Jewish organizations generally don’t react quickly to events unless they involve terror attacks in Israel or blatantly anti-Semitic statements by foreign dictators, but one organization managed to whip out a response to President Obama’s jobs speech—a favorable one, as it happens—less than an hour after the president finished speaking.
The quick response was from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which calls itself “the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community.” Its Chair and President (lay leader and staff director in Jewish organization-speak) issued a statement via mass e-mail blast at 8:34 p.m., a little over 45 minutes after the speech ended, endorsing the spending parts of Obama’s $450 billion plan.
The statement quotes the Chair, Dr. Conrad Giles, urging Congress to “begin work on the President’s recommendations for improvements to our homes, schools, and roads without delay” and to re-hire teachers and health care providers — while adding the council’s own appeal for more police and firefighters. Here’s how Giles is quoted:
“The jobs crisis exists throughout the entire country. No community, rural or urban, big or small, has been untouched. With such widespread need for new job opportunities and assistance, Congress should begin work on the President’s recommendations for improvements to our homes, schools, and roads without delay.”
Also quoted is the council’s President, Rabbi Steve Gutow, endorsing the part about extending unemployment insurance. The statement doesn’t address the tax-cut parts of the plan. At the conclusion, there’s a stab at bi-partisanship:
”Now is the time for a broad, national effort to build a pathway of prosperity for all Americans. We will continue to work with Congress and the Administration to grow our economy and ensure opportunities for those left in the Great Recession’s wake.”
The endorsement is unusual for several reasons. Supporting the president used to be an expression of patriotism, but these days it’s generally seen as a partisan act. In consequence, most Jewish non-profits tend to steer well clear of domestic issues. It’s not that they’re really afraid of losing their tax-free status. They used to talk about economic and social justice all the time. Other religious groups are unabashedly ideological, in both directions. But the big Jewish agencies are afraid of conservative donors getting mad and walking away with their money.
So why is this Jewish organization different from all other Jewish organizations?
JCPA is different for two reasons: It consists of other organizations, rather than donor-members, and it makes its decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. Its members are 14 national Jewish agencies, including the four main synagogue unions (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist), the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah and a few others—plus 125 local bodies, mostly community relations committees of local Jewish federations. Its general policies are adopted at a yearly convention where each member organization gets a vote, and since most of the local CRCs are pretty liberal on domestic affairs, the council ends up being pretty liberal.
Also weighing in on President Obama today was the Zionist Organization of America, which e-mailed an op-ed to Jewish press outlets at 5:41 with the provocative title, “Are President Obama’s Actions Hostile to Israel?” At the risk of spoiling the ending, the piece answers its own question with a resounding Yes:
Is President Obama hostile to Jews and Israel? Let’s look at the evidence. Last week, the Obama Administration issued talking points for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, where it referred to those struck by terrorism “whether in New York or Nairobi, Bali or Belfast, Mumbai or Manila, or Lahore or London.” Conspicuously absent was the name of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Sderot, which have been hit by terrorists, not once, but numerous times.
Wait. We’re just getting wound up. Consider this:
Note also the contrast between his holiday messages to Jews and to Muslims. In his Rosh Hashanah message last year, Obama only once referred to ‘Jews,’ not once to ‘Judaism,’ promoted a Palestinian state, and never mentioned the extraordinary contributions of Jews to the U.S. In contrast, in his August 2010 Ramadan Message, Obama referred to ‘Muslims’ six times and to ‘Islam’ twice, stated that “American Muslims have made extraordinary contributions to our country,” and praised “Islam’s role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings … a faith known for great diversity and racial equality.” Here, Obama, made no reference to what Muslims must do to achieve peace with Israel.
Here’s one big difference between the ZOA and other Jewish organizations. Others avoid wading into controversy because they don’t want to be accused of taking sides. ZOA takes sides.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).