WASHINGTON (Dec. 20)
Sparked by a series of violent incidents and growing unease, the issue of crime has soared to the top of the American agenda, and President Clinton has been trying to involve the religious community in crime-fighting efforts.
“I am very, very worried about the enormous amount of crime and violence that is engulfing our country and is taking a terrible toll on children in this country,” the president said in a roundtable discussion Friday with nine reporters from religious news services including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“And I’m worried about the fact that we have not been able to fashion an adequate response to it,” he said.
On Nov. 13, Clinton delivered an address on the subject of crime at the Memphis church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon.
Crime is due to the breakdown of the family and the community and the disappearance of jobs, Clinton said.
The nation, he said, must realize that the fight against crime “cannot be done by government because we have to reach deep inside to the values, the spirit, the soul and the truth of human nature.”
Clinton invoked King’s name, asking what the slain civil rights leader would have thought of the crime and violence prevalent in today’s society.
JEWS HAVE AN INTEREST IN MAKING CITIES SAFE
In response, a group of religious leaders wrote to the president, praising him for his speech and offering to work with him to combat crime.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and its director, Rabbi David Saperstein, played a key role in coordinating the Dec. 15 letter.
Like other segments of the population, Jewish groups are becoming more aware of the crime problem.
“The Jewish community is largely an urban community, and problems with crime are largely urban,” so Jews have an “interest in making cities safe and secure,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress.
“The health of the Jewish community depends on the health of the larger society we live in,” he said.
“Some issues are Jewish issues because they directly apply to Jewish people per se,” but other issues, like crime, “affect the Jewish community as they affect others,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington representative for the National Council of Jewish Women.
Jewish organizations in Washington have been lobbying on Capitol Hill, supporting the recently passed Brady gun bill and seeking passage of a number of crime bills.
The Anti-Defamation League and other groups have been strongly backing hate crimes legislation that has passed both houses of Congress and is now awaiting a House-Senate conference committee.
The legislation would increase federal penalties for crimes committed because of the victim’s race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation.
The ADL is also pushing for legislation that would institute anti-violence and prejudice-reduction programs in public schools.
“Our data shows that upwards of 80 percent of people arrested for committing anti-Semitic acts are people under 21,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director of ADL’s Washington office.
Among other bills backed by various Jewish groups are a ban on assault weapons, a tax on ammunition, an enhanced witness protection program for people providing information on terrorism, and legislation to combat violence against women.
Jewish groups are also working within their own agencies and communities to institute programs against crime.
The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella group of national and local Jewish organizations, is preparing to form a crime committee that will address both the causes and prevention of crime.
“There’s a sense in the community that these are issues that must be addressed,” said Larry Rubin, the group’s executive vice chairman.
On the local level, too, Jewish groups are beginning to work with others to fight crime.
“Up to this point, the Jewish community has been less involved in local initiatives” than some other groups, said Rabbi Daniel Swartz of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“That is starting to change,” Swartz said.
RALLYING FOR GUN CONTROL
For example, in Washington last spring and summer, a black-Jewish task force, including the American Jewish Committee, organized a series of gun control rallies outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.
“Most Jews do not live in neighborhoods where the bulk of the shooting takes place, but they feel touched (by violence) and feel the need to do something about it,” said Jeffrey Weintraub, AJCommittee’s Washington area director, who helped coordinate the rallies.
In New York, which has the largest concentration of American Jews, the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty is working with local police and others to combat crime.
Jews living in urban poverty are likely to be touched by crime, said William Rapfogel, Met Council’s executive director, and nearly a quarter of New York City’s Jewish population is either below the poverty line or in the “near-poor” category.
When asked how pending legislation on Capitol Hill would affect the Jewish poor in New York, Rapfogel said he “wouldn’t single out the Jewish poor. The Jewish community in general suffers from crime.”
B’nai B’rith’s Community Volunteer Services, for its part, has been distributing booklets entitled “Play it Safe.” The booklets, designed for parents and teachers, use role-playing exercises and discussion programs to help children ward off abuse and abduction.
Swartz of the Religious Action Center said the Jewish community has something to offer other groups who are also concerned about crime.
As a group classified both as “white” and as a minority, Jews can serve as bridges among other community groups, Swartz said.