Katrina Touches Off School Voucher War

The Hurricane Katrina recovery effort is turning into the latest front in the bitter war over government aid to parochial schools. And that fight is already putting Jewish church-state groups in an awkward position.

“On its face, what the administration is proposing is an outrage,” said an official with one major Jewish group. “But as a practical matter, we don’t want to be seen as erecting barriers to helping students whose schools have literally been washed away.”

Last week, President Bush proposed a $1.9 billion emergency education program that would include $488 million in vouchers to help with private and parochial school tuition. That would make the program the biggest federally funded school voucher program by far, Jewish leaders say.

“It’s still unclear exactly what they’re proposing, which is troubling in itself,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “They’re going for a huge program with very little discussion, very little sunshine.”

The hurricane, he said, is being used as a vehicle to drive other administration goals, he said.

“We understand the urgency of responding to the hurricane,” he said. “But it doesn’t follow that what was bad policy five weeks ago is suddenly good.”

Elliot Mincberg, legal counsel for People for the American Way, was blunter.

“It’s hard to say that one outrage tops another — but the notion of using the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to push vouchers may be a new low,” he said. “What we’re really talking about is … subsidizing those who were until a little while ago perfectly able to pay for parochial education themselves.”

Orthodox Jewish groups disagree; since the hurricane, they have been fighting for that “equity” in the school aid effort.

“We’ve been talking to Congress and the administration since shortly after the disaster,” said Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union (OU). “Jewish schools all around the country have opened their doors to kids displaced by the hurricane — no questions asked, with no cost. But it’s costing the schools and the communities money.”

If the government helps public schools with the burden of absorbing Katrina refugees, it shouldn’t discriminate against private and parochial schools, Diament said.

But some Jewish activists who oppose vouchers say the very scale of the proposal — up to 20 times the size of any previous voucher program — suggests that the administration is using Katrina as the foot in the door for expanded voucher programs.

That was also a theme struck by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime voucher opponent, who said he was “disappointed” in the plan. “This is not the time for a partisan debate on vouchers,” he said, according to wire service reports.

In a statement, the OU lashed back.

“The Orthodox Jewish community is offended by Sen. Kennedy’s call for what amounts to religious discrimination in the wake of Katrina,” Diament said.

However, Marc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress, said the new voucher program raises troubling long-term questions.

“The larger issue is how much of this is an opportunity to get a foot in the door, and implement policies you couldn’t sell otherwise because of the emergency,” he said.

He cited other examples of using the Katrina relief effort to advance longtime conservative goals that have not won congressional approval, including the administration’s suspension of Davis-Bacon “prevailing-wage” rules for the reconstruction effort.

Stern said his group will raise questions about the details of the voucher plan.

“Will this plan have restrictions that require you to be open to everybody who comes to the door? If so, Jewish schools might not be able to participate. Will there be academic standards? Will fly-by-night schools be able to take advantage of the plan? The details will be very important.”

House OKs Hate Crime Law

Jewish activists who have been pushing for a new hate crime law for years were stunned this month when the House passed the bill as an amendment to a children’s safety measure, after a daring maneuver by a liberal congressman.

“It was a very welcome and surprising development,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, which has been a primary advocate for the hate crime legislation. “This was the first time it was put to a straight up-or-down vote in the House, and it demonstrated once again that it has broad bipartisan support.”

The measure would make it easier for federal authorities to help investigate and prosecute hate crimes and extends existing hate crime statutes to include crimes based on the gender, disability or sexual orientation of the victims. It’s that last provision that has earned the wrath of conservative lawmakers.

The Senate passed the measure in 2004 as part of a defense authorization bill; the House voted to urge House-Senate conferees to approve it, as well, but Republican leaders stripped it before final passage.

But earlier this month, the House approved it 223-199, when Republican leaders brought the children’s safety bill up under a “modified open rule.”

That rule, which opened the door to germane amendments, was sought because GOP leaders expected a slew of amendments from the right to toughen the bill’s language. Instead, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a liberal, used the unexpected opening to offer the hate crime bill as an amendment, which quickly passed.

But House GOP leaders will have another chance to kill the measure if the Senate approves its own version of the bill, and it goes to a House-Senate conference committee.

With that in mind, conservative Christians are mounting an all-out offensive against the new hate crime bill. This week the Family Research Council attacked the House-passed measure as extending “special protections” for gays and lesbians.

Jewish leaders concede many obstacles remain for the legislation, but said the vote will advance their cause, even if the surprise House action is reversed in conference.

Christian, Jews Seek to Save Endangered Species Act

Liberal Jews and conservative Christians disagree on most domestic issues, but there may be room for agreement on some environmental issues. Last week, activists from both camps came together to create the Noah Alliance; the goal is to prevent moves in Congress to roll back the Endangered Species Act.

In separate statements, members of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists and a group of rabbis and scientists associated with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life issued a call for action on the issue.

“As evangelical Christians … we see a most profound threat to the integrity of God’s creation in the destruction of endangered species and their God-given habitat,” the Christian group wrote.

Thirty-six rabbis and scholars — including Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary — struck a somewhat tougher note, charging that “today … the Endangered Species Act is itself endangered by impatience, ideology and shortsighted, even deceptive, policymaking.”

The coalition is planning an all-out effort to recruit “people in the pews” in churches and synagogues, and promises active congressional lobbying.

Jews Opposed to Iraq War Facing Quandary

Jews upset about the Iraq War and its growing economic and human toll face a quandary: Prominent figures in the new antiwar movement have also expressed bitter hostility toward Israel.

But that shouldn’t preclude Jewish protests, said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. Waskow was to go to Washington this week to offer a Jewish alternative to last week’s rally organized by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a group that has staged most of the big demonstrations against the Iraq War.

ANSWER, once associated with the radical World Workers Party, has included harsh criticism of Israel as part of its antiwar activities. The march Wednesday called for an “end (to) colonial occupation from Iraq to Palestine to Haiti.”

Two years ago, Rabbi Michael Lerner, leader of the progressive Tikkun Community, refused to participate in ANSWER events because of what he called “the anti-Semitism we think pervades the sponsoring group’s response to Israel.”

Nothing has changed, said Waskow — which is why his group staged events allowing Jews to protest the Iraq War without joining hands with ANSWER. Waskow’s group encouraged Jews to participate in other weekend antiwar events, including a concert, an interfaith service and “nonviolent civil resistance” at the White House, but not the rally led, in part, by ANSWER.

“We view ANSWER as an extremist, factionalist, divisive, manipulative and anti-Israel organization,” Waskow wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “By ‘anti-Israel,’ we mean not just that it opposes specific Israeli government policies, but that it demonizes Israeli society.”

Waskow said his group opposes the Iraq War “out of a commitment to Jewish values,” and that it “profoundly disagree(s) with the decision to have ANSWER co-sponsor the Sept. 24 rally, especially because that means its divisive, extremist and anti-Israel positions will probably get major air time.”

In an interview, Waskow said the high visibility of ANSWER in protests should not keep Jews away from the antiwar barricades.

“I don’t see the antiwar movement made up just of ANSWER,” he said. “Most groups [involved in the movement] have a sensible, more balanced view of Israel. We can work with them, and when they get out of whack, we can argue with them. ANSWER is a totally different animal.”

Jewish leaders say they do not fear a surge of anti-Semitism because of efforts by ANSWER and other groups to link the increasingly controversial Iraq War to Israel, but worry that a deteriorating situation on the ground could give that message a little more traction with the American public.

“I am worried that the longer the war goes on and the more people are concerned because there’s no exit strategy, the greater will be the ability of some groups to make this linkage,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.