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Protect the Poor, Hold the Center

There is a compelling logic, it must be said, to the decision by United Jewish Communities, reported by Ori Nir on Page 3, not to mount a frontal challenge to the slashing budget cuts planned by the Republicans on Capitol Hill. As the national association of Jewish federated charities, UJC has a multibillion-dollar network of social-service agencies to protect. True, the proposed cutbacks — reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, home-heating assistance and more — will hurt those very agencies and their needy clients. But the Republicans seem determined to push them through, and they usually get their way. When you’re faced with an oncoming truck, it’s fair to ask which way to jump.

UJC could stand on principle, but it would carry a cost. In the vindictively partisan atmosphere of today’s Washington, it wouldn’t take much for the Republicans to decide that the Jewish charities were on the wrong side and simply cut them out. If that happened, the losers would be the Jewish welfare agencies and their hundreds of thousands of clients, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Under the circumstances, there’s a case to be made for identifying a winnable battle and making a stand there. The issue UJC picked, the House plan for narrowing Medicaid entitlement, is a reasonable place to start.

An equally strong case is made by the groups that are mobilizing for a full-scale war against the cuts, including the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. After all, the Jewish community isn’t just a network of bureaucracies. It’s made up of millions of individuals across the country who share some basic values and assumptions, among them a vision of society caring for its weakest members. Jews are entitled to expect that the agencies purporting to represent them are actually doing so. We need to know that Judaism stands for something.

Both arguments are strong; that’s one reason why multiple Jewish agencies exist. Our community is a diverse one, not just in its views but also in its multiple interests and agendas. The challenge is to sort out the issues, divide up the labor where appropriate and see that the debate is respectful. That is, or should be, the job of the Jewish federated system.

In theory, Jewish federations are conveners; they oversee local social-service agencies, operate community centers and boards of Jewish education across denominational lines, and run combined fund-raising campaigns to pay for it all. In theory, the local federation’s community-relations committee is its public-policy arm, bringing together the community’s factions and speaking in one voice to the broader society. In theory, those functions are replicated at the national level by United Jewish Communities and its putative public-policy arm, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

It’s no secret that the system has been breaking down for years. Many local federations have allowed their fund-raising campaigns to dominate all else, vastly magnifying the influence of the wealthiest donors. The national UJC, which should be a meeting ground for a wide range of interests and viewpoints, has become an echo chamber. The public-affairs council, for its part, has allowed its mission to drift gradually from one of convening the factions to one of giving a voice to the voiceless.

The end result of these changes is on display in Washington today: a national Jewish communal system with two centers, one heavily Republican, the other overwhelmingly Democrat, that barely speak to each other. The recent staff appointments at the two agencies — including a leading Republican activist to head the Washington office of UJC and longtime Democratic activists to head the public-affairs council and its Washington office — only reinforce the concern.

The Reform movement and the National Council of Jewish Women are entirely within their rights to mobilize their constituents against the overall Republican plan. We suspect they speak for a great majority of American Jews, and on the merits of the federal budget, they have our sympathy. UJC, for its part, is right to plot its moves strategically and look out for the interests of its agencies.

What’s missing is a strong presence at the center. There should be a body that can bring the players together, get them to coordinate their strategies or at least listen to each other, and find a way to let the folks at home know what’s being said and done in their name. That’s supposed to be the job of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. But the council can’t be a convener if it’s intent on being a player itself. Nor can it be effective without the full faith and authority of UJC behind it.

The entry of new policy staffers at both agencies provides rare opportunity for the two sides to take a deep breath, step back and re-examine their relationship. In these troubled times, American Jewry needs an effective voice at the center. It’s not a sexy job, but somebody has to do it.

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