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Jewish Groups Silent As Gop Seeks End to Filibusters over Nominations

April 12, 2005
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Could it be that some Jewish groups are taking the Bush administration mantra, “you’re either with us or against us,” too seriously? Nearly two years after Jewish groups complained about restricted access for organizations that have taken policy positions against the White House, some Jewish organizations appear to have revamped their approach to advocacy, avoiding policy positions that go against the Republican leadership.

That approach has left other organizations frustrated.

“What makes you wonder about these things is when it’s not one or two issues, but time and time again you see the Jewish organizations pull back from their social-action agenda,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council for Jewish Women.

Without naming names, Moshenberg said several Jewish groups have been silent on issues on which they used to advocate, such as for women’s rights or against faith-based initiatives.

The problem has come to a head as some Jewish leaders look for allies in an effort to oppose the “nuclear option,” a Republican plan to remove the filibuster and force votes on judicial nominations.

Moshenberg and others have lobbied Jewish organizations for months, stressing that the makeup of the federal court system will affect rulings on issues they care about, such as abortion, gay rights and faith-based initiatives.

But some Jewish civil rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Congress, have not yet joined the fight on filibusters. So far, only a handful of groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, are actively campaigning against the filibuster proposal, along with a wide coalition of non-Jewish groups.

The organizations that have stayed away from the debate deny that it stems from political calculations.

Steven Freeman, ADL’s director of legal affairs, said the decision was consistent with the organization’s choice not to get involved in judicial nominations. Marc Stern, counsel for the American Jewish Congress, said the organization’s board is discussing the issue, and had no further comment.

It’s not unusual for one or two organizations in the Jewish community to lead advocacy on a hot topic while others focus on different issues. But Jewish groups often sign on to the policy positions of their peers, demonstrating a broad front of Jewish opinion and strengthening the leaders’ case.

In the case of filibusters, however, many Jewish groups are choosing not to get involved.

Privately, professionals in Washington say they’re being instructed by their lay leaders to be more conservative with political capital, worried about angering the party that controls both the White House and Congress.

“I think for some of these groups, there’s always a concern about going against the administration,” said Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s assistant director.

Access remains part of the calculus. Jewish groups pay close attention to which leaders are invited each year to the White House’s Chanukah party, and who represents the administration at Jewish organizational events.

For example, the Orthodox Union, a group that sides with the Bush administration on many social policy issues such as faith-based initiatives, got a briefing inside the White House last week. They were addressed by Karl Rove, the influential deputy chief of staff and senior adviser; Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser and Middle East policy coordinator; Jim Towey, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives; and Noam Neusner, the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community, who also serves as communications director for the Office of Management and Budget.

When the Reform movement met in Washington last month, Neusner addressed it alone. The contrast is striking, considering that 39 percent of U.S. synagogue membership is for Reform shuls, compared to 21 percent for Orthodox synagogues, according to the National Jewish Population Survey released in 2003.

“We hold meetings and briefings with Jewish community groups of all stripes, all religious viewpoints and all political viewpoints,” Neusner said. “We do not leave anyone out and we pay particular attention to the interests of that organization when we schedule speakers.”

Good relations with the Republican Party also mean a better chance that key Congressional leaders will co-sponsor legislation close to a group’s heart, which is essential for gaining visibility for legislation and getting a hearing or vote.

The filibuster has been a complex question for Jewish groups. Some have determined that fighting for the filibuster is in keeping with their civil rights and pro-choice message. Others, like the AJCommittee, have based their support on preserving tools that protect the voice of the minority.

“We’re not taking a position on a specific nomination,” said Richard Foltin, the AJCommittee’s legislative director. “Our commitment here is to the process.”

Groups staying away from the fight say it’s similar to judicial nominations, which they traditionally have avoided. And supporting filibusters could even be viewed as flip-flopping, some said, because Jewish groups sought to end the filibuster when it was used to stall civil-rights legislation decades ago.

Jeff Ballabon, president of the fledgling Center for Jewish Values, spoke Thursday in Washington at a rally against the filibuster.

“The act of filibustering judicial nominees is a subversion of the Constitution,” Ballabon told JTA.

But no major Jewish group is backing an end to the filibuster.

Some Jewish groups point to the discussions behind the scenes at the JCPA plenum last month as evidence of changing tactics.

Moshenberg took to the floor at the resolutions session, claiming she had been prevented from bringing a motion about the “nuclear option.”

She said the JCPA leaders told her that major participants felt uncomfortable taking a stand on the issue, and leaders told her the future of the JCPA was dependent on the issue not being broached.

“The JCPA leadership was very concerned about this coming up right now,” said Pelavin, a plenum participant. “They were worried it would rile waters that they want to calm right now.”

Ethan Felson, the JCPA’s assistant executive director, said the organization did not debate the issue because a proposed resolution from the National Council of Jewish Women didn’t go through proper channels.

Felson said the JCPA has not taken a position on the filibuster because a consensus has not been reached among the group’s members and the issues have not been thoroughly debated.

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