The ‘Jewish Issue’ Issue

By Leonard Fein

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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Some issues of Jewish life neither die nor even fade away. The most telling current evidence of that is the re-emergence, in recent weeks, of the “Is that a Jewish issue?” issue. Why, that is, should Jews — as Jews — care about this problem or that? Oughtn’t the Jewish agenda be limited to those matters that immediately and directly affect the Jews? What makes gun control “a Jewish issue?” Or tax policy? Or… and on and on.

On the whole, it’s not a bad thing that the debate is so frequently joined. It forces people to clarify, albeit for the umpteenth time, their stance regarding the ancient and ongoing debate between universalism and particularism, and doubtless to learn once again that this is a debate that will never be resolved, that Judaism lives quite comfortably (most of the time, at least) at the intersection between love of self and concern for the Other.

The current form of the debate was kicked off several weeks back by Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities. Commenting on the current wave of federal tax cuts, Hoffman allowed as how “what Congress does with the money it raises taxes for” is, indeed, a Jewish issue, but “how Congress decides to assemble revenue is not.”

Whatever one makes of the Hoffman distinction, which is pretty plainly a distinction without a difference, his remarks were fairly quickly overshadowed by the unexpected decision of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs at it quarterly meeting in New York on June 23 to call for “appropriate funding of social programs and, if necessary to accomplish that goal, repeal of the federal tax cuts enacted during the past two years.”

[Full disclosure: The delegates were startled and saddened to hear a report from the estimable William Rapfogel, who runs the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, regarding the extent of Jewish poverty in New York. In the discussion that followed, much of which focused on how to press for renewed federal support for social programs and services, I suggested that unless we faced up to the impact of the tax cuts, we were simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. To my surprise, Bob Zweiman of the Jewish War Veterans — hardly an organization identified as part of the predictably liberal tilt of JCPA — offered a motion that translated what I’d said into policy, and several iterations later, there was the resolution that was approved.]

Now, in the aftermath of the JCPA resolution, the knives are being sharpened. Much of JCPA’s budget is provided by its member agencies, for the most part local Jewish community relations councils, which themselves are funded just about everywhere by the local federation. Some (inestimable) number of the lay and, here and there, professional leaders of our federations take a very narrow view of how “Jewish issue” should be defined, and their view becomes still more constricted when the matter under consideration is not a “symbolic” civil liberties question but a pocketbook question. Rather than debate the merits of the tax cuts, they choose to argue against the propriety of JCPA, which in the realm of public affairs is the most representative agency we have, entering into discussion and debate on matters that in their view are “not Jewish.” This time around, the argument may have genuine significance, since one hears threats to defund the JCPA, to force it into toothless compliance with what the major federation donors allegedly think.

The truth, of course, is that no one knows how federation leadership feels about the tax cuts, past or prospective. But that need not detain us here; here, the question is the underlying one of what a broadly representative group of Jews should feel entitled to speak out about.

So, some arguments: Even those who define “Jewish issue” narrowly must know that one cannot innocently claim that we are entitled to argue for our “fair share” of the pie but not entitled to argue about the size of the pie. If that becomes our communal stance, we will be seen as — and be — a self-centered interest group in competition with all the other self-centered interest groups for some part of an ever-dwindling pie. Yet such strength as we exercise in the public arena derives in major part from our readiness to work in coalition, and not in competition, with other groups representing other communities of concern. Take the narrow view, and coalition politics is dead.

More: Given what we know, or should, from Jewish history, the health of the society of which we are a part is of central Jewish concern, not merely because we are “nice people” but because we recognize that in times of social chaos, Jews are especially vulnerable.

I set aside for now the largest question of all, our commitment to the pursuit of justice, and wonder simply what we would look like and what our young would think of us were we a community devoted exclusively to its own (narrowly defined) interests. In my view, we have no more urgent interest than the energetic pursuit of our values, lest we come to be seen as merely yet another jostling faction and not as defenders, protectors and practitioners of a thunderingly transcendent commitment to a world mended, healed, made whole. Argue, if you’re so disposed, that the tax cuts will bring us to just such a world — but please, don’t argue that the Jews ought to be resolutely indifferent to the prospects of such a world or to the policies required to get us from here to there.

Doubtless, to be continued.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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