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Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 1999 /5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

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Can We Still Ask, 'Is It Good for the Jews?' -- THERE WAS A TIME when American Jews knew exactly how to view the world. It was a cliché even 30 years ago, but that didn't stop people from asking the same question about everything that happened, from the political issues to the price of chewing gum: Is it good for the Jews?

Though many of us were careful not to portray ourselves in public as being that parochial, it was nevertheless a handy guide to issues, candidates and controversies.

All we had to ascertain was whether a specific proposal or candidate was favorable to Israel, the rights of religious minorities overseas, the separation of church and state, or any other clearly identifiable "Jewish" interest, and we had our answer.

The world was easily divided between good guys and bad guys: those who supported aid to Israel (and opposed arms sales to Arab countries) and those who didn't; those who favored linking trade with the Soviet Union to freedom for Soviet Jews and those who didn't; and those who favored forcing Jewish schoolchildren to endure sectarian prayers in public school and those who didn't.

While there are still a few easily identifiable "Jewish" issues, it is getting harder and harder to play the "good-for-the-Jews" game.

Why? The first reason is that as a community that no longer thinks of itself as endangered, we have lost the sense of crisis about political issues we once had. Indeed, many of our old hard-core issues, such as Soviet Jewry, have largely been resolved.

While Israel still faces life in a dangerous neighborhood, the Oslo peace process has, for the most part, taken the sting out of the debate on the Middle East for the general public. There are still pockets of anti-Israel sentiment in the country and even in Congress, but they are small minorities. The biggest problem most members of Congress have with Israel is figuring out which Jewish groups to listen to. Most members of Congress worry about being caught between the Jewish peace-process skeptics and the Jewish peace-process cheerleaders --- who often disagree on what is or is not a "pro-Israel" vote on a specific issues.

Indeed, the issue of Israel has complicated some of our old "good-for-the-Jews" thinking. When right-wing Christian conservatives who disagree with most Jews on social and church-state separation issues speak up on behalf of Israel, it confuses many of us.

For the same reason, many Jewish groups have gone easy on liberal Christian groups, like the National Council of Churches, that are virulent opponents of Israel but who sign on to the Jewish agenda on other issues.

On other issues, the across-the-board consensus in the Jewish community is no longer there. A classic example is on the church-state-separation front.

While almost all Jews still oppose prayer -- but not "moments of silence" in public schools (for the obvious reason that such prayers do unconstitutionally "establish" religion and inevitably reflect the beliefs of the non-Jewish majority, putting unfair pressure on Jewish children), Jewish opinions on other issues are no longer so monolithic.

Providing parents with vouchers that will allow them to send their children to the schools of their choice, whether public, private or religious, is one such example.

Indeed, school choice is one of the few serious issues in which one can draw a stark distinction between the candidates for mayor here in Philadelphia: Democrat John Street opposes vouchers while Republican Sam Katz favors them.

While a clear majority of the Jewish community clings to the "separationist" faith and rejects vouchers, there is a growing minority (including this writer) that enthusiastically favors them --- in part, because of the possible benefits for Jewish day schools.

While Jewish proponents and foes of vouchers can argue their cases on the basis of what is good public policy (as Street and Katz do), it is also possible to have a spirited debate on the issue as to whether it is "good for the Jews."

This points not only to possible ideological changes in the Jewish community, but also reflects a sea change in the way we view issue advocacy itself.

While anti-Semitism has not entirely disappeared, external threats are not the prism though which most Jews view issues. That has forced Jewish groups who are searching for a rallying cry (or a reason to go on taking up office space) to freelance on issues.

Rather than stick to the dwindling number of clearly identifiable Jewish issues, they go looking for other controversies, while still putting a Jewish gloss on their efforts.

Thus, groups like the American Jewish Congress have become a clearinghouse for the liberal conventional wisdom of the day. With fewer Jews in danger these days, this group that formed as a Jewish defense agency must now seek out endangered liberals -- like President Clinton at the height of the impeachment crisis -- or make strong statements on behalf of increased gun control in order to make its voice heard.

At the same time, some Jewish women's groups act as if abortion rights are a matter of Jewish survival.

There are reasonable arguments to be made on behalf of these stands, but few are fooled by the spin that portrays them as intrinsically Jewish issues.

The problem is, Jewish interests are deeper than the partisan squabbling of contemporary liberals and conservatives. But even if some of our groups or leaders have convinced themselves that Judaism equals liberalism or even that conservatism equals Judaism, nobody else is deceived.

The point is, if defending liberal or conservative interests becomes our priority, we will be slow to act or speak out when those come into conflict with Jewish priorities. Recent examples are the unwillingness of many Jewish liberals to confront anti-Israeli agitation from the left and the similar reluctance of Jewish Republicans to try to pressure Texas Gov. George W. Bush to call for Pat Buchanan to leave their party.

The danger here is that when we start redefining Jewish interests to conform with secular ideologies, we can lose sight of the things that really are Jewish issues.

And that is something that is definitely bad for the Jews.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin