News reports the day after President Bush unveiled his $2.77 trillion proposed federal budget last week centered on the fact that it called for more spending on security and less on domestic programs.
The plan’s emphasis on preserving tax cuts and devoting more money to defense while limiting the growth in Medicare spending set off the usual partisan sparring between Republicans and Democrats. But lost in the big political picture is the dilemma of the organized Jewish community.
Some liberal groups that see speaking out on taxes and spending as part of their religious obligation. For example, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism takes the position that tax cuts are, more or less, immoral if it means cuts in the amount of the increase in spending on federal programs that aid the poor or the elderly.
But the battle of the budget is exactly the sort of tussle mainstream Jewish groups would like to stay out of. Despite the fact that most American Jews still identify with liberal policies and the Democratic Party, injecting a Jewish theme into the wrangling over how much money goes into various federal program strikes many Jewish leaders as not only wrong but a no-win proposition.
It is, they reason, better that the community remember it has friends on both sides of the aisle, and seek to maneuver between them to maximum advantage rather than to be pigeonholed as being in one party’s pocket.
But the pressure on the organized Jewish world from both sides of that conundrum is growing.
One problem for fundraising umbrella groups like Jewish federations is that budget cuts hit them where they live. Bush’s federal budget proposal listed $36 billion savings from cuts in the projected growth in Medicare spending.
When that is accompanied by other cuts in state Medicaid disbursements to health-care and senior-care providers, the result is that some Jewish institutions like homes for the elderly are going to be, at best, squeezed. The worst-case scenario is that such facilities would then be pushed to the brink of destruction. Already cash-starved Jewish federations would then be asked to bail them out. The result is that the community might be forced to shift its own meager resources away from new strategic priorities such as Jewish education in order to make up the shortfalls.
That’s just one example not only of the potential budget pitfalls for organizations, but of the ironic position that the Jewish community now finds itself in.
Though most of the rhetoric from Jewish sources on domestic politics this last year has been in the form of apocalyptic declarations that the GOP is about to end religious liberty because of the influence of conservative Christians, the reality is far more complicated, and a lot less easy for the ideologies of the left or the right to spin.
The irony stems from the fact that just as liberal Jews are increasingly scared stiff about alleged threats to the separation of church and state in this country from the supposedly rapacious ambitions of the Christian right, most of these same Jews want their leaders to lobby the government for more federal dollars. We want a high “wall of separation” with a few loopholes through which federal subsidies may pass to favored causes.
But if there is a disconnect between the instinct of most Jewish groups to decry any entanglement between the federal government and sectarian institutions, no one is mentioning it as the community joins in the mad scramble with just about everyone else in the country to get what they think is a fair share of the national pie. Scruples about entangling sectarian groups with the government tend to break down whenever it is possible to get some federal money for what is thought to be a good cause.
So what will follow now is a full-fledged effort not to derail the Bush budget or to wage a fight against tax cuts as liberal partisans want. Rather, Jewish groups will probably use whatever access they have to persuade enough legislators on both national and state levels to save the programs and the spending they need to support the Jewish social-service network.
That network — like that of virtually every other sector of our society — is increasingly dependent on government spending. For all of the talk about taking care of our own, maintaining the human-service safety net is something that requires federal money. The system as we know it simply can’t work any other way.
Americans, be they rich, middle class or poor, may say they want government out of their lives but in the same breath they also have come to depend on it for social services and subsidies for a variety of things that they cannot imagine paying for out of their own pockets. In response, government has grown, and despite its conservative cast, the Bush administration and the congressional Republican majority, like their Democratic predecessors, have spent like drunken sailors to accommodate us.
But until the arrival of the Messiah, when a real revolution in federal governance might be possible, Jewish groups must sit up and beg along with everyone else. And since everyone, from farmers to urban commuters, is a member (whether they know it or not) of one special interest group or another, the scrum that decides who gets the money gets more complicated every year.
Some Poor Can Be Sacrificed
But there is one final irony in the Jewish hypocrisy about federal spending. One item in the Bush budget specifically aimed at helping the poor will probably be opposed by liberal Jewish groups: a piddling expenditure of $100 million that would allow students in some underperforming schools to attend religious or private schools.
This limited proposal that would allow the low-income parents of kids trapped in failing public schools to escape to better religious or secular alternatives will, no doubt, be bitterly opposed by groups that see it as a fatal threat to church-state separation. They are prepared to sacrifice those children in order to preserve a principle they cherish. They believe that strengthening religious schools — at the expense of failing public schools — is simply unthinkable.
That many of the same Jews who will oppose giving these kids a break by letting them go to mostly non-Jewish religious schools will also be advocating that lots of federal money go to social-service institutions connected to the Jewish community is a bitter irony that ought not to be ignored.
The federal budget appears to be the point where principle always dissolves into self-interest. The Jewish community is going to use whatever leverage it can muster to save institutions that need saving — and who can reasonably blame us for doing that?
But if, as the vouchers proposal seems to indicate, we only rediscover our ideology when our own ox isn’t being gored, then something is deeply wrong with our moral compass.