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In Storm-ravaged Gulf, Heroism, Help and Silence

As pundits and politicians from both parties decried the government’s slow response in wake of Hurricane Katrina, major Jewish organizations avoided any criticism of President Bush or his administration.

When asked for comment, two leaders of the country’s largest synagogue movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Rabbi David Ellenson, bemoaned the response and the country’s class divide, but stopped short of blaming the Bush administration. Other Jewish communal leaders contacted by the Forward not only avoided any criticism of Bush, but also declined to question the government’s overall performance during the hurricane and its aftermath.

Despite serious domestic policy disagreements with the White House, and the fact that Bush failed to win more than 25% of the Jewish vote in his two presidential campaigns, most Jewish organizations generally have steered clear of criticizing Bush or of aggressively challenging his policies. Some communal insiders attribute this approach to the support that Bush has among Jewish organizations for his positions on Israel, Iraq and the war on terrorism. Others say that some Jewish groups are loath to risk their access to what until recently has been viewed widely as a powerful White House.

In this case, Jewish communal leaders contacted by the Forward offered several reasons for refusing to join the rush of critics slamming the White House.

“I think it’s premature and not in the best interest of the people evacuated to be pointing fingers everywhere in government right now,” said Judy Yudof, international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Yudof resides in Austin, Texas, and once lived in New Orleans. “Lives need to be made whole again. There’s going to be plenty of time later to figure out what went wrong and what went right.”

The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, sounded a similar theme, recoiling at what he described as the politicization of the response to the disaster.

“Both Democratic and Republican administrations were aware of the possible calamity that might someday happen,” he said. “What adds to it, in a moment of trauma and pain, is that politicians cannot resist the temptation to politicize. Are there things we could have done better? Yes. Will that undermine the respect I have for the president? No. These are not Democratic or Republican mistakes.”

Foxman also said the tragedy was not about race, as some have contended, but about class and poverty. Those who focus on race “will only make the rebuilding more difficult,” he said.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said he was “not in a position to say one way or another” whether the administration’s relief effort was adequate. “I understand it was slow, but I see in the last few days it has picked up and gotten more effective,” he said. Weinreb said his organization was focusing on dealing with the needs of a number of Orthodox families that escaped from New Orleans to Memphis, Tenn. “I’m not going to make a political statement,” he said. “It’s a tremendous tragedy on every level.”

Jason Isaacson, the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, said, “Our focus, and the focus of a lot of organizations, is to raise money [for relief]. It’s not our organization’s role to judge government’s response to a natural disaster. Congress will be doing that. The press is doing that. What we are focused on is working with our members and other ethnic groups to do what we can in partnership to help the victims.”

Yoffie and Ellenson, both Reform leaders, were willing to raise some significant criticisms of the response to the hurricane, albeit it without criticizing Bush or other administration officials directly.

“We didn’t meet the most fundamental obligation of government,” said Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In this instance, he charged, we saw “a government that says our obligation ends at our own front door and that it is only for those with large pocketbooks.”

Ellenson, head of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform rabbinical seminary, also stressed the issue of class.

“What this crisis has demonstrated is the division that exists in this country socially and economically,” Ellenson said, adding, “The long-term lesson is that we need to strive for a more just society, with a social safety net, where the needs of the poor are recognized.”




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