Bush Gets A Jewish Earful

At feel-good High Holy Days get-together with rabbis, one challenges president on economic policies.

James D. Besser - Washington Correspondent - The Jewish Week - October 3, 2003

At a High Holy Days get-together with 16 congregational rabbis from around the country, the president, who is hoping Jewish voters and campaign contributors will play an important role in his upcoming re-election campaign, heard mostly support for his efforts in Iraq, his support for Israel and even his faith-based initiatives.

But one rabbi spoke up with a directness unusual for White House outreach sessions.

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, who leads a large Reform congregation in Falls Church, Va., a Washington suburb, challenged Bush on his administration's economic policies. The rabbi pressed Bush on this week's statistics indicating a significant increase in the poverty rate.

"I spoke about how tragic I thought it was that one of the world's richest nations has 35 million living in poverty, 12 million children," she said. "He cut off my little sermonette and said what we need to do is create jobs."

Rabbi Schwartzman responded by pointing to a lack of provisions for childcare in the administration's "welfare to work" plans. "I said the program was doomed to fail unless there is adequate childcare," she said.

Another participant said that "the president looked surprised, but he handled it very smoothly."

That exchange led Bush to a pitch for his efforts to ease access to government grants for religious groups that provide social services.

"Many of the rabbis were very supportive," said Yossi Groner, a Lubavitch rabbi in Charlotte, N.C. "Several said the threat from religion is much less than the threat posed by poverty."

Two participants raised the issue of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Jay Pollard. Bush "thanked the rabbis, and then ignored the question both times," said one participant.

But mostly, it was a feel-good session designed more for outreach than input.

Rabbi Schwartzman said she was "surprised and disappointed that the group did not represent the ideological spectrum of the American Jewish community."

Of 16 rabbis, she said, "I was one of two Reform rabbis, and the only woman. And ideologically, I felt I was surrounded by people who were simply patting the president on the back for his approach. It did not feel like people were interested in seriously engaging the president."

DeLay In Syria Sanctions Bill?

What's the delay with Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas)? That's the question pro-Israel activists and lawmakers are asking as momentum builds for passage of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act.

The long-titled and long-stalled legislation would impose sanctions on the Damascus regime unless it starts getting out of Lebanon and ends its support for terrorism and its weapons of mass destruction program.

The measure, introduced initially by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), now has 272 sponsors in the House and 71 in the Senate, but Republican leaders have been conspicuously absent from the lineup - with the exception of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the deputy majority whip and the only Jewish Republican in the House.

Recently DeLay, a strong critic of terror-sponsoring regimes in the Middle East, reportedly told colleagues he would actively push the legislation. DeLay's support is critical because the legislation has been held up by administration opposition and by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Il.), chair of the House International Relations Committee.

But so far DeLay hasn't done anything to resolve the impasse, pro-Israel activists say, despite the fact that the administration has officially withdrawn its opposition to the legislation. At recent House hearings on the subject, a State Department official said the administration now has no position on the pending legislation.

"Tom DeLay's support is vital," said a Washington source. "This thing has overwhelming support, but it's going to take some action by the leadership to break the logjam. So all eyes are on the Majority Leader."

Congressional support is likely to grow in the face of the administration's recent admission that Syria is allowing terrorists to cross into Iraq to attack U.S. troops - and with growing evidence of Syria's active weapons of mass destruction program.

DeLay's office did not respond to a request for comment on the Syria legislation.

Building Ethnic Coalitions

With ethnic politics taking on new importance in the capital, two Jewish groups have gotten together to open a Washington office devoted to a single job: promoting coalitions between Jewish members of Congress and the emerging ethnic caucuses.

This week the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, with support from the World Jewish Congress, formally opened the Ethnic Congressional Caucus Office, which will focus on bringing together members of the Jewish delegation with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and the Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the foundation, said that the move was necessary because of "the changing demographics of our country, which have created a new political environment in Washington."

The African-American and Hispanic communities, he said, may constitute over half the population within 50 years; the Asian-American community, increasingly prosperous and active on the political front, is a rising force.

"If you survey the Jewish world and analyze many of the problems our people are now facing, they are often founded in changing demographics," Schneier said.

He cited the case of France, where a surging Moslem immigrant population has been a factor in rising anti-Semitism - a change that France's Jewish community was ill prepared for.

"We want to be proactive, to begin fostering dialogue and cooperation between ethnic communities, so that unlike other Jewish communities around the world, we won't wake up in 50 years to find ourselves in a very difficult situation," he said. "It's wrong for us to forfeit our place at the table."

Schneier said he has had a "very positive response" from Jewish members of Congress - who have steadfastly resisted creating a formal Jewish caucus, but who get together periodically to discuss issues of joint concern.

In addition to sponsoring joint programs, the group's Washington staff will urge Congress to convene hearings on race relations and facilitate meetings between members of the other ethnic caucuses and visiting Israeli officials.

Schneier said that he will promote the idea that good ethnic relations require sensitivity on all sides.

"If we go to the CBC and plead our case on behalf of Israel, we have to recognize that the door swings both ways," he said. "For example, we have to understand that for the black community, affirmative action is their 'Israel issue.' You can't be oblivious to the concerns of other ethnic groups, and just come in and say 'Israel, Israel, Israel.' "

A prominent Jewish activist here was more skeptical.

"Other efforts have failed because the Jewish members of Congress don't want to be formed into a caucus," said a top Jewish official here. "If they're talking about organized caucus to caucus efforts, it's going to have trouble."

Saudis Rapped

The Saudis may still be popular at the Bush White House, but the drumbeat in Congress to change U.S. relations with this "ally" are getting louder.

Last week the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington got into the act, staging a demonstration at the Saudi embassy to protest that country's continuing involvement in funding terrorism.

"The event drew attention to the fact that Hamas would be unable to conduct its wave of terror against Israeli citizens without the funding of Saudi Arabia, which provides between 50 and 60 percent of its budget," said Ronald Halber, executive director Jewish Community Council of Great Washington.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) told the group that "the Saudi Arabian government is supplying terrorist organizations with the funding they need to carry out their murderous missions it is a nation whose state-sponsored religion is Wahhabism, a militant form of Islam that emphasizes hatred of Jews. Anti-Semitism is not only rampant but encouraged in the government-controlled press and in schools and mosques."

An official of the local Jewish organization charged that a local Islamic high school, funded by the Saudis, uses textbooks that preach hatred.

The Saudis took some hits from Capitol Hill, as well.

At hearings of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee, several witnesses called Saudi Arabia the "epicenter of terrorist financing."

Several leading House members, including Nadler and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens/Long Island) issued statements last week pointing to the Saudi-Hamas link, and demanding that the Bush administration stop coddling the Saudi government.