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Behind the Headlines: How Far to Pursue ‘justice Agenda’ at Center of Njcrac Policy Debate

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What is the U.S. Jewish community’s view on a middle-class tax cut? Should the Jewish community separate its concern for the Jewish poor from the general fight against poverty? Should it worry about what goes into elementary school textbooks?

These were among the questions debated here last week as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council took up proposed amendments to its Joint Program Plan for Jewish Community Relations.

That plan sets forth the organized Jewish community’s positions on a range of social and political issues. Many of the domestic positions reflect what NJCRAC Executive Vice Chair Lawrence Rubin called a “justice agenda.”

Rubin effectively summed up the domestic concerns of the Program Plan when he called on the nation’s political leaders to focus on “the fundamental right of all Americans to affordable housing, protection against homelessness and hunger, quality health care, opportunities for jobs at fair wages, quality integrated education, protection from crime, drugs and domestic violence.”

The actual Program Plan is drawn up in a yearlong process where consensus is the watchword. Only objections to proposed positions or suggestions to change the wording come up for a vote at the annual plenum, which convened here last week.

Attending the plenum were delegates from NJCRAC’s constituent agencies, which include over 100 community relations councils and 13 national Jewish organizations.

U.S. tax policy came up during discussion of a proposed statement on poverty.

The statement included a line urging that savings in U.S. defense spending resulting from the end of the Cold War “not be used to finance tax cuts.”

SINGLING OUT THE JEWISH POOR

This ran into opposition from the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, which argued that NJCRAC should not take a position on tax policy.

As a compromise, the plenum amended the statement’s goals section to urge that “a portion of the savings” in U.S. defense spending be used to finance initiatives to reduce poverty “and other critical needs.”

Another amendment on poverty was offered by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

It called on NJCRAC constituent agencies to “educate the Jewish community to our traditional religious mandate to utilize communal funds to assist the poor of all races and religions, while giving appropriate attention to the problems of Jewish poverty and homelessness.”

Lynn Lyss, a vice chair of NJCRAC, objected to mentioning the Jewish poor specifically. “We have never singled out one group when it came to the poor,” she said.

The amendment passed anyway.

Other proposals debated and approved at the plenum included a call for monitoring efforts to rewrite textbooks to reflect the experiences of “various ethnic, racial and gender groups”; a statement opposing the exclusion of immigrants to the United States who are infected with the virus that causes AIDS; and a call on the United States to stop its policy of repatriating Haitian refugees.

Even where there is no debate, the NJCRAC process makes room for dissent. In the final Program Plan, which will not be published until August, the Orthodox Union will express dissent from the thrust of the policy on public school education, which emphasizes opposition to state funding of private and parochial education.

GREATER SOCIAL JUSTICE CHALLENGES

While a two-hour debate on Israeli settlement policies attracted the most attention of any event at the plenum, discussion of domestic concerns also constituted a large proportion of the plenum’s schedule.

In a valedictory address titled “Coming Home,” NJCRAC’s outgoing chair, Arden Shenker, contrasted the good news the Jewish community has received on the international front — such as the free emigration of Soviet Jews, the ingathering of Ethiopian Jews and the repeal of the U.N. resolution condemning Zionism as racism — with what has happened on the domestic front.

“Today, it is clear that the challenges of the social justice agenda have expanded,” he said.

The golden era of that agenda was recalled by the Rev. Amos Brown, who heads San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church.

Brown launched his address with a history of black-Jewish cooperation, from the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People through the civil rights movement in the 1960s and finally to the continuing clashes in the past decades.

One reason the dissonance returns, he suggested, is “the appearance that the sons and daughters of Israel have outdistanced the sons and daughters of Africa.”

He observed that black demagogues, such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, have been able to take advantage “of the hurt and oppression of the 90 percent of the black people living in inner city ghettos with his vitriolic, negative rhetoric.”

The true root of the problem, he said, is the failure of the two groups to properly communicate. They need to work together, he said, quoting the saying that “you never see a mule pulling and kicking at the same time.”

BLACK-JEWISH TENSIONS ‘WILL REMAIN’

He cited as an example of joint efforts a program in San Francisco, conducted by his church and Temple Emanu-El, that provides after-school educational programs for inner city youth.

But the underlying tension between blacks and Jews will remain, he said, “until we make sure every able-bodied person who wants a job in this country can get one.”

The challenge was greeted with applause.

In another session, delegates were warned that the same legal arguments being used against affirmative action programs also threaten Jewish rights.

“The mind-set associated with the hardest resistance to affirmative action is associated with opposition to accommodating religious diversity,” said Dr. Paul Burstein, professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

He said that requiring businesses to accommodate the observance of Jewish holidays is viewed in those circles as granting favors to members of the minority religion.

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