Behind the Headlines: Campaign Finance Reform Displays Rift Among Jews
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Behind the Headlines: Campaign Finance Reform Displays Rift Among Jews

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When Congress returns to work in January, the push to revamp the nation’s campaign finance laws will illuminate a profound rift in the Jewish community.

The clamor for reform has already prompted contentious debate within the community about the nature of Jewish political influence and the role Jewish political giving plays in the political process.

In the wake of this year’s presidential and congressional election campaigns – – in which more than $1.8 billion was raised — advocates of reform are hoping to seize on growing disenchantment with the current political money-raising system and push legislation through Congress early next year.

On one side of the issue in the Jewish world are political action committee officials and some activists who lobby Capitol Hill for pro-Israel and other Jewish interests. They see campaign finance reform as political poison that threatens to undermine the historic influence of American Jews in Washington.

Jewish reform opponents assert that the Jewish community has long benefited from the current system, wielding influence that is disproportionate to its numbers.

On the other side of the debate sits most of the Jewish organizational world and many American Jews at large, among whom campaign finance reform appears to have clear support.

While recognizing that Jews have worked successfully under the current system to promote the community’s interests, Jewish reform advocates point to what they see as an overriding need to clean up the system and restore faith in government.

“Those are principles that the Jewish community believes in and should be asserting no matter what the short-term implications might be,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and one of the community’s most outspoken proponent of reform.

Opponents counter that efforts to curb special interests will disproportionately harm Jewish interests. Jews, they say, have a vested interest in maintaining the current system, which they believe has afforded Jews a tremendous advantage over the years.

“Let’s face it; we’re less than 2 percent of the population. The way we’ve made ourselves become a force is that we’ve become much more active and sophisticated in utilizing all the legal aspects of the campaign process,” said Chuck Brooks, executive director of National PAC, the largest of the more than 30 pro-Israel political action committees active in the 1996 election cycle.

“We’ve done it better than any other community,” he added.

With so many interest groups competing to have their views heard on Capitol Hill, having access to lawmakers remains the most important political asset. Campaign contributions, PAC officials and other opponents of reform stress, play a key role in acquiring and maintaining that access for the Jewish community.

“If you lessen the influence of money in politics, you lessen Jewish influence because Jews are so active and so generous,” said Morris Amitay, a longtime Jewish activist and founder of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

In this past election cycle, Jewish PACS distributed over $1.5 million to political candidates as of mid-September, the latest date for which figures are available.

In addition, Jewish donors gave an estimated $100 million in other forms of political contributions.

Reform advocates say the notion that Jewish influence is dependent on Jewish giving misrepresents reality.

Contributions from pro-Israel PACs represent only a small percentage of total Jewish political giving, they say, and Jewish political giving represents only a small part of Jewish political involvement.

Political fund raising “is one of the legs upon which Jewish access depends,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

“Take away one of the legs, you’re short that leg and the stool wobbles a bit,” he said, but “it doesn’t mean you’re going to fall down.”

Moreover, reform advocates say that the focus on money overlooks the community’s success over the years in persuading politicians and the American public to support Israel and other Jewish interests because that was the right thing to do.

“We ought to be proud of the success we have had over the years in persuading Congress, the administration and the American public that the pro-Israel position is the right position,” said Hyman Bookbinder, a veteran Jewish activist and former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), co-sponsor of legislation to overhaul the system, agrees.

“The Jewish community has benefited from being active in politics,” said the Jewish senator, whose legislation would outlaw PACS completely and would impose voluntary limits on campaign spending.

“Part of that activism has involved participating in some fund raising, but I think that is only a small part of why the Jewish community has had success in Congress,” said Feingold, whose bill, co-sponsored with Sen. John McCain, (R- Ariz.), has the support of President Clinton.

Even among Jewish proponents of reform, their support is not unconditional.

There has been a tendency among Jewish organizations to readily embrace anything that “parades under the banner of reform,” said Baum, whose organization has not taken a position on campaign finance reform.

He argued that groups have to be “circumspect” and “careful” about which aspects of reform to support.

The debate over campaign finance reform, meanwhile, has at times taken on a caustic edge, with both sides accusing the other of staking out positions that endanger Jewish interests.

J.J. Goldberg, journalist and author of “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment,” believes that Jewish PAC officials “are doing the whole community a disservice” by taking “the narrowest Jewish self-interest and pitting it against the interest of the rest of the world.”

Jewish PAC officials, for their part, insist that the entire Jewish community – – not just the pro-Israel PAC community — has a stake in the status quo.

“Congress recognizes the political power of the Jewish community — a lot of it through political donations and campaign assistance — and they associate it strongly with being pro-Israel,” said Brooks of NATPAC.

“If that hook is taken away, it’s going to have a significant effect on most pro-Israel organizations.”

For now, however, Jewish reform advocates appear willing to risk diminished political influence. They say the community has more to gain by pursuing the common good than it does by tying itself to the pro-Israel PACs and a system that has engendered distrust and alienation.

“One of the reasons we’ve thrived in the last two generations is that we’ve been perceived as being part of the solution and not the problem,” Goldberg said.

Bookbinder agreed that the Jewish community stands to benefit by siding with reformers and helping to clean up the system.

“What is in the public interest is in the Jewish interest. That’s our strength — that we can make these twin contentions,” he said.

Whatever the result of reform efforts, most Jewish observers remain confident in the ability of the American Jewish community to use its energy and imagination to effectively assert its interests under a new system.

They point to the community’s success in maintaining its influence after the last major reform legislation was enacted 22 years ago following Watergate.

“We learned to adapt,” Goldberg said. “We always do.”

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