Jewish Activists Quiet on Alito As Other Issues Trump Hearings

For years, the warning that “the future of the Supreme Court is at stake” has been a rallying cry for activists. During several congressional and presidential elections, they argued that the future of reproductive rights and church-state separation hung in the balance.

But as the Senate Judiciary Committee vetted Judge Samuel Alito for a seat on the United States’ highest court last week, many in the Jewish community conceded that they weren’t watching.

While Alito’s record and positions on key issues were of concern, activists said they took his confirmation, which is scheduled to come up for a vote in the Senate on Jan. 23, as a foregone conclusion.

Many said they, and the country, simply were preoccupied with other issues, from the congressional leadership shakeup to lobbying scandals to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s health crisis.

“I don’t think it’s on people’s minds at all,” said Anya Kamenetz, an associate editor at Heeb Magazine and author of “Generation Debt,” a new book. “People are consumed with Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay.”

The weeks and months preceding the confirmation hearings saw a flurry of activity, but it has mostly quieted in the new year. That’s similar to what happened when John Roberts faced the same committee to be confirmed as chief justice last year: The news of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina dominated the headlines during the Roberts hearings.

Certainly, the Alito and Roberts hearings did not provide the drama that came from the investigations into Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, or Robert Bork, who was rejected from the court in 1987.

Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox political leader who started a blog about the Supreme Court, did not file an entry about the confirmation process throughout the week.

“Everyone’s playing their roles,” Ballabon said of the hearings. “There are no surprises anywhere.”

Even those working to oppose Alito quietly acknowledged that he was more than likely to be confirmed by the full Senate. Political activists acknowledged that he may vote to overturn abortion laws, but took heart in the fact that even with Alito and Roberts on the new court, a majority would still be in favor of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

David Luchins, an Orthodox Union leader who used to work for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), said too many people are looking at the Supreme Court only through the lens of abortion.

“It’s a tragedy that for most Americans, the Supreme Court has been reduced to a one-issue arena,” he said.

Several Jewish groups, including the Union for Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women, opposed Alito’s nomination before the hearings began. Many other Jewish groups chose to stay out of the debate, an implicit statement that Alito was not controversial enough to oppose, as compared to Bork or Justice Antonin Scalia, who many in the Jewish community might have opposed had he been nominated for chief justice.

Ballabon said the anticlimax stemmed from Bush’s decision to seek candidates who would be hard to criticize.

“He just went with somebody who is so darn qualified, the Democrats can’t really do anything about it,” he said.

Both Roberts and Alito received “well-qualified” ratings from the American Bar Association.

Luchins said many Orthodox Jews are concerned Alito would emulate Scalia, who thy see as problematic for religious freedom and expression.

“I’ve heard concerns by people in my community that the lumping of Alito with Scalia and Thomas may turn him into a Scalito,” using the nickname Alito has received, because of the similarities between the nominee and the sitting justice.

Kamenetz said having a conservative majority on the court is a “worst-case scenario,” but that it seemed to be a foregone conclusion after Bush was re-elected.

“A lot of apathy has kicked in,” she said. “It’s not the same level of enthusiasm as before the election. We just can’t summon that again.”

But she said the level of engagement will increase if decisions come down from the court that threaten reproductive rights.

“A lot of women are going to wake up and realize this freedom has been taken away from them, and its going to upset their lives,” she said.

Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of Lilith Magazine, a Jewish feminist publication, said she believes political participation would increase from those frustrated by the court’s new makeup.

“We will see the importance of having women run for office and make up legislative bodies,” she said.

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