Are Jewish Groups living in economic la-la land?

Friday, February 6th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

It just me, or is there a kind of surrealistic atmosphere surrounding Jewish activism in the early days of the Obama administration? The issues are mostly the same as always, but the context has changed dramatically. And it’s not at all clear our leaders understand the potential extent of that shift.

This week, there was a burst of interest about church-state matters when the new Obama administration announced its revamped faith based office. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is pumping out press releases about global warming, children’s health insurance and the global gag rule. Over at the Orthodox Union, the ever-prolific Nathan Diament was blogging about tuition tax credits and workplace religious discrimination.

And there was endless speculation about Israel. Will special envoy George Mitchell squeeze Israel or not? Will the Obama White House get along with whatever new government takes over in Jerusalem?

But underneath all this is a growing sense that the ground is shifting from under us in ways that affect all of these issues, and more.

It’s getting harder and harder to find people who believe the current recession, or whatever you choose to call it, isn’t something on a vastly different scale than the normal ups and downs we’ve experienced since World War II.

The Obama administration is working hard on bailouts and stimulus proposals (note to self: the term “stimulus package” has now taken on a political charge; only Republicans use it). But listen closely and what comes through is the fact that everybody is flying blind, except for those political hacks who continue to see everything through the lens of simple ideology (Republicans who say cutting taxes for the wealthy is the cure for every economic ailment, Democrats who believe that rescuing the economy has something to do with abortion rights, for example).

We are consumed with uncertainty about how to respond to an economic emergency the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, and whether the downward spiral can be stopped before we plunge into something truly cataclysmic.

And that will affect everything Jewish activists do.

Sure, church-state will remain a vital concern for many Jewish groups. But with so many Jews, like their neighbors, facing drastically lower incomes, changed retirement plans, threats to their jobs and possibly their homes, will they be paying as much attention to what sometimes seem like arcane constitutional questions?

Israel remains a core issue for so many American Jews, but intensive pro-Israel activism is a kind of luxury – something that is possible because Jews have ridden the crest of post-World War II prosperity.

What happens to the sprawling pro-Israel political infrastructure when Jewish donors, many of whom have lost huge percentages of their wealth even without the help of Bernie Madoff, stop giving as much to the pro-Israel organizations that have capitalized on their vast resources to build political support for Israel? What happens when pro-Israel donors scale back their giving to candidates because they’re more worried now about protecting their own families in perilous times?

How much of a priority pro-Israel activists are willing to give to the cause during times of personal economic adversity has not been tested; that may be about to change, and the results are hard to project.

Liberal Jewish groups are renowned for caring about America’s most vulnerable. What happens when the most vulnerable includes many of us? Nobody expects them to abandon their progressive principles, but will the energy be there to help others when so many in our own community may be facing genuine hardship for the first time ever and when so many grassroots activists are focusing more on their own personal survival?

Sure, this is a gloomy assessment, based on a lot of worst-case scenarios that may not actually unfold.

But there’s little question that there is the potential at least, that the core assumptions and realities of Jewish activism in this country will be challenged in ways we’ve never seen before.

One wonders: will a Jewish communal establishment critics say has grown fat and lazy, and at the very least has become accustomed to the benefits great wealth can provide, be agile and creative enough to respond to a new universe of possibilities?

Clearly, they were slow to read the seriousness of the current situation. Nine months ago, I began asking Jewish leaders how they were planning to meet dramatically new economic conditions. Over and over again, I heard the same answer: this is just a phase, the pendulum will switch back soon, nothing’s really changed.

That kind of response is one reason so many local Jewish federations – the front line Jewish fundraisers and service providers — are furious at United Jewish Communities (See this week’s Jewish Week story here) for they see as its slow response to a radically new environment.

But maybe blaming Jewish leaders is a little unfair. How many of us, as individuals, saw this coming, despite abundant signs we were living in an unsustainable way, with an ultimate day of reckoning somewhere down the road? How many of us took drastic action to reposition ourselves as the crisis mounted?

Again, the worst case scenarios may not play out. But a smart community determined to preserve its tremendous gains over the past half century should be thinking hard about these issues, making plans and discarding assumptions that may no longer be valid.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.