Conservative rabbis lobby on Capitol Hill against more tax cuts.
JAMES D. BESSER
or months, most Jewish
organizations — including
some with a huge institu-
tional stake in the debate
— have ducked the issue of tax cuts as
the Republican Congress and the Bush
administration make sweeping-changes
in the nation's spending priorities.
But this week, the Rabbinical Assembly
(RA), representing Conservative rabbis
around the country, came to Washington
with a strong message: don't short-change
the nation's needy by giving more big tax
cuts to the rich.
The RA message on taxes provided a
centerpiece to the group's Washington
mission on Monday and Tuesday. "We
haven't had a high profile on the issue
so far, but we have strong feelings about
it," said Rabbi Lee Paskind, chairman of
the group's social action committee and
spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavat
Shalom in Lakewood, N.J.
Rabbi Paskind was one of the planners
of this week's Washington meeting. "And
we've been disturbed by the Jewish com-
munity's silence on the issue."
Like many Jewish leaders, RA offi-
cials believe the two big tax cuts —
and the ones Republican congressional
leaders say they'll try to pass later this
year — will have little impact in stim-
ulating the economy. Instead, the rab-
bis say the government would have
done better to extend unemployment
benefits. "That addresses the needs of
low-income people — whose needs
were very much unmet by these tax
cuts," Rabbi Paskind said.
Recent revelations that millions of
low-income Americans had been
excluded from benefits under the latest
tax cut only increased the %Vs concern,
he said. The 30 lobbying rabbis would
encourage lawmakers not to pass addi-
tional cuts, and not to make the recent
tax cuts permanent, as GOP leaders
now want. "Making them permanent
will help only the wealthiest Americans
— as the original tax cuts did," he said.
He hopes the RA mission will bring
a moral voice to a debate that has
focused more on economic theory and
political ideology. "We're not experts in
economics, but we've studied what the
experts in the field say," Rabbi Paskind
said. "Our concern is a moral one; to
have a tax package that is intended to
be a stimulus, but ignores the needs of
the poorest Americans, is just wrong."
The RA mission came as Congress
began work on 13 spending bills to
fund the government in the upcoming
fiscal year — bills that most experts
say will require huge spending cuts
because of the soaring budget deficit.
The most likely victims are thou-
sands of social service agencies, includ-
ing Jewish agencies, that use a blend
of public and private funds.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is a seri-
ous player in foreign policy, but
almost nobody — including the Bush
administration — is taking his latest
Over the weekend, Lugar — chair of
the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee — told Fox News that U.S.
troops could be sent to the Middle East
to "root out terrorism
by groups such as
Hamas, which claimed
responsibility for last
week's suicide attack in
Jerusalem that killed 17
He added that "it
may not be just Hamas, Lugar
but clearly Hamas is
right in the gun sights."
But Israeli officials and their Jewish
supporters in Washington, while prais-
ing the U.S. war against terrorism,
made it clear they have no interest in a
U.S. assault against Hamas and other
anti-Israel terror groups.
"Both the U.S. and Israel still feel
very nervous about such proposals,
said Abraham Foxman, national direc-
tor of the Anti-Defamation League.
"The last thing either one of us wants
is for Americans to die for Israel —
especially when Israelis are ready to
put their own lives on the line in the
fight against terrorism. They aren't
asking for anyone to defend them."
There is a subtext to that concern as
well; Israeli leaders are nervous about
growing calls for an international
peacekeeping force to stop Israeli-
Palestinian violence. Lugar's corn-
ments, they worry, could raise the visi-
bility of the peacekeeping issue.
Last week, U.N. Secretary-General
Kofi Annan, and French Foreign Minister
Dominique de Villepin both proposed
international peacekeeping forces — pro-
posals that were quickly rejected by the
Sharon government, which has ample
reason to doubt their objectivity.
The Bush administration quickly
distanced itself from Lugar's com-
ments. The president's message is
that the best security comes from the
Israelis and Palestinians working
together to fight terror," said White
House spokesman Ari Fleischer on
Monday. And U.S. officials continue
to react coolly to demands for interna-
tional peacekeepers to keep Israel and
the Palestinians apart.
"This administration has no inten-
tions of sending U.S. peacekeepers —
and it has very good reasons for want-
ing to keep the Europeans and the
U.N. out," said a top Jewish leader.
"Giving them a role would be a pre-
scription for their usual mischief."
The peacekeeper push is "a non-
starter," said former Rep. Lee
Hamilton, D-Ind., a top foreign poli-
cy expert and now director of the
Woodrow Wilson Center in
Washington. "The administration has
shown no interest, indeed has deflect-
ed the issue, and there's no demand
from Israel. You also have a lot of con-
cern in the defense establishment that
U.S. forces are already stretched too
thin; this would be a very long-term
and dangerous commitment."
Instead, Hamilton said, U.S. officials
will continue to emphasize their desire
to see the Palestinian Authority stren
en its security forces — and its resolve to
use them to fight terror groups.
Liberal Jewish activists cringe when
they hear the name of William Pryor,
President Bush's choice for the 11th
Circuit Court in Atlanta.
But very few Jewish organizations
have joined civil rights and women's
groups in the battle against the con-
troversial nominee to the lifetime post.
Groups such as the Anti-Defamation
League and the American Jewish
Committee, which focus heavily on
church-state separation, say that they
do not take positions on judicial nom-
inations as a matter of policy.
Both groups, according to Washington
sources, are considering whether to make
an exception in the case of Pryor — but
so far, neither has spoken out.
Ralph Neas, executive director of
People for the American Way, a church-
state watchdog group, wasn't so
restrained. Neas called Pryor "one of the
most dangerous judicial nominees of
this administration," citing the Alabama
attorney general's widely reported views
on church-state separation, the environ-
ment, civil rights and abortion rights.
Pryor has a long record of controver-
sial statements, especially on church-
state matters. At a 1997 rally in sup-
port of Alabama Judge Moore, who
stirred up controversy by posting the
Ten Commandments in courtrooms
and other public buildings, Pryor said,
"God has chosen, through his son
Jesus Christ, this time and this place
for all Christians ... to save our coun-
try and save our courts."
Two years later, he successfully chal-
lenged a federal court order that pro-
hibited public school officials from
allowing prayers at graduation exercis-
es. Also in 1997, he said, "The
American experiment is not a theocra-
cy and does not establish an official
religion, but the Declaration of
Independence and the
Constitution of the
United States are rooted
in a Christian perspec-
tive of the nature of
government and man.
"The challenge of the
next millennium will be
to preserve the
by restoring its Christian perspective."
And he has repeatedly criticized the
Supreme Court for its 1962 decision
prohibiting prayer in public schools,
saying that the justices were "building
a wall that has increasingly excluded
God and religion from our public life."
He is also an ardent foe of abortion
rights, calling the 1973 Roe v. Wade
decision "the worst abomination of
constitutional law in our history."
That explains why the National
Council of Jewish Women has targeted
Pryor as part of its ongoing campaign to
block the nomination of anti-choice
judges. But Jewish church-state groups
have been mostly silent on the Pryor
nomination, despite what many activists
say is a problematic church-state record.
"At the working level (of Jewish
organizations), there are real concerns
about Pryor, but the leadership is real
reluctant to change the policy of not