Opinion: Reconsideration of state aid to Jewish schools is welcome

For decades, the American Jewish community has debated the advisability, constitutionality and necessity of government aid to Jewish (and other faiths’) parochial schools. But with the United States still experiencing tough economic challenges, the American Jewish community finds its schools under greater financial stress than ever. This reality, alongside the solidification of court rulings upholding government aid programs and a current of broader education reform, has positioned 2012 to be a year in which we see signs of a sea change within the Jewish community over this perennial issue.

Since the mid-1950s, the majority view within the Jewish community has opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it diverts funds from the public schools, breaches the “wall of separation” between religion and state, and runs counter to the communal responsibility to support our own institutions.

On the other side, the Orthodox and other conservative segments of the community advocated for public sector support for Jewish schools. This admittedly minority camp contended that as a matter of economic fairness, citizens paying taxes that support local school budgets are entitled to some support in return; that First Amendment principles did not bar carefully crafted and religion-neutral state aid programs; and that in the absence of full communal support for our schools, resorting to state support was warranted.

In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions rendered in the 1990s and 2000s, the constitutional question was clearly settled in favor of state support programs and against the “strict separationists.” The high court approved state-funded special education teachers in parochial schools, state-funded textbooks and technology, and more, culminating in the 2000 ruling upholding Cleveland’s school voucher program as constitutional. Under the program, publicly funded vouchers could be spent on parochial school tuition.

The liberal camp has also, essentially, lost the argument about the “diversion” of funds.  The historically political champions of the traditional public school systems—Democrats—are deviating from longstanding orthodoxy by strongly backing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately administered (and free from unionized teachers). Inner-city mayors and reform-driven governors are denouncing the social injustice of low-income children trapped in failing public schools and pursuing an array of initiatives to offer opportunity to these children. The debate line is no longer over whether to support “school choice” but simply how expansive that choice will be.

This leaves as the last argument standing the question of necessity, and in the context of the economy of the past five years, America’s Jewish day schools desperately require more support—and it is not within the community’s ability to provide it alone. Today, Jewish day schools (of all denominations) amount to more than a $2 billion enterprise annually, according to the Avi Chai Foundation.  A conservative estimate assesses annual scholarship awards at more than $500 million, and that is nearly twice the amount that was being awarded five years ago. Requests for scholarship showing no signs of abating.

If the Jewish community is going to fund its educational system by itself, we have yet to identify where the funds will come from, let alone the will to make the decisions to secure or re-allocate those funds. The need is clear and present.

And so we get to 2012 and several signs indicating a shift in the debate. One prominent sign is the essay recently published in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Beinart making the “Jewish case” for state funding for Jewish education.  While Beinart’s latest book featuring intense criticism of Israel generated a tidal wave of tough responses from Jewish organizational leaders and pundits, Beinart’s Wall Street Journal column received virtually no comment from the community’s liberal stalwarts.

A second notable sign of shift is the recent political debate in Louisiana in which a new and ambitious school voucher program was enacted into law—with the explicit endorsement of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans—making it the first federation in the country to embrace a school voucher proposal. This action in the Bayou State follows on the JCRCs of Baltimore and Greater Washington endorsements of legislation to create a Maryland state tax credit for contributions to school scholarship funds, and active support for analogous public support programs from Jewish federations in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, where they are already in place.

The UJA-Federation of New York is the federation entity with the largest number of Jewish citizens and day schools within its jurisdiction, so it is a significant sign when it hires a new staffer into its Albany lobbying shop tasked with “day school advocacy,” as it did earlier this year.

Finally, a sign we see down the road is the upcoming convention of the JCPA that will launch a renewed examination of communal policy on the topic of government support for Jewish education.  JCPA, the umbrella entity for national and local Jewish organizations throughout the U.S., last “examined” this topic 15 years ago, but those of us who participated in that discussion thought it a sham, with rejection of all forms of state support a foregone conclusion. This time, with the economic landscape at hand and the federation entities directly participating in state aid programs, we have a hopeful sense that the position adopted by the broader community will not be reflexive and dogmatic but appropriately sensitive and nuanced.

As the Jewish calendar has turned from Passover toward Shavuot, we turn our attention from achieving Jewish freedom to understanding Jewish purpose. The fact that our ancestors’ exodus culminated at Sinai is a lesson to us that our central purpose is the transmission of Jewish knowledge and commitment. Today we do that best through Jewish schools, and we must ensure their viability to ensure the next generation. The permissibility and necessity of state support to make our school system viable are clear, and in 2012 we are seeing signs that we might indeed make this prospect a reality.

Nathan J. Diament is the executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

JewsOnFirst.org Continues Fight Against Aggressive Christian Activities

Several months ago, activist Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak learned of a Jewish family allegedly forced to flee its Delaware town after protesting aggressive Christian activities in the public schools.

The Los Angeles rabbi is co-founder of JewsOnFirst.org, perhaps the only Web site exclusively devoted to the Jewish take on separation of church and state (and a counterpart to Christian efforts such as Leftcross.com). Its mission, according to the site: “Defending the First Amendment against the Christian Right, because if Jews don’t speak up, they’ll think we don’t care.”

One goal is to champion cases largely ignored by the mainstream press.

Thus Beliak zeroed in on the Delaware family — Mona and Marco Dobrich and their two children — who had filed a lawsuit along with a family known only as the “Does” about a year ago. Their complaint alleges that teachers preached Christianity, that Bible Club students received special privileges, and that a local minister prayed for one of the children to accept Jesus at her high school graduation, among other charges. The Dobrichs moved to Wilmington, Del., when the suit allegedly made them “the focus of hostilities from neighbors and local media,” Beliak said.

The rabbi and his JewsOnFirst co-founder, union activist Jane Hunter, promptly conducted extensive research on the case, including interviews with school officials and the Dobrichs’ attorneys. After they published their Web expose in June, The New York Times interviewed Beliak and Hunter for its own story, which ran on July 29. In the Washington Jewish Week, an Anti-Defamation League official praised JewsOnFirst for its “robust” amount of information on church-state issues.

Beliak and Hunter created the site after becoming alarmed by increasing efforts by churches to back political candidates. Last week’s site included articles with titles such as “Religious right powerhouses mobilizing for 2006 elections,” “New Jersey school district to approve pro-prayer ruling” and an e-mail petition on behalf of the Dobrichs.

Most of the conflicts take place in Bible Belt states, Beliak said, because “those areas present a more accurate picture of this country than cities like Los Angeles. Most of America is not comfortable with diversity.”

JewsOnFirst will monitor how Los Angeles churches use an upcoming California pro-life ballot measure to back candidates — because lending support to individual candidates violates religious institutions’ tax-exempt status, Beliak said.

“Jews understand that liberty must be constantly guarded, and where we see threats, we must mobilize,” he added.

Abbas-Hamas Showdown Looms

Three and a half months after fundamentalists swept to power in the Palestinian elections, the Islamicist Hamas and the secular Fatah are on the brink of a major showdown that could have far-reaching implications for Israel and the government’s plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territory.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah seized the initiative in mid-May, by backing a call by Palestinian prisoners for a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with Israel. In doing so, he forced Hamas to face up to the challenge of recognizing Israel or losing power. Abbas’ move also opened up the possibility of international pressure on Israel to negotiate on the basis of those borders.

Abbas’ move could also clear the way for ending the Palestinians’ diplomatic isolation and freeing the flow of much-needed international funds. Those funds were blocked in the wake of the Hamas government’s refusal to recognize Israel, accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renounce terror. But while the Fatah leader’s initiative could break the diplomatic logjam, it is fraught with danger.

Fighting between small groups of Hamas and Fatah members on the streets of Gaza shows signs of intensifying. Both sides have mobilized large forces in Gaza and the West Bank, and some Palestinian observers are predicting civil war.

Abbas’ call in late May for a national referendum on the prisoners’ document pushed the sides closer to the brink.

Yet despite the mounting tension, the Fatah-Hamas confrontation could still play itself out politically.

On Tuesday, Abbas was supposed to set a date for the referendum, but the Fatah executive deferred the deadline for agreement on the prisoners’ document for a “few days,” ostensibly to give the sides more time to negotiate. But the move was seen as an effort to step back from confrontation.

Even if Abbas eventually does set a date for a referendum, the outcome could still be a nonviolent political solution.

In one scenario, victory for Abbas in the referendum could bring Fatah back to power. A loss on the other hand, could see Hamas winning the presidency as well as maintaining control of Parliament and the government. Or, an 11th hour agreement between the two parties could see the formation of a national unity Fatah-Hamas government, with Abbas taking the lead in Palestinian diplomacy on the international stage.

Abbas’ determination to go through with his initiative and the way he has gone about winning support for it has gained him considerable prestige on the Palestinian street. He spent weeks traveling the Middle East getting Arab leaders behind the initiative. He also met with Jack Wallace, the American consul in eastern Jerusalem, to coordinate the move with Washington.

Often seen in the past as a weak, vacillating leader, afraid of confrontation, Abbas is now perceived by Palestinians as someone who could make a difference.

A recent poll showed that if the referendum goes ahead, Abbas would win with more than 80 percent of the vote. Since he embarked on his initiative, his own rating has gone from 51 percent to 62 percent, and that of Fatah from 34 percent to 45 percent.

Conversely, support for Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is down from 49 percent to 38 percent, and Hamas is down from 42 percent to 29 percent. The figures reflect Fatah’s newfound confidence on the street. The freezing of international aid is starting to bite, and many Palestinians blame the Hamas government for the nonpayment of salaries and the lack of food and medicine.

Heartened by the new mood, Fatah leaders have stopped their internal bickering and are rallying around Abbas. Fatah received an additional fillip last week when it won a sweeping 80 percent victory in student elections at the Gaza branch of Al-Quds University.

As tension mounts, both Fatah and Hamas have been trying to show their strength. Fatah, which wields considerably more firepower in the West Bank, has put large forces on the streets in Jenin and other West Bank cities. Hamas has beefed up its street presence in Gaza, where it is believed to be stronger.

Nevertheless, 10,000 mainly Fatah security personnel demonstrated in Gaza last Thursday against the Hamas government for its failure to pay their salaries.

Commenting on the street clashes and the general mobilization on both sides, dovish Fatah leader Kadoura Fares declared that he could see ”all the signs of civil war.”

Fatah leaders depict the prisoners’ document as an attempt to find the lowest common denominator for a Fatah-Hamas agreement that, once adopted, could get the wide international boycott of the Hamas government lifted.

“The referendum constitutes a lifeline to the Hamas government to rescue it from international isolation, but they are finding it difficult to grab hold of it,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO official, declared.

For Haniyeh, the internal dilemma is that if he accepts the document, he could run afoul of the more radical Hamas leadership abroad; if he doesn’t, he could come in for criticism from the influential Hamas prisoners who signed it.

Whether or not he reaches agreement with Abbas on the document, Haniyeh opposes the referendum idea in principle. He sees it as a ploy to overturn the result of the January election that he won. Some Hamas spokesmen say ominously that the movement will not allow a referendum to be held, others that they will merely boycott it.

Either way the looming clash with Fatah, whether violent or political, could change the face of Palestinian politics.

So far, Israeli leaders are studiously avoiding comment on what they describe as an internal Palestinian affair. But the implications for Israel could be huge.

A clear-cut Hamas victory could accentuate questions about whom Israel would be handing back territory to after a unilateral withdrawal. An unequivocal Fatah victory could lead to pressure for a negotiated settlement. In the face of Palestinian developments, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have to draw on all his diplomatic skills to keep his unilateral withdrawal plan on the table.


Political Journal

Expatriates’ Vote

It’s long been more socially acceptable for Jews to immigrate to Israel than to emigrate out of it. Some Israelis feel that they’re abandoning the project of the Jewish state, not doing their part, not facing the same risks as those they leave behind.

So it’s somewhat understandable that Israelis living abroad have never been able to vote in Israel’s elections, even though other democracies make such allowances for their citizens abroad.

However, attitudes are shifting both here and in Israel. Between 150,000 and 300,000 expatriate Israelis live in the Los Angeles area, and some of them are pushing for the right to cast absentee ballots in Israeli elections. The Council of Israeli Community L.A., a group that organizes local cultural and political events for Israelis, is stoking the debate.

Israel “deals with the question of its own existence on a daily basis,” said Moshe Salem, president of the Tarzana-based nonprofit. So it is “in the interest of [Israel] to grant the Diaspora Israelis the right to vote.” Israelis in America “have a vested interest.” They “want to know what’s happening.”

Israel maintains about 350,000 Israelis on its voter rolls who can’t cast ballots because they live abroad.

“Granting voting rights would unite them around Israel, and means they will influence [non-Israeli] Jews around them,” Salem said.

He’s discussed the matter with Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Los Angeles Consul General Ehud Danoch, Israeli Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and several members of the Knesset. Salem reported that all have supported the idea.

Bills expanding balloting to overseas Israelis have been raised and defeated in several recent Knesset terms. In January, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he supported the notion; he even appointed a high-level committee to examine the details, the Jerusalem Post reported.

But earlier this month, opposition emerged from left-leaning Israeli parties, which fear introducing hundreds of thousands of absentee Jewish voters who are generally perceived to be more hawkish. The measure was defeated in the Knesset 25-23. It’ll be at least six months before the Knesset can take up the matter again.

Supporters point out that a growing Arab population could eventually eclipse Jewish voters, and Israelis from abroad could act as a counterbalance. Besides, many expats have served in the Israeli Defense Forces, pay taxes to Israel and intend to return some day.

A compromise that would honor individual rights ought to be within reach, given that numerous democracies around the world have successfully preserved voting rights for their citizens abroad. But any policy that could alter the balance of power between left and right and between Jews and Israeli Arabs is destined to be contentious.

“Everybody will be tuning in,” said Salem, describing the benefits of Israelis voting worldwide. “In a way, you’re affecting the entire Jewry outside of Israel. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is going to happen.”

Battling Over Message

The college campus has always been a central battleground for hearts and minds — and that includes education about Israel. In Washington, that battle is engulfing H.R. 509, legislation being supported by a range of groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

The bill would re-authorize decades-old grants that pay for foreign affairs education, while simultaneously creating a new advisory board to review the instructional content of programs receiving funds. The aim, at least among Jewish supporters, is to balance perceived anti-Israel bias with other perspectives.

“What we’re having now in the college campuses is basically professors using their desks as pulpits for political propaganda,” said Sarah Stern, director of the office of governmental and public affairs for the AJCongress. These academics, she said, are “looking basically at the entire world through the paradigm that America is a colonial hegemonic occupier, and Israel is the persona non grata of nations.”

The underlying argument is not new, as right-wing groups have railed for years about professors brainwashing students with leftist ideology. Common complaints feature professors (like Columbia’s Joseph Massad) supposedly berating a student about Israeli or Zionist “war crimes,” accounts that often turn out to be exaggerated or provoked.

Many professors and Muslim groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, vigorously oppose the proposed advisory board as undue interference in academic freedom, because although the board cannot hire or fire academics, its recommendations to the secretary of education would be influential.

Blurring Church-State Separation

A number of Jewish groups are lining up against an education-related measure that could allow the Bush administration to further blur the line of separation between church and state.

At issue is an amendment, HR 2123, which would allow faith-based groups to limit hires to people of their faith in federally funded Head Start programs. Head Start provides child care and education services to low-income families. Amendment supporters, most of them Republican, call the issue “charitable choice.”

Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, are vehemently opposed, saying that charitable choice deviously groups overtly sectarian churches and synagogues together with service providers like Jewish Family Service by classifying all of them as faith-based organizations.

“The rubric ‘faith-based’ is a ruse,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council. “They’re trying to use the term in order to get pervasively sectarian organizations into play.”

If the amendment passes, legislators who side with the Jewish groups might have to vote against the entire Head Start re-authorization, which means hurting the low-income families who benefit from the program.

Has the State Got a Proposition for You!

The wind grows colder, the days shorter and a 165-page, gray book of propositions arrives in everybody’s mailbox. Welcome to the election season — for Californians.

In national politics, California has been mostly ignored by both presidential candidates as a foregone conclusion. There is hardly a single close congressional race in the state. Between war in Iraq, violence in Israel and the swing states to the East, California is not on the agenda in Washington.

But to California voters, the one-inch-thick volume of propositions is a huge chance to reshape state government. Jewish leaders and activists are staking out their positions on a few of the 16 ballot initiatives.

Prop. 71, in particular, enjoys more open Jewish support than any other measure on the ballot this fall. It would authorize the state to sell $3 billion of bonds to finance research on embryonic stem cells, which could possibly help provide cures for such chronic diseases as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Jewish support for Prop. 71 includes Rabbi Janet Marder, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism; Rabbi David Ellenson, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion president; Hadassah; the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; and others.

“Jewish tradition strongly encourages scientific research, including the use of stem cells, to find new cures for diseases,” wrote the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which also supports Prop. 71, in its proposition policy statement. “If such cures were found, millions of lives could be saved, and health-care costs could be cut by billions of dollars.”

After pressure from religious conservatives several years ago, President Bush imposed strict limits on embryonic stem-cell research that uses federal dollars, requiring all work to be done on only a handful of existing cell lines and with only a trickle of funds. That prompted Californians to collect over a million signatures to put Prop. 71 on the ballot.

But interest must be paid on bonds, and the $3 billion Prop. 71 bonds could actually end up costing about $6 billion.

“I am a very strong supporter of stem-cell research, but I don’t think that issuing a $3 billion general obligation bond is a fiscally responsible measure at this point in time,” said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Granada Hills).

Supporters say that making California the world’s leader in stem-cell research would create jobs and tax revenue.

In other financial matters, Proposition 1A would greatly limit state power over local property taxes and force Sacramento to reimburse local governments anytime it imposes a new rule or regulation.

“If we funded state government properly, we wouldn’t have to guarantee this funding, but when budgets are in bad shape [the state] steals from local government,” said Howard Welinsky, former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and a longtime Democratic activist.

“Imagine yourself as the mayor of a city,” Welinsky said. “You don’t know on July 1 what your revenue is until the state finishes its budget deliberations — and sometimes they wait until August to figure this out. So how are you going to manage your resources?”

Welinsky called the state budget “woefully underfunded” due to low taxes (held over from the boom years of the 1990s) that Republicans have refused to raise.

Though Republicans say that Democrats’ runaway spending is actually to blame for the state’s budget problems, both parties are supporting Prop. 1A’s ban on the state’s grab of local funds. Some opposition to Prop. 1A has questioned whether local government spends money more responsibly than the state.

Several of the propositions on the ballot are directly related to California’s faltering health-care system. Prop. 63 would impose a 1 percent surcharge on state income taxes for those earning more than $1 million a year. That money would go directly to county mental health services.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee in Sacramento, is one of Prop. 63’s biggest supporters. He’s called it an opportunity to fix the broken promise California made to its counties in the 1960s, when the state emptied its mental health hospitals.

But why tax only the very wealthy?

“In a perfect word, or even a better world, this is not the way to fund government,” Steinberg told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Opponents say depending on such a narrow tax base to fund partly effective programs is too risky. But supporters point to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who are either homeless or in prison today, because they could not get the mental health services they needed.

Another health-care measure, Prop. 67 would add a 3 percent surcharge on telephone use — both land line and cellular — mainly to reimburse California hospitals for the care they provide to poor patients.

About 70 hospitals have closed in California over the past decade, including six in Los Angeles County, partly due to uninsured patients needing expensive emergency care.

“If a nearby emergency room closes, the extra time it takes for an ambulance to travel to a more remote facility could literally mean the difference between life and death,” the Progressive Jewish Alliance wrote.

Richman opposes Prop. 67, calling it a Band-Aid solution. “Half the hospitals in the state of California are losing money because of uncompensated care,” he said. “I think it’s critical that we address the fundamental issue of the uninsured.”

Richman, for his part, is most passionate about supporting Prop. 62, the “modified blanket” primary. It would change California’s electoral system so that only the top two vote-getters from a district in any election — House of Representatives, Assembly, State Senate, etc. — could run in the general election.

After a primary election, each party is currently guaranteed a spot for its own top vote-getter in the general election. Prop. 62 would change that by putting the emphasis on the top two candidates, regardless of party. That means a Democrat could run against another Democrat in the general election or a Republican against a Republican.

“It will result in representatives in both Sacramento and Washington who are more moderate and will work to solve problems with common sense solutions,” Richman told The Journal, adding that the power of the parties today pushes candidates to the ideological extremes.

However, opponents of Prop. 62 claim that it will simply allow independently wealthy candidates to buy political power. Under the current system, challenging an incumbent for either federal or state office is difficult, even with a slew of money, because there are so many other candidates that split the vote.

Under Prop. 62, though, a wealthy challenger who manages to place second in the primary would have no other competition to worry about except the incumbent and could bring all his money to bear in the run-up to the general election. Groups such as Common Cause oppose it, along with both major parties.

Other propositions on the ballot include Prop. 66, which would limit the “three strikes” law to violent crimes; Prop. 64, which would restrict lawyers’ abilities to sue corporations; and Props, 68 and 70, the Native American gambling initiatives.

“It’s always hard to say what’s a Jewish issue,” Welinsky said.

This November, California Jews can decide for themselves.

Proposition 71 will be among the issues discussed at “A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research,” with leading rabbis and doctors, Oct. 19 at Temple Beth Am. Free. For more information, call (310) 652-7353.

Accord Allure

What I think about the Geneva accord is what generations of Jews have thought about getting a doctor’s second opinion: it couldn’t hurt.

I was surprised at how many people this week asked me whether I thought the accord was good for Israel. Surprised, mainly, that they would think an independent peace initiative declared at a press conference in Switzerland could actually doom the Jewish State.

The accord — negotiated over two years in secret talks between Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies and Palestinians with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — were signed with great international fanfare Monday, Dec. 1, in a ceremony in Switzerland emceed by actor Richard Dreyfuss (see story, p. 18).

Although the bulky report goes into substantially more detail than other Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives now circulating, its broad outlines are hardly revolutionary to anyone familiar with the history of American-backed peace efforts in the region.

As worked out by teams led by Israeli opposition leader Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, the accord calls for two neighboring, independent states, each with its capital in Jerusalem; the evacuation of most Jewish settlements; and a limit, set by Israel, on the number of Palestinian refugees who can settle in Israel. Israel would compensate Palestinians in land for the few settlements that would remain, and in money for Palestinians not allowed to return. Palestine would have sovereignty over the Al Aksa Mosque and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but not pray there. Israel would have sovereignty over the Western Wall, and an international force would oversee the whole area.

As ideas for a future accord, these aren’t bad, and they certainly aren’t final. But supporters of the accord should temper their enthusiasm. While Palestinian negotiators received the tacit support of Arafat, his waffling in the days leading up to the ceremony should remind everyone that this is a man, to paraphrase former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, far more comfortable with the rhetoric of revolution than the reality of state building. There is little reason to think he won’t undermine the promise of Geneva as he did Oslo.

Opponents to the accord, on the other hand, should weigh their concerns against the status quo: the hundreds of innocent Israelis lost to violence, the country’s economic slide, the cost of doing more of the same. These costs become even more inexplicable when you take into account the fact that Sharon has already committed to the inevitability of a Palestinian state.

The accord, like a handful of similar initiatives, is the result of a leadership vacuum. No serious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have taken place since the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Meanwhile, 910 Israelis have been killed.

Sharon seems to be following the strategy of former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: don’t do anything until you’re absolutely forced to.

The security fence his government is now building between Israel and the Palestinian territories is a prime example. Facing strong opposition from the right, he dithered for months until a strong centrist grass-roots voice forced his hand. Now the fence is going up, going left, right or straight across the 1967 borders, depending on who is pushing Sharon harder: the American government, the Israeli right or the Israeli center.

The Geneva accord is also, to some extent, forcing Sharon’s hand. The fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell has defied some powerful (and powerfully misguided) pro-Israel activists in meeting with accord negotiators is a sign that it is time for Sharon to take some action.

"If Sharon is going to step away from Shamir’s strategy it will make history," an Israeli official told me. "If not we’re in deep s–." There is good reason to believe that Sharon will make some moves. Even Sharon’s opponents do not view him as an ideologue. He is a former general committed to Israel’s strategic security, and a politician with a keen sense of the Israeli center. At the end of the day, it will be these forces that push him toward action.

That is why a more important date in Israel’s history may turn out to be not Dec. 1, but Dec. 18. That’s when Sharon will go before a party economic convention and speak — some analysts say — of unilateral moves his government will take toward alleviating the Palestinian crisis. The moves may include withdrawal from some of the more remote settlements and other overtures in the Palestinian direction. They will convince some Palestinians that movement is possible, and the American administration that the path to peace is not road blocked in Jerusalem.

Recall Golus

As recall fever is sweeping the state, a number of cars in the Pico-Robertson and Fairfax neighborhoods are sporting bumper stickers that say “Recall Golus.” Who is Golus exactly, you ask? Is it Gray Davis’ middle name? The name of the 136th candidate on the ballot?

The stickers, which Rabbi Shimon Raichik of Chabad of Hancock Park produced, are actually a call for the Messiah to come. Golus is the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word galut, meaning exile, as in the state of being for the Jewish people before the Messiah comes and redeems us all to Israel.

If Golus is recalled, then the entire state of California will be transported to the Holy Land, and we won’t have to worry about a budget crisis, Davis’s lack of personality or unsavory Arnold Schwarzenegger interviews — which definitely makes recalling Golus something worth thinking about.

You Snooze, You Lose

This is the opposite of hypnosis. I am going to write a word, and you are not going to fall asleep. The word is, Sacramento.

For most of us, state politics function as a kind of conversational snooze button. It’s hard enough to get people involved in the police and pothole issues of municipal governance. It is somewhat easier to keep their interest when it comes to national and international news. Those meaty items play out on the front pages and CNN. But the state is neither milk nor meat, and when the governor strikes so many citizens as pareve — the personification of all that is dull and bureaucratic somewhere to the right of San Francisco — no wonder we tune out.

In the best of times, this arrangement serves both state politicians and their public well. We send them a chunk of money each April 15, then — talk about a blank check — let them do what they will.

But these are among the worst of times, and our ignorance is no longer so bliss.

The state budget is facing a projected $38.2 billion shortfall, and Gov. Gray Davis’ plan to cut spending and increase revenue will have far-reaching effects on our state and our lives. Elementary and higher education, health care, senior services — every neck is on the chopping block. And, conversely, every hand is looking for a pocket: sales tax increases, bond floats of dubious efficacy, car fee hikes.

"It’s a mess," confirmed Assemblyman Keith Richman, the Jewish doctor-turned-Republican legislator. "But it certainly isn’t dull."

I ran into Richman at the Sacramento airport this past Tuesday. He was returning to his district, which encompasses the North San Fernando Valley and most of Simi Valley. I was returning from a visit to the Jewish Public Affairs Committee’s (JPAC) annual foray to the capital. Each year, JPAC organizes informed Jewish activists to converge on legislators and educate them on issues of communal concern.

This year, many participants noticed a drop-off in attendance. About one-third of the participants, who come from Jewish federations, Jewish Community Relations Committees and other Jewish organizations from across the state, were high school and college students. Many others were staff members of Jewish organizations. That left a dwindling number of what Democratic activist Howard Welinsky called, "the influentials," caring volunteer advocates with the money and/or clout to grab a politician’s attention.

Welinsky maintained that the drop-off in participation doesn’t lead legislators to think that Jews no longer care, but others claimed it did. The deeper question is why the trend toward disengagement.

One reason may be a sense that the die is cast, at least as far as this budget cycle is concerned.

"The governor told us there’s no money," said one activist with convincing finality. "There’s no money."

Another reason may be a sense that the capital is the Vegas of politics — what happens in Sacramento stays in Sacramento — and the arcane maneuverings of the Assembly and Senate don’t touch our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth, Richman said. Deep cuts in public health care and public education may not affect all of us directly, but they will have enormous consequences on the larger society to which we belong.

Term limits and redistricting haven’t exactly sparked citizen involvement either. The former makes it difficult to build and nurture relationships with representatives, while forcing out many experienced and effective legislators. The latter makes politicians more dependent on their respective party leadership for ensuring primary victories. The result is a deeply partisan legislative branch that rewards party loyalists and punishes centrists.

"You’re always worried about being outflanked by your extremists," Richman said.

When the assemblyman even suggested the idea of supporting some kind of limited tax or fee increase as a way to offset the deficit, he received a hammering from more-Republican-than-thou talk radio hosts up and down the state. It’s no wonder that, as the California Voter Foundation discovered, "The state’s population is constantly growing while at the same time the percentage of voters who affiliate with the two major parties declines."

A pox on both their houses.

It’s also no wonder that so many Jewish voters, who tend toward the pragmatic center, are turned off by Sacramento. That’s even more of a shame, because, as California’s ethnic populations increase, Jewish voting — to the extent it happens in a bloc — can be even more effective. A Los Angeles Times poll found that in the statewide 2002 elections, non-whites, whose registration numbers are increasing, voted in smaller numbers than in previous gubernatorial elections. White voter turnout increased, and Jews make up a disproportionate percentage of that bloc. What that means is that if Jewish activists choose to use their leverage, they can be effective now and in the foreseeable future.

At a meeting with a handful of Jewish community activists this past week, one assemblyman was openly disdainful.

"This crisis has been two years in the making," he said. "Where were you two years ago?"

More to the point, where are we now?

We Must Share Our Blessings With the Poor

As we began our seders this week, one of our first acts was yachatz. We held high a matzah and recited, "Ha Lachma Anya" (behold, the matzah, the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.)

The very flatness and blandness of the matzah remind us of the empty and oppressed lives of the Israelite slaves — and of downtrodden people in all places and in all times.

Lest we think that economic injustice is a thing of another place, consider the city of Los Angeles. How can the same city that registers 20 percent of all the Rolls-Royces in the United States also be known as the homelessness capital of the country? The disparity of income between the richest and poorest members of this city should shame even the banana republics.

More than 2.5 million residents of this region have no medical insurance, yet plastic surgery is a cottage industry in parts of Los Angeles. No wonder Los Angeles has been aptly characterized as "a ‘First World City’ flourishing atop a ‘Third World City.’"

This week, Jewish leaders conducted Passover seders to call attention to three local struggles to achieve justice. These three campaigns — for janitors, Santa Monica hotel workers and nursing home workers — represent efforts on the part of the religious community to bring some semblance of economic fairness to groups fighting for better wages and working conditions.

For example, take nursing home workers into whose hands we entrust our elderly, our infirm and ourselves. The annual median salary for California’s certified nurse’s aides, the front-line caregivers in nursing homes, is a shameful $17,638. These workers are 50 percent more likely to lack health insurance than the general population.

Each nursing home worker tends to 15-20 patients during the daytime and up to 35 patients at night, leading to compromised care and high rates of on-the-job injuries. Not surprisingly, certified nursing aides have a turnover rate of 78 percent.

For these reasons, more than 80 rabbis and 75 ministers and priests have signed a statement of principles in support of low-wage workers. The statement reads:

"We, as religious and business leaders, believe that we should strive for a state in which all low-wage workers, whether they are direct employees or contracted out, should be:

"Paid a living wage that allows them to meet the basic needs of their families.

"Provided with full health-care benefits for them and their families.

"Employed by companies that abide by all applicable laws — including the right to organize.

"Treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve."

This simple statement embodies the teachings of Judaism on the just needs of workers. For example, Jewish law absolutely prohibits oshek (withholding fair wages). The principle of oshek is based on two biblical commandments:

1. "You shall not defraud your fellow [man]. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning" (Leviticus 19:13).

2. "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger, in one of the communities of your land. You must give him his wages on the same day before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry out to the Eternal One against you, and you will incur guilt" (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

Both biblical and rabbinic law seek to prevent the recurrence of Ezekiel’s indictment: "The people of the land have practiced fraud and committed robbery; they have wronged the poor and needy, have defrauded the stranger without redress" (Ezekiel 22:29).

America has blessed the Jewish community with prosperity, freedom and security. The Passover haggadah calls on us to share our bounty, especially at this season.

"Let all who are hungry, come and eat," says the "Ha Lachma Anya." "Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we are servants; next year may we all be free."

Now our poor are exploited; next year may they — and we — know the fullness of America’s promise.

Rabbi Alan Henkin is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Budget Worries

Gov. Gray Davis’ proposed state budget for 2002-2003 has local Jewish organizations worried.

With the state’s approximately $12 billion deficit (in a proposed $98 billion budget) covered by program cuts, along with loans and spending deferrals, local agencies such as Jewish Family Service (JFS) and Jewish Vocational Service may face a significant reduction in funding.

"Jewish community agencies get literally millions and millions and millions of dollars in funding from the government for provision of nonsectarian services," said Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). "Right now we have legislators saying, ‘You need to worry.’"

The programs most at risk are those funded directly through the state’s General Fund, which comprises about 80 percent of the budget. Since General Fund allocations are not specifically directed toward programs but funneled through state agencies, they are politically easier to cut when budgets get tight.

While Paul Castro, Jewish Family Service CEO, expects most of his organization’s funding will be "at least held constant or only [suffer] a slight reduction," more than a quarter of JFS’ budget comes from the state.

Jessica Toledano, who monitors the state budget for JCRC as director of government relations, said, "Any organization that gets money from the state General Fund is on alert."

For example, JFS programs funded in part by the state include the family violence program, which assists victims of domestic violence, and the citizenship program, which helps immigrants through the difficult process of becoming a citizen. Senior citizen health care programs and the Linkages program, which connects those in need of mental health care with appropriate providers, are also endangered by the proposed budget cuts. In all, JFS receives $6 million of its $22 million budget from the state.

The programs most reliant on General Fund dollars are those serving the elderly. Other Jewish agency nonsectarian services, such as job training and meal programs, are generally either federal or state-mandated services, with allocations set aside in harder-to-cut special funding.

The governor’s budget is only the first step in a months-long process toward preparing the final state budget, so it is still too early to know exactly what services will have to be cut.

However, Jewish organizations are not waiting to see where the ax falls. Through the JCRC and statewide through the Jewish Political Action Committee in Sacramento, they are preparing their own set of priorities and budgeting necessities.

As Hirschfeld put it, "We’re engaged now in a consultative process with professional and lay leaders of Jewish agencies, deciding what politically is worth advocating for and what we cannot save."

Toledano is optimistic that programs that seem endangered now may yet be funded: "There are other pots to look in. In a few months, there may be money."

The state’s legislative analyst’s office, which released a report on Davis’ proposals last week, is more skeptical about the budget’s workability, noting, "While ‘on paper’ the plan appears to work, many of its assumptions are overly optimistic," which "raises the risk of substantial future budgetary imbalances emerging." The report goes on to note that, in addition to other shortfalls in the proposal, the governor’s budget assumes nearly $3 billion in spending reductions for this year, which have yet to be implemented.

Jewish organizations are considering teaming up for lobbying efforts with like-minded providers of nonsectarian services "to try to be a stronger force in Sacramento," Toledano told The Journal. JCRC works with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC), to secure funding in Sacramento. JPAC Chair Barbara Yaroslavsky wrote in the organization’s December newsletter, "Maintaining funding for our agencies will be very difficult in 2002."

For most concerned citizens, however, now is not the time to be worried, Hirschfeld says. Many political and economic factors are expected to come into play between now and July 1, when the final state budget must be passed by the Legislature.

Castro stressed that because the governor’s budget is far from final, people with concerns can influence the cuts made to service programs.

"Anybody with a relationship or contact with a legislator should write them," he urged. "Tell them not to balance the budget on the backs of these vulnerable populations.

"The important thing to keep in mind is that this process has just begun," he said. "This initial draft in January will look much different in July."

Your Letters

Palestinian Statehood

It is hard to believe that thoughtful people in the Jewish community can still oppose a Palestinian state and think that moral, political and economic catastrophe can be avoided while Israel continues to occupy 1.5 million people (“The Dangers of a Palestinian State,” Nov. 23).

Avi Davis conjures up stale arguments that a Palestinian state would take over Jordan and then join with Iraq, Syria and Iran in attacking Israel. Jordan alone — and certainly neighbor states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia — would never allow this. Moreover, Palestinian terrorism against Israel would become acts of war subject to clear Israeli retaliation.

A future Palestinian state cannot begin without a new relationship between Israel and a Palestinian people responsible for their own society and government.

David Perel, Los Angeles

Avi Davis criticizes the Bush administration for recognizing a future Palestinian state, but completely ignores the fact that it has been anticipated by all concerned parties since the Oslo accords.

Whether we like it or not, a Palestinian state (just as the Palestinian Authority before it) will be as corrupt and undemocratic as any of the other nations in Middle East, and Israel will remain on the defensive until either the majority of Middle Eastern states become democratic or become convinced that trade with Israel furthers their interests.

Robert Hirschman,Encino

Rob Eshman puts the cart before the horse, just as many commentators do (“The P Word,” Nov. 16). The issue is not whether the Jewish community or Israel should support the creation of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state will follow when Palestinian Arabs and their Arab brethren accept the Jewish community as its equals.

Alan Wallace, Sherman Oaks

Harry Potter

Since Rabbi Toba August has equated “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” — a story and movie whose research and incantations are based on the Wiccan religion — to Jewish values taught in Pirkei Avot, I anxiously await the rabbi’s upcoming articles on the comparison of Jesus’ inspiring Sermon on the Mount to the sayings of our Talmudic literature. Such befitting topics for The Jewish Journal to discuss on the Kids page.

Joseph Schames,Los Angeles

Kosher Thanksgiving

Thank you, Rabbi Eli Hecht, for describing the Orthodox dilemma with non-Jewish holidays, like Thanksgiving (“A Kosher Holiday,” Nov. 23). I would bet that few Jews realize that many, if not most, Charedi Jews don’t celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Most of the frum day schools are even open for Jewish studies on those days.

Saul Newman,Los Angeles

Salam al-Marayati

Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (Letters, Nov. 2) defends Salam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Sokatch says that al-Marayati has “apologized” for saying Israel should be the prime suspect in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, “and publicly reiterated that apology in no less a forum than The New York Times.”

Yet the Sept. 28 issue of The Jewish Journal reports that al-Marayati “told the Los Angeles Times that the quotation [al-Marayati’s accusation against Israel] was accurate but taken out of context, and he sent a ‘clarification’ to Jewish leaders.” That’s not what I call an apology.

I turned to The New York Times, which reported on the episode Oct. 22. The Times reported that “al-Marayati later said that the remark ‘gave regrettable and unintended offense to Jewish Americans.'” That’s not an apology, either.

Apology or no apology, Sokatch has failed to mention al-Marayati’s very long record of making extremist statements.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, President Zionist Organization of America, Greater Los Angeles District

Don’t Forget Israel’s Fallen

During May, both the United States and Israel will mark their respective Memorial Days. While the American version will have many remembrance events, most people will spend the day at barbecues, picnics or at the beach. This is not the case in Israel.

On the evening of May 8, as happens each year, all entertainment establishments are closed. There is not a family in Israel that does not have a family member, or at least a friend, who has lost a relative in Israel’s wars. In fact, the country literally comes to a halt when a siren call stops all Israelis for two minutes of contemplation and to honor the memories of those who gave their lives for the Jewish state.

They gave their lives in many places. Israeli soldiers, over the years, have not only fought for the citizens of Israel but in missions in Entebbe, in Europe and during rescue efforts in Ethiopia to protect Jews, wherever they might be. For that reason, I am confused by the fact that Yom Hazikaron is not on the agenda of the Jewish community here in Los Angeles. In fact, some prominent Jewish community leaders have made it clear that they were sorry if I was caused any discomfort or unease by the fact that they had other plans for the evening.

I was taken aback by the response. The affront was not towards me. I fear that the distance and the relative safety of Southern California may have caused us to lose our ties with the fact that more than 20,000 men and women have given their lives over the last 52 years for the security of Israel. As you read these words, our soldiers remain on duty in Lebanon and on the Golan Heights. Pilots are on alert and the Israeli navy patrols the Mediterranean. The men and women of Israel have, for generations now, been asked to give up the best years of their lives to defend our homeland. Some don’t just lose two or three years, some don’t come home.

We mark other auspicious dates on our calendar — Yom HaShoah, which memorializes victims of the Holocaust, and Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem — which commemorate modern Jewish milestones along with more traditional holidays like Chanukah and Purim. Why is it that such a central event that marks the huge price paid for the safety of Israel is not on the radar of so many here?

Let’s change that. Each year the Consulate General of the State of Israel organizes a memorial ceremony at Congregation Adat Ari El on May 8 to honor and identify with those heroes who stood and fell. Please join with me, not just for the people of Israel but for all of us who have benefited from the efforts of these soldiers.

We often talk of ourselves as am echad (one people). I believe that is true. By commemorating Memorial Day together, we will take one more step in enhancing the vital Diaspora-Israel relationship and making am echad a reality.

The ceremony marking Israel’s fallen soldiers will take place May 8 at 7 p.m at Temple Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd. in Valley Village.

Yuval Rotem is Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.

Religion and the State

What rights would a yarmulke-wearing child have in a public school that decides to prohibit hats on campus? What about a group of Jewish inmates who want to light Chanukah candles when a regulation clearly bans fire of any kind inside a prison? Or a synagogue or church that wishes to build or expand in a restricted area?

These are among the potential and real-life cases that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) was intended to address. The premise of RFRA was that even though “free exercise of religion” was a constitutionally guaranteed right in this country, laws that were presumably “neutral” toward religion could pose as much of a burden as those intended to hinder religious practice. Therefore, RFRA said, a “compelling interest” test should be applied that would weigh the government’s interest in imposing a law, against the burden that law would place, on free exercise of religion.

Since the United States Supreme Court overturned RFRA in June, a number of states, including California, have launched campaigns to pass similar laws to ensure stringent protection of religion at the state level. A broad coalition of religious and civil-liberties organizations led by American Jewish Congress recently urged a group of California legislators to pass a statute providing “real and enforceable, yet balanced, protection for religious liberty.”

In testimony before a special hearing of the State Assembly Judiciary Committee, Marc Stern, co-director of the AJ Congress Commission on Law and Social Action, told legislators that the danger to religious liberty today doesn’t come from “outright bans on a particular faith” and other clearly unconstitutional actions. Rather, he said, it derives from actions of what he termed “the well-meaning state.”

“The complex society in which we live tolerates, and often requires, regulation to a degree unprecedented in American history,” Stern said. “Oftentimes, the regulations are cast in a form which interferes with the practice of one faith or another. Most of these conflicts emerge because no one foresaw the clash between the regulations and religious practice.”

Stern, one of the principle drafters of the federal RFRA legislation, singled out zoning laws as common examples of how “bias often sneaks in — and sometimes dominates — hearings before zoning officials who exercise vast discretionary authority.”

For Jews, careful scrutiny of laws that affect religion are of particular importance, Stern said. “One of the reasons Jews have been able to flourish is that they’re not put at a disadvantage because of the law,” he said.

Eugene Volokh, acting professor of law at UCLA and an opponent of passing state RFRA, said such legislation would unfairly discriminate in favor of religious individuals or groups, giving them an advantage over those with deeply held moral beliefs not rooted in a particular religion. He also felt it would hand too much power to judges and courts, instead of legislators and voters. “It’s important to protect both the secular and the religious and look at each case on its merits,” said Volokh, a Russian-born Jew who teaches constitutional law. “This overall massive law that leaves decisions in the hands of judges is not a good idea.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, a Sydney M. Irmas professor of law and political science at USC Law School, said establishing a RFRA statute in California “is an essential protection of religious freedom” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the federal version. Since the California Supreme Court has tended in the past to follow the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court, without federal RFRA to turn to, state law becomes even more uncertain, Chemerinsky said.

At least five Jewish groups attended the hearing in support of a state RFRA statute. They included: the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee and AJ Congress. Also supporting the passage of state RFRA were the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern and Northern California, People for the American Way Action Fund, San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as well as groups representing Muslims, Buddhists, Lutherans, Unitarians and Seventh Day Adventists. Further hearings on the subject are scheduled in the next few months.