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On the Jewish Agenda(s), Part 2

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

We asked representatives from some Jewish groups to each suggest an issue that should feature prominently on the communal agenda, explain why this issue matters to American Jews and specify what course of action they would want to see our next president take.

In last week’s Forward, we published the first batch of their responses, which can be read here. This week, we publish the rest, which are printed below.

Reform Our Immigration System

By Gideon Aronoff

The collapse of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill last year left Jewish activists — who had overwhelmingly supported the effort — without a clear path forward. Since that time, however, we have witnessed in Postville, Iowa, the single largest immigration raid ever staged by the federal government, which targeted our country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. This raid, and the way the workers were treated by the government and the company, has galvanized our community to reexamine questions related to immigration in 21st-century America.

Postville got our attention not only because it concerned a Jewish-owned and -operated business, which provides the American Jewish community with much of its kosher meat, but because of the greater implications of how we honor our religious traditions in the economic and political arenas. In this one dramatic incident, many of us saw our religious, ethical, national, communal and personal interests converge as we struggled with how to better ensure that our national laws reflect the inherent compassion of our Jewish tradition.

The federal government clearly has a responsibility to enforce our immigration laws. We as a nation, however, must understand the fundamental reality that a policy of raids targeting otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants cannot possibly create either real security and order — or justice and humanity — in our immigration system. The next president should lead a national effort to prevent future Postvilles by passing legislation that will address the needs of our economy, our workers and our employers — while safeguarding the welcoming and faith-based principles on which this country was established.

Gideon Aronoff is president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Spur Investment in Education

By Nathan J. Diament

Jews have promoted the value of universal education since first-century sage Yehoshua ben Gamla instituted schooling for all children. Today, as America pursues its own “no child left behind” policy, critics rightly note that Washington hasn’t provided sufficient funding to help schools meet ambitious new standards. But spurring community investment in education is as important as procuring federal funds.

In many states around the country, a proven method for catalyzing such investments is education tax credits. While the specifics vary from state to state, what these programs have in common is that they provide a tax credit — more valuable than a tax deduction — for individuals or businesses to make financial contributions to schools and scholarship funds. These state tax credits — supported by Democratic and Republican governors, and ruled entirely constitutional, even when some of the funds benefit families that utilize parochial schools — have added hundreds of millions of dollars to both public- and private-school budgets. The credits have helped public schools raise funds for extracurricular programs, tutoring and more. They also can ease the burden on middle- and lower-income parents who struggle with private-school tuition (including to pay for Jewish day schools) by encouraging the establishment of scholarship funds, administered in our communities by local Jewish federations.

For our next president, a federal education tax-credit program is a winning approach for bringing more support to educating all American children. For a Jewish community concerned with assimilation and the high cost of educating young Jews, it is a proven and beneficial means of support.

Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Protect Our Planet

By Jerome M. Epstein

Among the many critical issues that our next president will face, perhaps none will be more important in determining the future of humankind than how our nation grapples with an ever-worsening worldwide environmental crisis.

Climate change is causing unprecedented and often disastrous weather problems, resulting in food shortages, illness and terrible loss of life. It affects all of us. Our global water supply is endangered, the quality of our air is being destroyed, and our children’s and grandchildren’s futures are jeopardized.

Judaism commands us as God’s partners to care for the world God has given us. The Torah and rabbinic literature teach us that we are the stewards of this earth, and those teachings govern our lives. We must convey these values to the next president.

Although no president can reverse ecological trends unilaterally, his values and programs must reflect the priority of creating a new ecological balance. The new president must inspire and foster investment in creating alternate sources of energy, while reducing reliance on current fuel sources, especially those that leave a carbon footprint. Some of these measures will be unpopular in many quarters. Strategies we should pursue include adopting incentives to convert most vehicles to run on alternative fuels, a significant investment in clean-air technology and an initiative to commercialize — and thus popularize — solar and wind power.

Both candidates should lay out clear, concrete courses of action, so that when the next president is sworn in, he can claim a mandate to restore ecological sanity.

Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein is the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Support Stem-Cell Research

By Nancy Falchuk

The next president of the United States should immediately overturn the current restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. Human embryonic stem-cell research holds the promise to treat and cure chronic and debilitating conditions such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and spinal-cord injury — conditions plaguing more than 100 million Americans.

Yet, seven years after President Bush’s August 9, 2001, announcement restricting federal funding for stem-cell research to those lines created prior to that date, only 16 stem-cell lines are available for federal funding, and none of these are suitable for human research.

Funding for embryonic stem cell research should not be held hostage to politics or religion — it is about saving lives. Droves of members of both major political parties support the research, evidenced by the congressional passage in 2006 and 2007 of bipartisan bills that, had they not been vetoed by President Bush, would have lifted the federal restrictions. Similarly, support for stem-cell research is not defined by religion. Millions of Americans with strongly held religious beliefs support stem-cell research, a position backed by all major streams of Judaism.

In the meantime, researchers are moving overseas to countries with more supportive stem-cell policies — countries, such as Israel, that are surging forward in this promising field. Until we have a president who lifts the federal restrictions, the United States will remain on the sidelines, along with millions of deserving patients and their families.

Nancy Falchuk is national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

Help Americans Age Healthily

By Rachel Goldberg

We know that the next president must address health care — what we don’t know is whether the person who takes the oath of office in January will understand that aging is a central component of this issue. Because seniors already have Medicare, some assume health-care reform is not an aging issue. Medicare is a good program, but healthy aging (which is the goal for everyone) can’t start at age 65 — and it can’t happen without lifelong access to affordable healthcare. Those who receive Medicare after years of being uninsured tend to have more (and more expensive) health problems. Overcoming insurance industry cherry-picking to make health care affordable to people in their 40s, 50s and early 60s must be a priority for the next president. The Jewish community — which is disproportionately well-represented among Americans age 50 and older — is keenly aware of the importance of health-care access to healthy, independent aging.

The president must do more than expand access. We also must begin to address the failings of a health-care system not designed to meet the needs of older people. Our current system struggles to provide specialty care to older adults, to manage chronic conditions, to coordinate care and to retain direct-care workers. Those problems won’t fix themselves, and they will grow more acute as the 65-and-over population grows from about 12% of our total population to 25% in 2030. Health-care reform proposals are coming, and so is the retirement of the baby-boomers. The next president must make this critical connection and act accordingly.

Rachel Goldberg develops B’nai B’rith International policy on aging and serves as its legislative advocate on a range of senior issues.

Help Shape International Law

By Richard S. Gordon

International law will play a growing role in determining our nation’s foreign and military policy. That’s a given. We have debated how, if at all, international law should apply to those held at Guantanamo. We have watched as the legal duty to prevent genocide has been effectively shredded by inaction over Darfur. But other developments in international law that are critically important to us as Americans and as Jews have gone largely unnoticed.

The law of war, as interpreted at the United Nations and by many in the human rights field, has become a weapon in the hands of terrorist forces that use human shields to launch attacks against civilians in Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq, and then claim impunity from counter-attack because of the civilians in whose midst they operate.

Meanwhile, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is working to make it a criminal violation of international law to defame religion, and specifically Islam. If it succeeds, it could be a crime to speak of Islam giving rise to terrorism. Under this theory, Jordanian prosecutors are already seeking the extradition of Danish journalists for publishing cartoons critical of Islam.

International law is neither irrelevant, nor is it the key to salvation — content matters. The next president will have to both accept international law as a restraint on American behavior and work to shape it so that it is not misused by those who threaten peace and freedom.

Richard S. Gordon is president of the American Jewish Congress.

Save Darfur

By Ruth Messinger

We are six years into a tragedy in Darfur that has resulted in more than 450,000 lives lost and 2.5 million people displaced. President Bush has used the term “genocide” to describe this mass murder. Yet his term is winding down, and he has not done nearly enough to bring security to the region.

Options at the president’s disposal have included pressuring China to stop underwriting the genocide through petrodollars, arms shipments and diplomatic cover at the United Nations; initiating a reinvigorated peace process between the Sudanese government and rebel groups; calling on other nations to contribute more troops and equipment, such as helicopters, to the international peacekeeping mission; and pressing the international community to impose sanctions against Sudan if it continues to restrict peacekeeping efforts.

When Russian tanks recently rolled into Georgia, President Bush quickly issued a strong statement of rebuke, hinting of possible diplomatic consequences for the Russians. He then dispatched troops and sent Condoleezza Rice to Georgia for emergency meetings. Where is the same urgency regarding Darfur?

More than 4 million Darfuri people now depend on humanitarian aid for survival; aid workers can’t access the camps; villages continue to be attacked by government-backed militias, and all we hear is lip service from President Bush. He does not even have a full-time diplomatic team in Sudan. Both candidates to succeed President Bush have promised to prioritize ending this genocide. The Jewish community knows the danger of waiting — we must demand that our next president honors his pledge before it is too late.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.

Expand Domestic Energy Production

By Tom Neumann

Energy gets top billing as both a domestic and foreign policy issue in this election. It is a domestic issue in that the energy crisis is a key factor in our current economic crisis. It is international in that our dependence on foreign oil restricts America’s ability to operate in the international arena.

No single policy will solve the energy crisis. To find alternatives to imported oil, the next president must support domestic exploration and drilling, as well as expand domestically generated energy sources, including nuclear power, clean coal, natural gas, hydrogen, bio-fuels, wind, solar and hydropower. This is, quite simply, a matter of national security.

Clearly, the energy issue goes well beyond a Jewish agenda. But in reducing our dependence on foreign oil suppliers — such as Iran, Iraq and Russia — we also will have a positive impact on a number of issues that are of particular concern to the Jewish community.

Tom Neumann is executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Restore Judicial Independence

By Nancy Ratzan

A top priority for Jewish women and men in this election must be restoring an independent federal judiciary and Department of Justice dedicated to the preservation of constitutional rights. The next president must pledge to nominate an attorney general and federal judges who have unequivocal records upholding the law and the gains made during the last half of the 20th century.

After years in which there has been a concerted effort to re-create our justice system to conform to an extreme ideological agenda, it is critical that the next president take a different course. True to his word, President Bush appointed judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who seek to reverse the course of the courts since World War II, eroding fundamental rights and freedoms. New federal appeals court judges in lifetime seats now include one who wrote a Justice Department memo rationalizing torture and another who called Roe v. Wade “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.” Similarly, the Department of Justice selected career attorneys based on their political beliefs, not legal credentials or competence.

For Jews this transformation of the judicial system has been especially problematic. As a minority group, we rely on the courts as our bedrock defense of civil rights and civil liberties, including reproductive and religious freedom. Demanding the revival of a truly independent judiciary must be a top priority for Jewish voters, lest the next president and his ensuing federal bench undermine our constitutional rights for decades to come.

Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Confront Poverty in America

By Hadar Susskind

In America there are more than 37 million people living in poverty — including 13 million children. More than 47 million Americans do not have health insurance. There is a nationwide affordable housing crisis. As of 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly 11% of Americans were, at some point in the year, “food insecure.” Childhood poverty alone is believed to cost America $500 billion each year in lower productivity, poor health and lost potential. And yet, a comprehensive strategy to slash poverty by half would cost only $90 billion per year.

For America to be a strong country, a healthy country and a just country, our next president must make combating and eradicating poverty a top national priority. And there are proven steps that we can take to make a real difference: We should expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, guarantee child care assistance to low-income families, promote early education for all children, properly fund affordable housing programs whose budgets have been slashed over the years, and expand Pell grants and other means of making higher education a reality that is achievable for all students.

Jews care about poverty because the Torah calls for us to do so, because our own community suffers from its impact and because we are committed to a strong, healthy and just America. The time has come for the Jewish community to speak up and join in the call for our next president to make reducing poverty a national priority.

Hadar Susskind is Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Fight Campus Antisemitism

By Susan B. Tuchman

Jewish college students face increasing hostility on campus. The effects have been serious: On some campuses, students have reported being afraid to wear yarmulkes, Stars of David or anything pro-Israel. They’re reluctant to express pro-Israel views. Some even fear for their safety.

Racial and ethnic harassment and intimidation are unlawful. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, schools receiving federal funding must provide an environment free from racial and ethnic discrimination. These schools would be held accountable by the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights if they tolerated an environment hostile to African Americans, Arab Americans or other racial and ethnic groups.

Jewish Americans, however, do not enjoy the same protection. OCR treats Jews as a religious group outside the purview of Title VI. OCR maintains that it will not investigate allegations of antisemitism unless discrimination based on the complainant’s race, color or national origin is also alleged.

Jews, however, are more than a religious group. We share an ancestry, traditions, language and culture. As an ethnic group we are entitled to Title VI’s protections.

There’s bipartisan support for ensuring that Title VI protects against antisemitism. Recently, three Republican senators wrote to the secretary of education, objecting to OCR’s current policy. Six Democratic members of the House of Representatives have sent a similar letter.

Our next president should direct OCR to enforce Title VI so that students are assured an environment free from antisemitism. Efforts are under way to amend Title VI, clarifying that Jewish students are protected. Our next president should sign such an amendment into law.

Susan B. Tuchman is director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the above essays were published in this week’s print edition of the Forward, while others were published exclusively online.

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