Jewish Activists Hope for Action As Congress Prepares for Return

For all the talk of bipartisanship and change, the U.S. Congress ended the year much the same way as it began — sharply divided and unable to agree on major legislative issues.

Now, as issues unrelated to terrorism, which were nearly wiped off the congressional calendar after Sept. 11, slowly make their way back on the nation’s radar screen, Jewish activists are hoping to see more action when Congress returns to the Capitol on Jan. 23.

But those issues — from funding for religious groups to religious accommodation in the workplace — will be looked at through a different lens, as the greatest terrorist attack on U.S. soil continues to spur a reassessment of responsibilities and priorities.

“We keep reanalyzing where we are,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Money spent on anti-terrorism issues means a constant re-evaluation of other needs.”

At the same time, many of these issues could continue to take a back seat given the growing problems of the economy, the effects of President Bush’s tax cut and the inability of lawmakers to agree on an economic stimulus package.

In addition, campaigning for November’s elections will begin during the summer, leaving only several months of full-time work on Capitol Hill.

The debate about anti-terrorism legislation, which passed quickly through Congress, is likely to resurface as other related bills make their way through Congress this year.

Jewish groups by and large backed the legislation, even as they worried about the balance between security needs and civil rights.

“We supported the bill because there was a clear and present danger of terrorism, and it was important for Congress to move quickly,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

Now Jewish groups will be watching how the bill is implemented — and how it affects other legislation.

For example, Jewish groups are fighting to maintain the rights of immigrants while recognizing the need for stricter measures to ensure greater security.

One major accomplishment of the last congressional session that drew approval from the organized Jewish community was the passage of the education overhaul bill, which stressed accountability for schools but left out the controversial issue of vouchers.

Jewish groups are divided on vouchers. Most organizations say vouchers, which provide government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools, violate church-state separation and drain money away from the public school system.

However, many Orthodox Jews, who typically send their children to Jewish day schools, support publicly financed tuition vouchers.

The Supreme Court is poised to rule on the constitutionality of school vouchers sometime this spring.

That ruling is likely to affect other church-state issues, such as allowing federal money to go to religious groups that provide social services.

That controversial issue, also called charitable choice, rallied many groups against the larger faith-based initiative whose passage was supposed to be a priority for Bush.

The administration’s much-heralded plan to “level the playing field” and extend funding to religious groups was opposed by most Jewish groups.

Many Jewish leaders fear that an expanded partnership between the government and faith-based institutions could break down the constitutional wall separating church and state, infringe on religious liberties and imply toleration of employment discrimination. Orthodox groups favor direct federal monies going to religious groups, saying these groups have been unfairly excluded from receiving such funds.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in August containing charitable choice language that some Jewish activists said allowed for hiring discrimination, forced religious institutions to be exposed to government scrutiny and did not provide safeguards against proselytizing.

The faith-based initiative lost steam not only because it was displaced along with other issues after Sept. 11 but also because the Democratic-controlled Senate chose not make it a priority.

Other issues that lawmakers could not finalize in 2001 include:

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would strengthen provisions for religious accommodation, is in a stronger position now, according to Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Energy legislation, where reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil is a major point of consensus but how to go about doing it is not. Most Jewish groups are opposed to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. While it has no official position on drilling in Alaska, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations joined a news conference last month with Senate Republicans, who proposed an energy bill that calls for drilling in the refuge.

One thing Congress is expected to do this year is officially end the application of trade restrictions to Russia and stop the historic Jackson-Vanik law that helped ensure the emigration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews. Bush called for the change in November.

American Jewish groups say they understand the reason for adjusting the law and acknowledge the progress Russia has made, but they also want assurances that the Russian government will help Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

Russian Jewish groups accept lifting the trade regulations without any strings.

And pro-Israel activists are also pushing measures related to Israel.

They hope to capitalize on the pro-Israel feelings expressed by lawmakers last year following terrorist attacks against the Jewish state.

There also could be new opportunities in the coming year for increased collaboration between the United States and Israel in fighting terrorism, said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

There has been an Israeli-U.S. counterterrorism group since 1996, but this year its work takes on greater significance because of increased awareness about the threat of terrorism, Needler said.

AIPAC, as always, will work to ensure that Israel gets its annual foreign aid package. Last session, Congress agreed to the full amount for Israel requested from the Bush administration — $2.04 billion for military aid and $720 million for economic needs.

A number of lawmakers spoke out against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Congress, but more forceful language demanding that Bush impose sanctions on the Palestinians if they do not end or prevent terrorism and stop anti-Israel incitement was not included in the foreign aid bill.

The bill does contain a provision urging Bush to review Palestinian Authority compliance with its peace agreements with Israel, and suggests the president impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority if it does not rein in Palestinian violence.

Needler said AIPAC would continue to lobby for passage of free-standing legislation requiring Palestinian compliance.

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