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Finding Our Voice

Amid the unfolding national furor over the storm and its aftermath, it’s hard not to notice the silence of the major national Jewish public-policy agencies. As Eve Kessler reports on Page 1, most had nothing to say on this, the gravest American public policy crisis in years, and those that commented did so only under prodding.

The agencies’ near invisibility may not pose a threat to the larger body politic, but it does bespeak a worrying deterioration in the health of our own community. The failure of America’s emergency response systems raises questions far beyond the fate of hurricane victims. The implications range from the hardheaded — the economy, national security, defense against terrorism — to the most basic questions of our direction as a society. At moments such as these, our nation’s values are embodied in our government’s ability to act. This week, we failed.

When asked directly to comment on these issues, most top community officials argued that raising such questions right now would divert the nation from the emergency. At this point, that’s a view shared only by the diehard right. Even the president says he wants to know what went wrong.

We expect that some community leaders will read these words and wonder why they’re being singled out, when emergency management has no direct bearing on Jewish group interests as usually defined. But most won’t raise the objection out loud. After all, the major agencies never have framed their mission in terms of narrow Jewish interest alone; most claim a broader mandate, both to articulate traditional Jewish values of social justice and to defend those human rights on which Jewish safety depends. In large measure, it’s their carefully nurtured reputation for disinterested, principled consistency that has given them the credibility they wield on the national stage. In part, too, they are listened to because they are assumed to speak for millions of passionately engaged American Jews. They can hardly turn around now and say the nation’s agonies are none of their business.

The real reason for the silence this week lies elsewhere, we suspect. As some communal leaders have acknowledged privately in recent months, the agencies’ top priority these days is protecting their access to the White House, in order to preserve their effectiveness as advocates for Israeli security. That concern has eclipsed nearly every other item on the communal agenda in recent years. Only the most immediate threats to domestic Jewish stability — blatant religious intolerance, budget cuts to Jewish nursing homes — are permitted to roil the placid channels of Washington access. Someday, our spokesmen seem to feel, we will need to make our voices heard on something truly urgent.

This might just be that time. Given its access, the national Jewish communal leadership is in a unique position to reach the president at this moment of openness and vulnerability and to address the meaning of government.

President Bush never has made a secret of his view that government should do less and leave individuals to their own resources. This week, Americans caught a glimpse of the folly in that philosophy.

Judaism has a great deal to say on the matter; it is a tradition steeped in civic duty, from the duties of kings and judges to the responsibilities of property owners and the rights of the poor. It’s a message America needs to hear right now. A concerted effort by our major national agencies, on the scale of their civil rights crusades of the 1950s and their Soviet Jewry efforts of the 1970s, could tip the balance. Nobody is better equipped or positioned to do it.

This president has two-and-a-half years left to absorb the lessons. He and the nation can use all the help we can give.

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