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On the Jewish Agenda(s), Part 1

The next occupant of the Oval Office will help set the national agenda on a wide range of issues of importance to the Jewish community. While our collective concern for the security and well-being of Israel has featured prominently in discussions of our community’s stake in the upcoming presidential election, Jewish groups are also vigorous participants in debates over a diverse array of other issues both foreign and domestic.

With Democrats and Republicans assembling for their conventions, we solicited representatives from some Jewish organizations to each suggest an issue that should feature prominently on the communal agenda. We asked each of them to explain why this issue matters to American Jews and what course of action they would want to see our next president take.

The responses we received offer a glimpse into some of the diverse issues that figure into our broad, variegated and often hotly contested Jewish communal agenda(s). The first batch of responses is featured below. We will be publishing additional responses in next week’s edition of the Forward and on our Web site.

UPDATE: Part 2 of our forum “On the Jewish Agenda(s)” is now accessible here.

Stop Iran From Going Nuclear

By Kenneth Bandler

Iran has long figured prominently in American foreign policy. But now is the first time since 1980 that it has loomed so large in the run-up to a presidential contest. Then it was the ordeal of the American embassy hostages, held by “students” emboldened by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. Today, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, presents an agenda more dangerous than one could have imagined immediately after the Shah’s demise.

Addressing Iran’s nuclear weapons program must be a top priority for America’s next president. We will need to find new ways of mobilizing international support for firmer economic and diplomatic actions to deter Iran, which remains defiant even after three United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions, and is determined to cross the nuclear threshold.

A nuclear Iran would be a threat to global security. Europe would be in range of nuclear-armed Iranian missiles. And Iran’s Arab neighbors already have suggested that they would follow suit in developing nuclear programs.

The Jewish community wonders how the next president can best protect American interests in the Middle East — including the security of Israel — in the face of an aggressive, nuclear-capable Iran, whose president has threatened Israel’s existence while aiding Hamas and Hezbollah.

Options, including the prospect of military confrontation should political and economic measures fail, are daunting. But the security challenge posed by a nuclear Iran — with an ideologically driven government bent on remaking the strategic and political map of the Middle East — is the most daunting of all. Stopping Iran will contribute to a safer, more stable world.

Kenneth Bandler is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.

Aid the Needy

By William C. Daroff

Although we are not officially in a recession, hard-working individuals and families are struggling to make ends meet. One of the most successful programs that directly combats the effects of a poor economy is the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program — a joint project between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the nation’s six leading service organizations (including United Jewish Communities).

The EFSP program offers supplemental funding for local communities’ efforts to provide basic necessities — food, shelter and utility-payment assistance — in emergency situations. It helps to organize and maintain food pantries, community kitchens and shelters, among other services. Its success can be attributed to the autonomy local communities are given. Bureaucrats in Washington do not make any decisions on how funding is spent. Instead, local authorities in each community determine their own specific needs and have full control to allocate their share of the funding as they deem necessary.

Despite EFSP’s quarter-century-long track record of success, the program in recent years has faced attempts to drastically cut its funding. Fortunately, bipartisan majorities in Congress have continued funding for EFSP each year.

The Jewish community has long been a beacon of goodwill for those living through their darkest hours. No other federal program has had such a direct effect on those who need it most, and continued support for EFSP is a moral imperative. America’s next president must act as a friend of EFSP and embrace the program by pushing for full funding.

William C. Daroff is vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of United Jewish Communities.

Keep Church and State Separate

By Abraham H. Foxman

Since President Clinton first signed legislation offering taxpayer money to intrinsically religious social-service providers — which grew into the Faith-Based Initiative that President Bush subsequently made a centerpiece of his administration — religious institutions have been eligible to receive billions in government social service grants. This was a flawed policy prescription that raised serious and troubling implications for religious freedom. The next president will have an opportunity to reassess this program and to return the relationship between government and religion to its proper course.

As a minority group in a majority Christian nation, Jews understand all too well the risk of government entanglement in religion and the importance of a high wall between church and state. Some — including well-meaning individuals in the Jewish community — insist that faith-based grants are constitutionally sound because they place religious groups on a level playing field with nonreligious service providers. This, however, ignores a number of serious problems, including religious providers that discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring for taxpayer-funded jobs. It also ignores the harsh reality of recipients being forced to endure proselytizing in exchange for potentially life-saving services.

The next president must ensure that government money is not used for discrimination, that beneficiaries are not subjected to unwanted proselytizing, that secular alternatives are available, and that grants are not doled out to programs that promote a pervasively sectarian atmosphere with religious icons or sacred texts. The Faith-Based Initiative will always raise serious questions of law and policy, but these safeguards will help protect Americans and their religious freedom.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Enforce Our Labor Laws

By Jaime Rapaport

The right to bargain collectively, the right to a minimum wage, the right to protection from hazardous working conditions — these fundamental rights, now enshrined in American law, are being trampled upon at an alarming rate, just as they were when immigrant Jews suffered and sometimes died in the sweatshops of the early-20th century.

The National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor, the bodies responsible for enforcing labor laws, have been unable to stop the decades-long increase in the illegal exploitation of workers. Both the NLRB and the Labor Department have lacked the funding — and the sense of urgency — needed for enforcement.

Meanwhile, within the business community, some have begun to recognize that treating workers fairly can be a win-win situation. For example, in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion article, the owner of the Radisson hotel at Los Angeles’s international airport voiced his support for the concept of a living wage, arguing that dedicated and fairly compensated workers help increase guest satisfaction levels while reducing employee turnover.

But such forward-thinking entrepreneurs are placed in a difficult situation when their competitors are allowed to violate labor laws with impunity. The next administration must show respect for America’s workers by allocating the funds necessary to enforce the laws already on the books. American Jews — as historic victims of an under-regulated economy and as defenders of justice for all of God’s people — have an obligation to advocate for this change.

Jaime Rapaport is deputy director of Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Make Health Care Universal

By Barbara Weinstein

The Talmud teaches, “Whoever is in pain, lead him to a physician.” But 47 million Americans lack health insurance, and for them a visit to a physician is often a financial hardship. Eight out of ten among the uninsured are from working families. Nine million are children. The uninsured are disproportionately likely to be young adults who have aged out of their parents’ coverage or members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Too many in our own community are among the uninsured.

The United States is one of only two fully industrialized countries, along with South Africa, that do not ensure that all citizens have health coverage. States are starting to fill the void, but without a federal commitment to universal health coverage, we risk creating a patchwork system unbefitting the richest nation on earth.

Every person deserves a chance to be healthy. But too often that chance is limited to those with health insurance. Children without insurance are 13 times less likely to have a relationship with a primary-care doctor or clinic and twice as likely to die from injuries (even after hospitalization) as children with insurance. The difference health insurance makes is clear.

We look to the next president to fix our broken system. A single-payer structure would fulfill the principle of universality. And though no proposal will be perfect (What public policy is?), any final plan must be based on the standard of affordable, quality care. Our moral obligation to heal the sick will not be fulfilled until health insurance is available to all.

Barbara Weinstein is legislative director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Respect Religion

By David Zwiebel

Religion enjoys a special status in American culture and law. From an Orthodox Jewish perspective, that is a good thing. It has enabled us to freely educate our children, practice our faith, worship our God — and rebuild from the ashes.

There are signs, however, that the status quo is changing: Religious schools are in decline. Religious perspectives on cutting-edge issues, such as stem-cell research, are derided as anti-scientific impediments to human progress. Traditional religious attitudes regarding sexuality are portrayed as bigoted. Religious communities with progressive outlooks in accord with the spirit of secularism are embraced as part of the mainstream, while other perspectives are increasingly marginalized and occasionally even penalized.

The issue is further complicated by the universal revulsion throughout civilized society at radical Islamic fundamentalism. Many find it difficult to distinguish among the broad array of groups deemed to be “fundamentalist” and tend to regard fervently religious people of all faiths with suspicion.

Thus, while religion remains a powerful force in American culture and law, we have entered an era in which that position appears to be eroding. Further erosion could represent a serious challenge to the ongoing development of Jewish religious life in America.

Here’s hoping that the next president will promote policies that help parents who choose religious schooling for their children, allow faith-based service providers to seek federal funding without abandoning their religiously motivated employment practices, and give religious thinkers a respected place at the public-policy table in the debates over the great moral issues of our time.

Rabbi David Zwiebel is executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.


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