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Reaching Beyond Iraq and Israel, Reform Activists Blast Domestic Policies

April 2, 2003
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As Rabbi David Saperstein sees it, the war on Iraq is only one issue on a long list of America’s serious problems.

The leader of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism for more than 30 years, Saperstein thinks that even as the country’s political compass is pointed toward the Middle East, the liberal Jewish community here should not lose sight of the battles being fought at home.

“When the war in Iraq is diverting so much of our resources and attention in America, it becomes so important that organizations like ours keep a simultaneous focus on the core issues,” he said.

Included in that list, he said, is maintaining the separation of church and state and abortion rights, protecting the environment and expanding the “social safety net that is supposed to help the neediest Americans.”

So it was not surprising that these issues topped the agenda of this week’s gathering of several hundred Reform activists from around the country who came to the capital for the organization’s biennial Consultation on Conscience conference.

Saperstein’s anxiety about the current state of domestic affairs was echoed by several prominent political figures — including two Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — who addressed the three-day gathering.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, speaking at the rededication of the newly renovated RAC facility on Sunday, criticized the Bush administration’s policies on tax reform, judicial nominations and civil liberties.

“Will the Justice Department, now housed in a building named for my brother, once filled with lawyers who stayed up nights to work towards equitable housing laws and preserve civil rights, now be used to deny those very rights?” Kennedy said.

“The attorney general has used fear of terrorism as a pretext to trample on our liberties.”

Kennedy said the new economic stimulus plan proposed by the White House is an “outrage.”

“It cannot be peace time for the well-off and war time for everyone else,” he said.

He called on the Jewish community to speak out on these issues and fight for “liberty and justice here at home.”

Calling the RAC more needed than ever 42 years after its founding, the president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, continued the theme, blasting what he views as a growing chasm between rich and poor, made deeper, he said, by White House policies.

“This administration is the first in the history of our country to ask the sons and daughters of working men and women to risk their lives in war while asking the wealthy to pay less taxes,” Yoffie charged Sunday night.

He also voiced concern that with conflict raging in Iraq, U.S. Jews could lose sight of the importance of human rights at home.

“My concern is that with the guns of war blazing, we will forget Guantanamo, we will forget that it’s wrong to confine people without even telling them the charges against them, we will forget the balance that is required between security and liberty, Yoffie said, to repeated applause.

“If we win the war and loose the Constitution, we will have lost everything.”

The president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, also spoke at the rededication of the RAC, which was founded in 1961.

“At the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we believe that colored people come in all colors” said Mfume and pointed to the RAC’s history of fighting against racism and sexism, and the fighting to protect the rights of “gays, immigrants and unions.”

He also spoke about the legacy of Kivie Kaplan, the founder of the RAC and a longtime president of the NAACP, whose name will now grace the street outside the center.

In the building’s conference room, both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were drafted by African American and Jewish leaders.

And in 1968, in keeping with its political agenda, the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis became the first national Jewish organizations to oppose the Vietnam War, making the center a hub for anti-war protests in Washington.

While the group did discuss the war in Iraq and social justice issues in Israel, the group mostly veered away from the Middle East, both at the conference and in lobbying sessions on Capitol Hill.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “not as urgent an issue” as crises in poverty, education and health care, Stephen Cotton, a member of New York’s Central Synagogue, said, echoing the sentiment of many at the conference.

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