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After 100 Days in Office, Bush Gets Passing Grade from Jewish Leaders

There has been good, there has been bad, but so far it hasn’t gotten that ugly.

As President Bush and his administration complete their first 100 days in office, Jewish groups give the new president a fair grade, but many are still taking a wait-and-see approach.

While some of its steps have angered many in the Jewish community – notably the faith-based initiative that would provide federal funding to religious groups providing social services – the Bush administration generally has avoided major pitfalls on issues of concern to Jewish organizations.

On the foreign policy front, the White House has avoided major criticism from Jewish groups.

Though he has not engaged in the day-to-day involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that characterized the Clinton administration, Bush has not disengaged from the issue entirely. And U.S. support for Israel in the United Nations – including a key veto on a Security Council resolution to send troops to “protect” Palestinians from Israel – has helped the White House win favor in the Jewish community’s eyes.

On the domestic front, Bush has run into a bit more trouble, but still has managed to keep his feet.

“All in all, many anxieties have not been realized,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Foxman noted that Bush appears sincere about resolving potential problems and is sensitive to the Jewish community. Bush met with Jewish leaders in March to discuss a variety of topics, and Jewish leaders are beginning to find a comfort level with Bush, Foxman said.

“There is a willingness to engage more with the administration,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

April 30 will mark Bush’s first 100 days in the White House, the traditional checkpoint of a new president’s performance.

Jewish groups still want to give Bush a chance to establish himself. At the same time, the groups also have an interest in ingratiating themselves with a new White House that might look to them later for input and lend an ear to their concerns.

With the release of Bush’s budget plan earlier this month, Jewish groups have gotten a clearer picture of his agenda.

Some groups criticized the budget as a conservative document with misguided priorities, and social service groups say the money still falls well short of what they want.

Groups like the United Jewish Communities were unhappy with funding levels for some social service programs of key importance to the Jewish community – such as housing and refugee assistance programs – but said cuts were not as grave as feared.

Overall, the general outcry from the Jewish community that many anticipated has not emerged.

Even where administration actions might have been expected to engender criticism – such as the fact that the appointments to Bush’s Cabinet did not include a single Jew – the community did not react with public anger. Instead, some Jewish leaders said it was time to stop counting heads on an ethnic basis, and noted the number of Jews in other prominent policy positions.

Of course, some issues indeed have caused consternation in the Jewish community.

During the campaign Bush had promised to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from power plants, and indicated support for the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to combat global warming.

Since taking office, however, Bush has backed away from both commitments. He said he will not include carbon dioxide in a multi-pollutant bill and appears to have abandoned the Kyoto agreement. Also, he has set in motion a Cabinet-level review of global policy.

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life joined a broad coalition of religious groups calling on Bush to combat global warming and address issues such as a reliance on oil and coal – industries closely tied to the administration – for energy.

The proposed repeal of the estate tax – a relatively high tax on the estates of recently deceased persons – has Jewish funders concerned that charitable giving will suffer.

Some studies have estimated that repealing the estate tax, which is levied at graduated rates depending on the size of the estate, could reduce charitable gifts and bequests by close to $6 billion annually.

The organized Jewish community at first stayed quiet on the issue, worried about offending big donors.

Last week, however, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism urged Congress to reject efforts to repeal the estate tax. The group’s executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, argued that eliminating the estate tax would remove an enormous incentive for the wealthy to donate to charitable, philanthropic and educational organizations.

Despite the community’s continued willingness to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, the most controversial issue has been the administration’s faith-based initiative.

Bush wants to expand charitable choice, which passed as part of the 1996 welfare reform, and has established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Charitable choice allows religious institutions to bid for government contracts to provide services to welfare recipients.

Most Jewish groups are opposed to expanding financial partnerships between government and religious organizations in the manner suggested by the Bush administration, and want assurances that secular alternatives to religious programs will be available – and that beneficiaries of social services will not be proselytized.

Such groups say the program chips away at the constitutional separation between church and state, could allow for employment discrimination based on religion and may infringe on religious liberties.

Orthodox groups, on the other hand, are pleased with the chance to get more funding for their religious organizations that run soup kitchens or other programs. They say faith-based programs are successful and faith-based institutions should play a greater role in providing social services.

Previously, synagogues and churches had to establish separate, non-religious entities to run such programs.

Bush reportedly termed his faith-based plan a “work in progress,” and said he was willing to work with the Jewish community on the matter.

Jewish groups are concerned over which religious groups will receive government money, an issue that remains unresolved.

Despite the concern on specific issues, however, the general mood in the Jewish community is upbeat. In fact, Bush has earned praise for his position on Israel.

The United States has taken a lower-key role, with Bush vowing that America will be a facilitator for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians rather than a party forcing new steps. The president repeatedly has said that peacemaking is up to the parties in conflict.

In addition, Bush has taken several symbolic steps to emphasize his affinity with Israel: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was the first Middle East leader Bush invited to the White House, and the administration has made clear that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will not be invited to the Oval Office until he makes a concerted effort to stop Palestinian violence, according to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Even after the State Department called last week’s Israeli occupation of part of the Gaza Strip an “excessive and disproportionate” reaction to Palestinian attacks, Jewish groups did not get up in arms.

Some Jewish organizations were not critical of the strong U.S. statement, saying they understood that the Bush administration feels compelled to issue tough comments on Israel in order to win Arab support for America’s Iraq policy.

At the United Nations, in addition to the veto for the peacekeeping force, the United States last week voted against resolutions accusing Israel of human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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