Jewish Groups Stay Silent on Tax Cuts


For many Jewish activists, the dilemma is excruciating: Congress and the administration are debating a revolution in American life, but Jewish organizations, with rare exceptions, have been struck dumb.

For a variety of reasons, including a lack of consensus within key organizations, most Jewish groups are sitting out the battle over the big tax cuts that are already dramatically reshaping federal spending policies and priorities.

Jewish groups haven’t abandoned the fight for social justice, and they will lobby hard to retain funding for specific social, health and education programs as Congress launches a new crusade against runaway deficits. But that may be a case of fighting yesterday’s battles, as the politicians try to change the ability of the government to raise money tomorrow.

The tax debate has been going on since President Bush launched his first term four years ago with a full-court press for big tax cuts, which he said were urgently needed to spur a sagging economy.

Those cuts were enacted, and according to most measures, the economy has improved. That suggests, the GOP says, the need to make the old cuts permanent and enact new ones.

Economists are divided on the impact of these tax cuts in spurring growth, but one fact is hard to dispute: The federal deficit has ballooned, from the 2000 surplus to the $400 billion-plus deficit projected for the current fiscal year. About half the current deficit is the result of tax cuts, many analysts say, with the other half stemming from the costs of fighting two wars and a global battle against terrorism.

The questions facing lawmakers are these: Will reducing taxes, especially during a time of war, spur the economy enough to offset the loss in revenue? Will more tax cuts be a prudent investment in the American future, or will they cripple the government’s ability to meet the needs of its most vulnerable citizens?

Many Jewish leaders are deeply worried about the answers. With deficit pressure mounting, they fear that “discretionary” spending — including most health, welfare, education and social services programs — will be sliced to the bone in the next few budget cycles.

But even draconian cuts in discretionary spending won’t solve the deficit problem. The only answer, some conservatives believe, is to break into entitlements like Social Security and cut programs and benefits currently deemed untouchable.

That, some Democrats charge and some Republican leaders admit, is the underlying goal of enacting big tax cuts, despite escalating military costs: to use the deficit emergency to force cuts in entitlements that have previously been protected, and perhaps even eliminate programs conservatives have long despised.

Partial privatization of Social Security, many critics believe, is less an effort to save the venerable system for new generations than a ruse intended to undermine the concept of Social Security as an entitlement, the first step to opening it up for big cuts.

Republicans say more tax cuts and partial Social Security privatization will produce big economic gains and open the door to the “ownership society” advocated by the president. Democrats say it’s all a scheme to force the biggest-ever rollback in government social and health programs.

The stakes are enormous, but most Jewish groups won’t be part of the debate. Many Jewish leaders say the reason is simple: a lack of consensus within their organizations about the right course for the economy and the nation.

That answer is true, to a point, but it also is meant to blur what some activists say is a growing gap between the Jewish rank and file and its communal leaders — generally more affluent and more conservative.

There is also a political calculation; some Jewish leaders are worried about opposing a grudge-holding administration (actually, all administrations hold political grudges) on its top domestic priority.

Then there’s the Israel factor. If Jewish leaders oppose the administration’s tax cuts, will the White House punish Israel? The fear is probably unjustified, but it’s one of the excuses being given for inaction.

Whatever the reasons, this deafening communal silence means that as fundamental changes to American society are being debated, the Jewish community will not have much of a voice.

Many Jewish activists are already planning intensive campaigns to protect key government spending programs that Jewish groups around the country depend on to provide vital health and social services.

But a handful of leaders, including Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, argue that the changes under way in Washington today are so sweeping, that those targeted efforts will prove ineffective unless the Jewish community also addresses the issue of the big tax cuts that will dominate the budget mix.

Fighting to save individual programs without talking about the tax question may be too little, too late as the real fight shifts from the question of who gets what to the question of how much is left to give, Saperstein said.

The Jewish community will not be united on the answers. But if it isn’t involved in the debate, it will be in no position to complain about the results.