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Senate Dems to Jews: How About a Little Help?

Things got a little testier than usual on Capitol Hill July 13 when the Senate Democrats held their annual midsummer get-together with Jewish organizational leaders to discuss next year’s legislative priorities. The Jewish leaders were expecting their traditional hug. What they got was more of a spanking.

Most years, the hour-long powwow features senators nodding sagely while the Jewish leaders take turns listing what they’d like from Congress that fall: Aid to Israel, seniors’ housing, refugee assistance and so on. This year, however, the senators had their own wish list, with a rude surprise: If you want all those goodies, help us pass a budget. By implication, the senators also offered a little lesson in the forgotten art of Jewish leadership: Stand by your friends. Remember where you came from. Make sure your deeds match your words.

The Jews-and-senators sit-down is one of several such sessions staged annually by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee for constituencies that need stroking. Senatorial turnout for the Jewish event is traditionally high, testimony to the Jewish organizations’ perceived influence. This year 21 senators showed up, out of 51 Senate Democrats total (plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats). That’s close to the record 22 who participated in 2009. Of course, it’s a little less surprising when you consider that 10 of those 51 Senate Democrats are themselves Jewish (as are both independents).

The senators who argued most forcefully for supporting the budget, according to JTA, were Carl Levin of Michigan and Ben Cardin of Maryland, both Jews with deep personal roots in their home communities. They were responding to a presentation by Kathy Manning, board chair of the Jewish Federations of North America. Manning asked the senators to protect Medicaid, which provides the bulk of funding for the multibillion-dollar network of Jewish nursing homes, and special Homeland Security grants to secure nonprofit institutions vulnerable to terrorism.

Levin and Cardin gave the obvious response: If you want that money in the federal budget, help get a budget. You folks in this room represent one of the most formidable lobbying networks in Washington. Get to work.

This might not sound like much to ask. If you represent a community that’s aging faster than the general population, a community that operates a vast network of social service institutions, the most expensive of which are nursing homes for its elders, and those nursing homes depend on an annual flow of billions of Medicaid dollars, then fighting for a federal budget that keeps those dollars flowing should be a no-brainer. Especially if your lobbying agencies have a reputation for getting their way, and the forces that want what you want are up against the wall. Most especially if you speak for a constituency that overwhelmingly supports those forces anyway.

And most, most especially if you represent a community that still takes pride in having defied the powerful to fight for civil rights a few generations back. A community, let’s recall, that still smarts over its leaders’ fear of offending the powerful by speaking out during World War II. It should be a no-brainer.

It’s so obvious, you’d think the senators wouldn’t even need to ask. But ask they did, because there’s a battle raging and the vaunted Jewish lobby is all but invisible. In fact, the very act of senators asking for help sparked some resentment among participants. We don’t take sides in partisan Washington fights. We used to, but that was then.

What’s changed? Many things: the emergence of neoconservatism; the breakup of the organized black-Jewish alliance; the ascendancy of single-issue pro-Israel activism. But the most dramatic turning-point was the 1995 election of House speaker Newt Gingrich. His radical, uncompromising Republicanism transformed the GOP. The Jewish community was caught off-guard: Suddenly, long-docile Jewish Republicans no longer agreed to be outvoted in community forums. Republican donors now regularly threatened to withhold their gifts if things didn’t go their way. And so liberalism was dropped from the agenda.

When Gingrich proposed his balanced-budget amendment in 1995, the Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federations warned that Jewish charities risked losing billions in federal social-service funding and urged putting up a fight. A half-dozen million-dollar donors vetoed the idea. Democrats in Congress were shocked, particularly Jewish Democrats. Soon the Republican donor veto became standard practice, and the organized Jewish voice in liberal Washington coalitions shrank to a whisper. The Bush administration, entering office in 2001, pulled the muzzle even tighter, making clear that Jewish agencies pressing domestic issues would be shut out of Middle East policy.

In January 2008, Jewish Democrats’ frustration boiled over. Seven Jewish senators, led by Levin, signed an unprecedented “open letter to the Jewish community.” The topic: the specious e-mail messages then flooding Jewish mailboxes, claiming candidate Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim. “As Jewish United States Senators who have not endorsed a candidate for the Democratic nomination,” they wrote, “we condemn these scurrilous attacks.”

Though little noticed, the letter was historic. Up to that time Jewish senators had a strict, universal, bipartisan practice never to speak out “as Jewish senators,” on the principle that they had been elected to represent a state, not a community. Unlike Jewish House members who sometimes spoke for heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish senators weren’t elected by a Jewish electorate and didn’t see their position as constituting a rank of Jewish leadership. To my knowledge, no Jewish senator in history ever spoke out “as a Jewish senator.” Now seven of them did it together — addressing their fellow Jews as leaders with a message. Apparently, the leadership vacuum had become suffocating.

Now they’ve waded into the fray once more, with Levin again at the helm. This time they’ve challenged the Jewish leadership directly: Do your job. It’s not clear they understand what they’re up against. It’s unlikely they’re prepared to take it on and see it through. Still, nobody is in a better position to show us what we’ve become.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected]

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