish community, including Saperstein, who represents the largest synagogue movement in terms of members. “If they think that this proposal is problematic and don’t want to actively support it, we can respect and accept that,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington representative of the Orthodox Union. “But to go from that to opposition, which some of them may be contemplating, we find that very troubling.” Opponents of the bill “can be makhmir [strict] for themselves, but they shouldn’t impose their khumrah on others,” Diament said, invoking the rabbinic term for doctrinaire stringency. “It will potentially put people’s lives at risk.”
Opponents disagree. Making an exception to their opposition to government funding of houses of worship in the name of Jewish solidarity is wrong, they say, particularly when alternatives can be found that do not involve direct government funding.
“This looks really bad,” said one senior activist with a Jewish group, who requested anonymity. “We keep saying: ‘We are against money going to pervasively sectarian organizations without the kind of safeguards that are required.’ And now here we are setting up a situation in which the Jewish community will be lobbying for money going to pervasively sectarian institutions. That is not okay.”
Another senior activist said that while policemen and firefighters are fighting against Congress cutting their share of the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, it is inappropriate for the Jewish community to be seen as grabbing a slice of the pie. A Washington insider with a Jewish organization said that because of the cuts in the Homeland Security budget, this bill is not likely to pass.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.