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Focus on Issues Jews to Help Farmers in Trouble

Representatives of farmers’ and Jewish organizations have joined forces to combat the plight of American farmers and the spread of anti-Semitism in agrarian areas of the country.

This nationwide effort was announced at a meeting here last month at the headquarters of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in the U.S. and Canada. The meeting, during the Succoth holiday, took place under a small succah where the representatives noted that the setting was a reminder of Judaism’s agrarian roots and the importance of the harvest, celebrated during Succoth, to both farmers and Jews.

The representatives announced the beginning of a national petition drive to obtain one million signatures calling on Congress to declare an immediate moratorium on farm foreclosures, fair prices for farm products and an emergency aid program for farm families forced into bankruptcy, foreclosure, and the most extreme consequences of poverty.

The petition drive was presented by Gertrude White, national president of Women’s American ORT, and David Goldstein, executive director of the Kansas City (Missouri) Jewish Community Relations Bureau, one of the pioneer Jewish organizations working to help the family farmer. The two groups have been working jointly since last April, when Women’s American ORT presented the Kansas City JCRB with a $25,000 grant to initiate a farm crisis project. The distribution of the petitions is being carried out by Women’s American ORT and UAHC.

There are now 300 farm families going under every day, said Goldstein, over 100,000 farm families per year, and he cited the accompanying increases in child and spouse abuse, mental illness, “and the hopelessness.”

THE RANGE OF PROJECTS

White, speaking for Women’s American ORT and the Women’s American ORT-JCRB Farm Crisis Project, outlined the range of projects considered for interaction between Jewish groups and farmers, Christian clergy, rural media, teachers and public officials, including the consideration of programs of direct financial aid and the development of expanded mental health services. “Once we started learning about their (farmers’) problems, we felt we had a moral responsibility toward them.”

White explained that “as the vocational and technical training arm of the Jewish people, ORT appreciates the importance of productive labor, both as a means of livelihood and because it cannot be separated from the dignity of the individual or the wealth of society. We feel a tremendous affinity for these farm families.”

Goldstein said his agency first became involved in the farm crisis through investigations into the rabidly racist, anti-Semitic broadcasts of radio station KTTL-FM in Dodge City, Kansas, whose religious sermons advocated violence against Jews, Blacks and law enforcement officials.

He said that as members of the Kansas City JCRB learned more about the extremists, they simultaneously learned about the problems of family farmers, and “determined that for our own security it was necessary to develop a program to combat anti-Semitism and racism because of our religious and social values, and the tradition of Jewish community relations agencies in aiding people in pain.”

The petition, said Goldstein, “is the center-piece of a multifaceted program to educate and involve urban Jews and through Jews other urban people in action on the farm crisis.”

SOME OF THE JEWISH AGENCIES INVOLVED

Goldstein stressed the appropriateness “for Jews and farmers to work together.” Among other Jewish agencies working to alleviate the farm crisis, he said, were the Des Moines, Iowa, Jewish Community Relations Council, which provided about $10,000 to farm families for emergency survival assistance, and the Minnesota Jewish Community Relations Council – Anti-Defamation League, which established a person-to-person program bringing together Jews and farmers for “discussion and action.”

Goldstein also cited the St. Louis American Jewish Committee, which, through former Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, began a hotline offering legal advice to farmers.

Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC, announcing the UAHC participation in the petition drive, noted the place of Jews alongside farmers. “Judaism teaches a respect for the land and those who till it … We must revere the farmer as much as the scholar, for both do the Lord’s work. It is our solemn obligation to make certain that they will not be denied the fruits of their labor.”

The UAHC’s Committee on Social Action passed a resolution last April “to undertake educational activities, to inform its congregations and affiliates of the Jewish and urban stake” in the farm crisis.

Schindler noted that the UAHC effort grew from the April resolution, which called the farm crisis “the most severe since the Great Depression” and urged legislative action to “stem the tide of farm foreclosures, offer reasonable and immediate debt relief to farmers in severe economic crisis and address the ongoing social service needs of farm and rural populations.”

‘AN IRREVERSIBLE SITUATION’

David Senter, national director of the American Agriculture Movement who gave up his farm and brought his family to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for legislation favorable to the farmer, described the farm crisis as rapidly becoming “an irreversible situation” brought about by the greed of a small number of giant companies that do everything from buying the fruits of the harvest to packaging it and distributing it.

They, and the Reagan Administration’s farm policies, he said, have been responsible for the disastrous proportions of the farm crisis, reducing the number of farmers until ownership of the land rests in the fewest possible hands.

In accepting the petition, Cy Carpenter, president of the National Farmers Union, welcomed “the special efforts of our Jewish friends in undertaking to help us correct the injustice that is being imposed on American farmers …. Those of the Jewish faith have written a proud and productive history of involvement and leadership, and more than their share of caring and sharing when people are denied or oppressed.”

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