Opinion: The Post-Kumbaya President

I wonder where Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan are having dinner tonight.

Four years ago, while Democrats danced at inaugural balls, Reps. Cantor and Ryan dined at The Caucus Room, a Capitol Hill steakhouse, along with other top Republicans, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Sens. Jim DeMint, John Kyl and Tom Coburn. 

Barack Obama’s presidency was by then all of eight hours old.  At midday, the man who rocketed to prominence in 2004 by declaring America to be not red states or blue states, but the United States, had told the nation, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” With those words, and the applause of 1.8 million Americans on the National Mall still ringing in their ears, some 15 GOP leaders discreetly gathered in the restaurant’s private room to decide what to do with the olive branch the president had extended.

As we know from a new ““>Robert Draper’s book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,” the Caucus Room caucus decided, in Draper’s words, “to fight Obama on everything – this meant unyielding opposition to every one of the Obama administration’s legislative initiatives.”

No matter what was on Obama’s agenda, even if it was identical to Republican proposals, they planned to attack it.  No matter how many times Obama met with them, sought common ground or negotiated with himself, their strategy was to keep the number of Republican votes he got for anything whatsoever as close to zero as possible.  

This happened before there was a Tea Party, before there were 87 far-right GOP freshmen, before the birthers had migrated from the lunatic fringe to the party’s mainstream.  The economy was in crisis; a second Great Depression was conceivable.  Also conceivable was actually working together on behalf of the country.  But from night one of day one, the Republicans decided to torpedo Obama, a sentiment echoed the next year when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said publicly that denying President Obama a second term was his top priority.

Now that second term has begun.  The president has had plenty of experience with Republican intransigence.  He has learned the hard way that you can’t sing Kumbaya as a solo.  But even so, in his second inaugural he said that the oath he swore, “like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.”  Though he surely has the Republicans’ number by now, he said, nevertheless, that “we cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” that we cannot “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”  Was any of that more than wishful thinking?

Seven times he said “together”; five times he said “we, the people.”  Does he really think his opponents are capable of collaborating, or is he just laying down a marker to collect when they behave badly? 

A lot is riding on the answer.  “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” he promised at heartening length; “we will preserve our planet.”  But scores of Republican science-deniers hold very safe seats in gerrymandered House districts; they will face no electoral penalty for sticking it to the president every chance they get.  Immigration reform, tax reform, school reform, gun control: It’s hard to imagine Luntz, Gingrich & Co. working up a different playbook for dealing with the 2012 Obama agenda in a back room at steakhouse 2.0 than they did four years ago. 

Though the president didn’t put a fix for Citizens United in his inaugural address – isn’t fighting political corruption as important as the long shot legislation that made it into the speech? – he did use the word “citizen” eight times.  He said it at the top (“fellow citizens,” instead of the traditional “fellow Americans”), and he said it repeatedly in the peroration. 

I connect that word “citizen” with something else he said.  Between going after absolutism and rejecting name-calling, he said that we cannot “substitute spectacle for politics.”  In an age when the public holds politicians in such low esteem, it’s so striking that he chose to use “politics” as a positive term. 

Politics is what citizens do – that’s what I took him to mean.  Spectacles need spectators; democracies need citizens.  Spectacles treat citizens as consumers, markets, eyeballs to sell to advertisers.  Politics treat citizens as stakeholders, constituents – people to listen to, not just persuade.  Spectacles are circuses to distract us; citizens know the risk we run of “>most important political event of the past week may turn out to be neither the inaugural, nor the sirloin-fueled cabal it may have prompted, but rather the morphing of Obama for America into Organizing for Action.  Obama for America was an attempt to convert his 2008 ground game into a grassroots group at the Democratic National Committee, but it barely played a part in his first term’s legislative battles.  Organizing for Action will try not to make that mistake again.  His 2012 top command is determined to make the 2012 vote the beginning, not the end, of political action.  His first term was about negotiations between party elites; his second term will be about mobilizing citizen power. 

That thrilling phrase in his second inaugural – “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” – is about citizens, not spectators, about activists, not audiences.  If Washington actually ends up, despite steakhouse obstructionism, doing something important about climate change or guns or anything else on the president’s shortlist, it will not be because we saw his inauguration on television, but because we took his fate, and ours, in our own hands.


Marty Kaplan is the “>martyk@jewishjournal.com.

A New Jewish Agenda

“Behold, cometh this dreamer.” (Genesis 37:19)

Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama — 77 percent to 23 percent.

They chose Obama for the same reason most voters did, only more so. They were appalled at the state of the nation after eight years of a Republican administration. They gravitated to Obama’s policies. But what won even independent- and Republican-leaning Jews over was his ability to project idealism and intelligence, vision and pragmatism.

All our great leaders, from Moses to Rabin, share this combination of almost paradoxical traits. The biblical Joseph was a boy when his brothers derided him as a dreamer, but he grew into a man with great practical ability (and, by the way, he saved Egypt’s economy). Obama is a long way from joining this pantheon, but Jewish voters see in him that possibility.

However, the enormity of Obama’s Jewish support disguises the depth and intensity of division within our community over this election. Vicious ads and viral lies tore us deeply, if not in two. The Jewish infighting got rough and ugly over this election. The far left tarred McCain as a warmonger, the right had Obama installing Noam Chomsky as special Mideast envoy.

There is a way to heal this gash. On Nov. 5, 2008, it’s worth looking at what Obama and his opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, had in common. Because those similarities reveal the common path we Jews must now follow.

Both men stressed energy independence. Their policies, especially in the more cartoonish moments of the election, differed in dramatic ways — “Drill, baby, drill!” can now go the way of “Hoo But Hoover?” — but McCain and Obama agreed without hesitation on the reasons America must stop greasing its downward slide with Saudi crude.

Both men recognized the importance of multilateral diplomacy and engagement in dealing with Iran and the Middle East, and both avowed the non-negotiable importance of a secure and peaceful Israel.

Finally, both men emphasized universal national service as a critical part of strengthening America at home and abroad.

Energy independence, an engaged and enlightened Middle East policy, national service: There you have it. In that overlap is the Jewish communal agenda for the next four years.

But what, exactly, is our role?

Energy Independence: Green Is the New Blue-and-White

Anyone who doesn’t understand there is a direct correlation between our foreign oil consumption and the long-term health of our economy, our planet and Israel is either in denial or in a Mercedes E-Class.

McCain and Obama understood we don’t have the luxury of denial anymore.

Transitioning from an oil-based economy to one that relies on domestic sources of energy and, ultimately, alternative energy, will take time, ingenuity, investment and sacrifice.

We need to lead the way. The Jewish community’s stake is even higher: Israel’s enemies benefit directly from America’s gas pumps. Iran can’t pay for a screwdriver, much less enriched uranium, without high fuel prices. Oil receipts have also funded the spread of the most irredentist interpretations of (mostly Saudi-backed) anti-Semitic Islam.

Green, then, must become the new blue-and-white. Synagogues need to offer incentives for congregants to be fuel and energy efficient. Our numerous defense organizations need to join together in making the fight for energy independence at least as important as the fight against a dozen Aryan whack jobs lurking around the fringes of the Internet.

Our communal leaders need to set an example in the cars they drive, the investments they make. Plant a tree in Israel or buy a bond there, but also invest in cutting-edge Israeli solar, electric and biofuel research.

A good first step: The Republican Jewish Coalition and National Jewish Democratic Council need to sit down together and craft a joint ad supporting Obama’s promised “Manhattan Project” for energy independence.

Middle East Policy: Courageous Support

Obama’s most vociferous Jewish critics woke up Nov. 5, checked Debka.org, and came to the shocking realization that Israel still exists.

Now everyone can take a breath and focus.

America’s relationship with Israel is strong because it is in America’s interest, not just the Jewish interest. It is resilient because it has deep popular support — not just Jewish support. It is ongoing because responsible Jewish organizations focus on making Israel a bipartisan issue, not a campaign slogan.

Both candidates agreed that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, and the new president will need unwavering bipartisan Jewish backing to help ensure that.

Both men agreed that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not the cause of America’s problems in the Middle East. But both men acknowledged that addressing that conflict is in Israel’s interest, and it is.

It is time for American Jewish organizations to stand with an American president’s good faith and intelligent efforts to help Israel move toward rapprochement with whatever country or nation it wants, and to encourage Israel through incentive and support to take the difficult steps it must to improve its security.

Some donors will cancel checks, some pressure groups will scream, “Traitor!” But a new beginning requires our communal leaders to find new wellsprings of courage and resolve.

National Service: Communities of Obligation

Our communities can make common cause with national service by inspiring our youth to serve, providing them with meaningful service opportunities, and — this is important — demanding that they do so.

That’s right. For GenX and GenY Jews, the message from the organized Jewish community has long been, “We owe you.” We ply them with cool outreach events, free trips to Israel, grants for every ‘zine, rave and hip-hop Shabbat they want — and all we ask is that they like us. This has got to stop.

Jewish tradition already has a word for what Obama meant when he called for universal national service: kehilla hiuvit, literally, “a community of obligation.”

Our Jewish communities need to demand service of all of our young people. You want to go to Israel? First commit to tutor an inner-city child. You want to feel you belong? Plant a tree. Not in Israel (you can do that, too) — in Boyle Heights.

“Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility,” Obama said in his victory speech. Jews of the left and right can work together to heed that call.

The dawn of a new era in American politics demands a new agenda in Jewish politics. We can use our collective power to advance a far-reaching three-point agenda that will inspire our youth, improve our communities and improve our world. The nation has chosen. Now it’s our turn.

Delegation: Improve Israeli Arabs’ Status

A small group of American Jewish leaders that came to Israel recently is determined to put the issue of Israel’s Arab minority higher on the American Jewish agenda.

In an interview at a Haifa hotel, Rabbi Brian Lurie of San Francisco, the force behind the initiative, spoke calmly but could hardly hide his emotions.

Time is running out, he warned: Unless drastic action is taken to equalize the standard of living of Israeli Arabs and Jews, Arab frustration could endanger the country’s security.

The Jewish-Arab Task Force met Sept. 20 for a day of discussions with politicians and experts to discuss ways to make Arab citizens feel more equal. The meeting, organized by the New Israel Fund, will be followed by a meeting in New York in November to take action in the American Jewish community on behalf of Israel’s Arabs.

“We are trying to create an umbrella organization that looks at the Israeli Arab issue as a priority issue,” Lurie said.

The specifics of the plans are still unclear, but, according to Larry Garber, the New Israel Fund’s executive director, they should include more funds to minorities in Israel, a broad educational program about why the effort is necessary and “a dialogue with Israeli leaders on these issues.”

Lurie initiated the idea several years ago, but now is giving it an additional push.

Helping Israeli Arabs was a cause celebre among many American Jewish groups in the late 1990s, but it receded as a priority after the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

Israeli Jews were shaken when Arab citizens rioted in solidarity with the Palestinians shortly after the intifada began. A number of Israeli Arabs also were involved in terrorist attacks, raising Jewish fears that the community could serve as a fifth column for irredentist Palestinians who do not accept the Jewish state.

But Lurie, a former head of the United Jewish Appeal, says his conviction that more needs to be done on Jewish-Arab relations has intensified since the intifada began.

“The October 2000 riots were a wake-up call,” he said.

Also attending the meetings in Israel were Steve Schwager, the executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; Harriet Weiss of the UJA-Federation of New York; Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies; Ami Nahshon, the president of the Abraham Fund, and Garber.

The task force spent the day listening to briefings from Israeli legislators jurists, leaders of the Islamic Movement and civil rights groups such as Sikkuy.

Some of the guests already are involved in projects to improve Israel’s Arabs’ standard of living. But no one has any illusions: Task force participants are aware of the fact that it will take considerable time and effort to recruit American Jewish organizations — and public opinion — for work with the Arab community.

Since its establishment 26 years ago, the New Israel Fund has devoted 25 percent of its funds to Israel’s minorities. The challenge has been to reach a broader spectrum of American leadership and convince them of the importance of the issue.

“Among our supporters there is an appreciation that this is a crucial issue, but we still need to reach a broader spectrum,” Garber said.

The need to face Israeli Arab issues has become more urgent in recent months due to growing public debate about the “demographic danger” inherent in Arabs’ growing proportion of the Israeli population.

The task force was briefed by Rabbi Michael Melchior, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, who warned that talk of the “demographic threat” is used to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs.

“The moment you refer to Israel’s Arabs and the Arab womb as a demographic threat, you can no longer treat them fairly and equally,” Melchior said.

He added: “If we grant them rights as individuals and as a community this could, in fact, strengthen the Jews in this country. My approach to the issue is moral rather than demographic.”

Some insist that fully equal rights for Israeli Arabs must be accompanied by equal responsibilities on the Arabs’ part, such as national service.

Arnon Sofer of Haifa University has said that the number of Israeli Arabs will reach 2 million in 2020 and the Jewish majority will shrink to 65 percent, compared to its present 80 percent.

Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman, head of the far-right Israel, Our Home Party, has made demography a key issue of his platform. Lieberman says Israel should exchange territory with the Palestinian Authority so that blocs of Arab villages along Israel’s border with the West Bank will be turned over to P.A. control in exchange for Israeli control of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

If boundaries are redrawn to exclude Israeli Arabs, “it’s the beginning of the Arab-rein concept,” Lurie said, a play on the Nazis’ wish to have an area that was Judenrein, or clear of Jews.

“Then what — are we a democracy? This is a frightening reality,” he said.

However, advocates of plans like Lieberman’s note that it conforms with the historic principle of separating Jewish and Arab populations into two states for two peoples, one rationale behind the recent eviction of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. All involved understand that a future Palestinian state will contain no Jews, even if it means uprooting tens of thousands of Jews from their homes.

Participants in the discussions heard data from Shuli Dichter, co-director of the Sikkuy Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality, illustrating alleged Israeli discrimination against Arab citizens. For example:


Gaza Plan Foes Face Evangelical Aid Loss

With the Gaza disengagement plan picking up momentum and
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon getting set to pitch the proposal to the Bush
administration at Camp David next week, right-wing Jewish groups are
counterattacking, hoping to forestall U.S. support for the plan. Their partners
in this fight: Christian Zionists.

It’s easy to see why the Jewish hawks have turned to the
evangelicals, but in the end, they’re almost certain to be disappointed. While
major figures in the evangelical movement do, indeed, share the anger Israel’s
settlers feel at this “betrayal” of their cause, they are unlikely to come
through in the clinch.

And the reasons offer a cautionary tale about the depth of a
new alliance that may be more talk than action.

The Bush administration is moving cautiously toward
conditional support of the Gaza plan, which officials here hope will reduce
tensions in the region and ultimately lead to a resumption of some kind of
peace process, and it’s unlikely the Christian Zionists can stop them or even
that they will expend much energy trying.

True, many of these groups seem to be in lockstep with
right-wing members of Sharon’s Cabinet who are already waging open warfare
against his dramatic plan and threatening to bring down his government.

To many of the evangelicals, Gaza and the West Bank are part
of the biblical bequest to Israel, although their views of scriptural promises
have some big differences from the Jewish view — starting with the whole Second
Coming thing.

Some evangelicals have already been on Capitol Hill, working
with House conservatives to generate pressure against any White House
endorsement of the plan. But opponents will be making a big mistake if they
expect more than a few gestures.

The 2004 presidential election is turning into a watershed
for the religious right, and it has almost nothing to do with Israel. Despite
periodic complaints from that sector, President Bush has done more to advance
the conservative Christian agenda than any of his predecessors.

He has made sweeping changes in federal rules limiting
government grants to overtly religious groups, and born-again Christian social
service providers have been by far the biggest beneficiaries. He has presided
over passage of the first federal school vouchers program; he has appointed
dozens of strongly anti-abortion judges to the federal bench and signed
critical anti-abortion legislation.

And he has brought a faith-based style to politics that has
warmed the hearts of evangelicals.

Domestically, these groups have made unprecedented gains
since 2001, and they are poised to make even greater ones if Bush is reelected
and Congress turns even more Republican. That scenario, which liberals regard
as their own personal version of the apocalypse, could include a radical
transformation of the Supreme Court, an overturning of Roe vs. Wade and support
for the anti-gay rights agenda.

The Christians may be upset about the Gaza plan, but they
are unlikely to jeopardize any of their recent domestic gains and the ones to
come by taking on an administration that is sympathetic to most of their
priorities. And despite threats to the contrary, few evangelical voters are
likely to sit out the 2004 election if Bush endorses the Gaza plan and helps
Sharon implement it.

Some of Israel’s top nationalists, including Tourism
Minister Benny Elon, have developed strong working relations with many
evangelical leaders. But that new connection does not outweigh this community’s
core political issues.

That explains why some key evangelical leaders, while
expressing concern about the Gaza plan, have refrained from directly fighting

The same dynamic holds with the congressional conservatives
who have aligned themselves with the Israeli far right. Leaders like Rep. Tom
DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader and the top religious right
supporter on Capitol Hill, have been quick to express solidarity with Israeli
hardliners and their friends here, but they have been loathe to take on the

These lawmakers breathe fire when they appear before hawkish
Jewish groups, but they haven’t shown the slightest inclination to aggressively
challenge their friend in the White House — their partner in forging a domestic
political revolution.

For both conservative lawmakers and the Christian Zionists,
growing support for Israel may be a blend of political opportunism, genuine
support for Israel and maybe a touch of biblical prophecy. But it won’t trump
their domestic concerns, and the administration knows it, which is why, for all
their complaints, the Christian Zionists haven’t really affected the
administration’s Mideast policy.

Two years ago, Bush became the first president to openly
support Palestinian statehood, despite objections from this quarter; he
continued to promote his Mideast “road map” to peace, even though they hated
it. The Christian Zionists have become the biggest U.S. cheerleaders for the
Israeli settlers movement, but that hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from
terming settlements “unhelpful” or demanding their removal.

And if Sharon can convince Bush that his Gaza disengagement
plan won’t forestall further movement toward a Palestinian state and a
negotiated settlement, the U.S. administration is likely to sign on the dotted
line — despite protests from the Christian right, which are likely to be more
rhetorical than real.  

GOP Sweep Boosts Bush

It was a stellar night for the Republicans across the nation, and Tuesday’s dramatic election results, with the GOP snatching back control of the Senate and tightening its grip on the House, will be a big boost for the foreign policy agenda of the Bush administration.

But with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, where the filibuster rules, the Republican leadership will not exactly have a blank check on the domestic front — good news for liberal Jewish groups.

"Will more of President Bush’s agenda get through? Absolutely," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Will more of his conservative judges be approved? You bet. But will dramatically right-wing policy changes be enacted? No way; the margins are just too small."

Still, the shift to GOP control is certain to revive efforts to pass controversial social legislation such as school voucher and charitable choice.

Republican leaders have already indicated that a top priority will be accelerating the sweeping 2001 tax cuts, which Democrats say will just lead to new pressure to cut health and social service programs. Foreign policy, including the impending war against Iraq and the ongoing Middle East crisis, was barely a ripple in the midterm contest.

"Except in a few cases where there were clearly divergent views on the Iraq resolution, there was virtually no foreign policy issue that bubbled up during the campaigns," said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. But he said the GOP sweep was a "strong affirmation of the president’s leadership." And that could boost President George W. Bush’s plans to wage war against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. "He got a green light — a green strobe light," Sabato said. "He can do whatever he wants in foreign policy; that’s what the people have said."

As usual, an overwhelming majority of incumbents in both parties retained their seats. No Jewish House or Senate lawmaker was defeated. There will be one more Jew in the Senate, thanks to two of the strangest races in recent memory; there will be no change in the number of Jews in the House.

With support for Israel at a bipartisan high on Capitol Hill, U.S. Mideast policy was a non-issue in the 2002 midterm congressional elections. Even in New Hampshire, where Rep. John Sununu (R) won his bid to become the only Palestinian-American in the Senate, there was almost no debate over the tumultuous Middle East.

Sununu, son of the former White House chief of staff, easily defeated Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who had waged a very active campaign to win support from pro-Israel groups.

For Jewish activists, one of the most watched Senate races was in New Jersey, where former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), a onetime national United Jewish Appeal chairman, stepped in only weeks before the election after the incumbent, Sen. Frank Torricelli, pulled out in a cloud of ethics concerns. Torricelli had trailed GOP challenger Doug Forrester, but on Tuesday, Lautenberg won with a comfortable 55-43 percent margin.

In one of the night’s most stunning upsets, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman (R) narrowly beat former vice president Walter Mondale (D) to claim the seat held by Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash two weeks ago. Coleman, like the man he replaces, is Jewish; his swearing-in will relieve Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) of his lonely status as the only Republican Jew in the Senate. Polls show a significant factor in Coleman’s upset victory was voter backlash against Wellstone supporters who had turned a memorial service into a partisan pep rally.

Besides Wellstone, the only other Jewish senator up for reelection was Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who easily brushed off a challenge from state Rep. Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski. But Levin, going into his fifth term, will lose his post as chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee, thanks to the GOP victory.

Pro-Israel activists generated campaign contributions for several incumbents who lost: Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.).

In North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole, a cabinet member in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations, easily beat Democrat Erskine Bowles, an official during the Clinton administration, to hold on to the seat being vacated by Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican. Jewish Republicans had pushed hard for Dole.

Contrary to many predictions, the Republicans expanded their control of the House.

But the Jewish Republican contingent in the House was cut in half with the retirement of Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY). Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), his only GOP colleague, handily defeated challenger Ben Jones, better known as "Cooter" on the TV series "Dukes of Hazard." That reinforces Cantor’s status as one of the GOP’s up-and-comers.

In Illinois, former Clinton staffer Rahm Emanuel, who is Jewish, won an easy-as-pie victory in the safely Democrat seat abandoned by Rep. Rod Blagojevich, who moves to the governors mansion. But in Georgia, Democrat Roger F. Kahn defied the prognosticators by losing to Republican Phil Gingrey for the right to represent the newly drawn 11th district in the Atlanta area. In Maryland, Rep. Ben Cardin (D), one of the senior members of the Jewish delegation in Congress, swamped GOP challenger Scott Alan Conwell, a political newcomer.

All Jewish members of New York’s big House delegation handily won reelection on Tuesday, some by huge margins.

Jewish Republicans poured money and resources into the Florida gubernatorial race, where incumbent and presidential sibling Jeb Bush faced a strong challenge from Democrat Bill McBride. Both campaigns targeted Florida’s huge Jewish population; in the end, Bush won handily with 56 percent of the vote.

The strong victory of Linda Lingle, a Republican, means Hawaii will have its first woman governor — and first Jewish one.

Pennsylvania will also have a Jewish governor, thanks to the election of former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat. Rendell defeated state Attorney General Mike Fisher, a Republican.

In Maryland, Rep. Bob Ehrlich (R) defeated Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — a dramatic upset in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. Both candidates campaigned feverishly for the state’s big Jewish vote, and Ehrlich forces claimed they had made significant inroads in the traditionally Democratic community.

A Debate on Focus

Jewish community leaders across the country are buzzing nervously these days about a family feud within the Jewish philanthropic world that could help shape the political profile of American Jewry for years. It’s one of those spats where both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and everyone else wishes they’d just cool off before they break something and get us all in trouble. So far, sadly, there’s no sign of temperatures dropping.

The feud pits the nation’s two biggest and richest Jewish welfare federations against a little-known agency that serves as a sort of public-policy think-tank for Jewish federations nationwide. The agency, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, or JCPA, is supposed to coordinate the federations’ policies with those of national Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah. The federations in New York and Chicago think it’s actually off pursuing its own liberal agenda. They want to shorten the leash.

The council claims to be the most broadly representative group in American Jewish life. Its members include a dozen of the biggest national Jewish organizations, Orthodox to Reform and left to right, plus 120 local Jewish federations and community-relations councils. Its annual policy statement, hammered out through a year-long process of negotiation among the groups, ranges from Israel to school prayer to abortion, welfare reform and the environment. What results is an astonishingly broad consensus across the Jewish spectrum.

The problem, say New York and Chicago federation leaders, is that the consensus isn’t genuine. They say the council operates through a flawed process that leaves too many Jews outside. “There is a portion of our community who question if it is even appropriate for an organization to speak on behalf of the Jewish community on some of these issues,” wrote the president and executive director of New York UJA-Federation, James Tisch and Stephen Solender, in a June 30 letter to the council. The Chicago federation endorsed most of the New Yorkers’ complaints in its own letter Aug. 6.

The New Yorkers want the JCPA to prune its agenda and focus on things “germane” to federations, like aid to immigrants and care for the Jewish elderly, plus no-brainers like Israel and anti-Semitism. They particularly want the council to abandon subjects like affirmative action and school vouchers, where they say the old Jewish consensus of the 1960s and 1970s has collapsed.

Jewish conservatives are hailing the tiff as evidence that Jewish liberalism is finally in retreat, something they’ve prayed for since the Nixon administration. But insiders on both sides say conservatives have little to celebrate. The issues the two federations want the council to focus on — increased federal aid for immigrants, seniors and the poor — are big-spending liberal ideas, not right-wing causes.

In part this is just local politics, especially in New York. The federation there has long been at odds with its local Jewish Community Relations Council, which is dominated by a poorer, more conservative population and often resents federation’s “Park Avenue liberals.” Not surprisingly, the community council doesn’t have much use for national JCPA, either. Some say the New York federation is leaning on JCPA in a machiavellian bid to bring its own community council closer.

But many outside New York and Chicago say the dispute’s causes run deeper, and may actually be more worrisome than any simple ideological shift. Some say it’s about money: a bid by federations and their donors to control Jewish public policy and make it serve fundraising needs, rather than the wishes of average Jews. “Every poll shows the majority of the Jewish community cares about the prophetic charge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick,” insists Marcia Goldstone, outspoken director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. But money talks. Federation leaders concede money is a factor, but deny it’s a power-grab. They just want to make every dollar count when cash is tight. “The question is whether the issues that JCPA is tackling are germane to the UJA-Federation mission,” says New York’s Tisch, son of Laurence and CEO of Loew’s Corp.

Beyond money, the dispute reflects an alarming decline in the Jewish community’s ability to take positions of any sort with credibility. More and more, it appears, Jews are simply unwilling to agree. Federation leaders call it “lack of consensus.” But that’s only half-true. Jews aren’t more divided than they were three decades ago. Dissenters haven’t become more numerous. They’re simply less willing to defer to the majority.

This comes in many forms. Orthodox Jews are more defensive, more fearful of a liberal majority that seems ever further from tradition. Republicans are more defiant, less willing to let their money be used to advance a liberalism they consider bankrupt.

As for federation leaders, they’re more dependent each year on smaller numbers of bigger donations. Each gift becomes more important, and each threat to withhold a gift more frightening. Each time another conservative complains about “JCPA liberals,” supporting the council seems more like an expensive habit.

In part JCPA’s problems are of its own making. Over the last decade it’s abandoned part of its mandate. It was born to juggle the different needs of its two constituencies, national agencies and local federations and councils. The local councils wanted it to be their voice on the national stage. The agencies — especially the fiercely competitive ADL, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress — wanted it to keep low and not compete with them. Balancing them was JCPA’s key to survival. In recent years, under executive director Lawrence Rubin, JCPA has tilted sharply toward the local councils. Three years ago it changed its structure, downgrading the power of the national agencies. Some agencies responded by dowgrading their role in JCPA. “They became de facto another defense agency,” said ADL national director Abe Foxman. “That turned us off.” The result, ironically, was to reduce JCPA’s visibility and clout. Given all those troubles, it’s a wonder the New York and Chicago federations haven’t received more support from other cities. The reason is that most communities realize clipping the JCPA’s wings is more expensive than supporting it.

“JCPA doesn’t merely take positions for the sake of it,” said Burt Siegel, director of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council and dean of local council directors. “Black politicians stood with us on Soviet Jewry because we stood with them on poverty and health care. JCPA offers an opportunity to help shape society in many ways that make life better for most Jews.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.