Tough Choices for Hate Law Boosters

For Jewish leaders, lobbying sometimes involves tough choices between winning and doing the right thing. That dynamic is very much in play this week as many Jewish groups, with a boost from President Bill Clinton, fight desperately to save a new hate crimes law that has become cannon fodder in the nation’s culture wars.

The bill has been blocked by Republicans because of provisions that are not central to the Jewish groups that support it. But Jewish leaders haven’t even considered changing the bill to advance the parts that would most directly benefit the Jewish community. To do so, they believe, might produce short-term gains but at a terrible long-term cost. And to do so, many believe, wouldn’t be right.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act has several components.

The first is one Jewish groups have long advocated. It would expand on earlier legislation and make it easier for federal authorities to investigate and prosecute local cases when bias is suspected as the cause of violence.

The rationale isn’t to create special categories of protected citizens, but to make up for obvious inequities in the way laws are enforced in different areas of the country.

The second component expands existing hate crimes laws by adding crimes based on the victim’s gender, sexual preference and disability to the categories covered by earlier laws — race, ethnicity and religion.

It is this part of the legislation that has caused such an agonizing dilemma for many Jewish leaders.

From the outset, they supported this expansion because a hate crimes measure that does not seek to protect all those most likely to be victims is a sham.

But the inclusion of gays and lesbians, predictably, incensed Christian right forces and their friends in Congress. Suddenly, the measure was redefined by politicians, preachers and an impressionable media as a gay rights law, written to provide “special” protections for gays and lesbians.

Those who opposed the measure for other reasons, including their opposition to anything that expands federal powers at the expense of the states, found this a convenient hook on which to hang their political hats.

Gay rights groups, understandably, focused on the gender preference aspects of the bill; their militant press releases and public statements became ammunition for opponents.

Almost lost was the idea that this law is meant to protect all minorities who have been subjected to hate violence and victimized again by halfhearted local prosecution.

Lost, too, was the fact that it was crafted in large part by the Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights all forms of racism and bigotry, but whose first commitment has always been to battle anti-Semitism.

Advocates point out that sexual preference is only the third most common basis for hate crimes, behind crimes based on race and religion. Calling it a “gay rights” measure, they say, is a straw man set up by those who oppose all hate crimes laws — or those who seek favor with conservative voters by slamming gays and lesbians.

Because of that opposition, the measure was recently stripped from the Commerce, State and Justice appropriations bill. This week, Jewish activists were working frantically to get it reinserted. President Bill Clinton said his recent veto of the spending bill was due, in part, to the removal of hate crimes language; Jewish activists are hoping it could be revived as part of a budget agreement.

Still, this week’s lobbying represented a longshot rescue effort.

So what are Jewish leaders to do? Most continue to view the new hate crimes bill an essential element in their effort to protect Jews and other minorities, but they also see the handwriting on the wall: the inclusion of gays and lesbians makes the measure highly vulnerable, especially in this Congress.

Despite that reality, Jewish groups seem disinclined to seek changes that would scale back or eliminate the inclusion of gays and lesbians under the bill.

“It might be politically pragmatic, but it would be impossible to justify in the face of what we have always said is the compelling reason for this law — the existence of hate crimes, and disparities in the way they are treated,” said one Jewish activist who has been involved in the fight. “Changing the sexual preference language would be a clear signal that Congress believes some kinds of hate crimes are more okay than others.”

Changing the legislation would blow apart a broad hate crimes coalition that has been responsible for the slow but steady accretion of new laws that Jewish groups say are clearly benefiting the Jewish community, as well as other minority groups.

And giving in to the political pressure would boost politicians, who come perilously close to endorsing outright bigotry and even violence when they play to conservative voters, by branding every initiative that would benefit gays and lesbians as beyond the political pale.

The Jewish community is not monolithic in supporting gay rights; Orthodox organizations, for example, refused to take a position on the current legislation because of the inclusion of gays and lesbians.

But those groups have avoided the overt gay bashing that continues to be heard on Capitol Hill — bigotry tidied up and legitimized by the full force of Congress, dangerous to homosexuals today and possible other minority groups tomorrow.