American Jewish liberalism waning; National council to grapple with shift to right at annual meeting


It once was common wisdom that the American Jewish community could be counted on for its support of liberal causes.

But signs have emerged of a shift to the right by many American Jews, particularly on such issues as tax relief, school vouchers and affirmative action.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group that coordinates public policy for local community relations councils and national agencies, convenes its annual meeting today in Baltimore, facing the reality that consensus among Jews on some political and social issues may be harder to achieve than in the past.

The JCPA, which is holding its Plenum 2000 through Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, each year brings together 122 community councils and 13 national agencies representing the ideological spectrum, from the traditional Orthodox to the liberal Reform.

"What we provide is a common table for the Jewish community to come together to discuss public affairs," said Lawrence Rubin, JCPA executive vice chairman.

The plenum, first held in 1944, convenes this year in the shadow of discontent cast by two of the JCPA's largest community relations councils, the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The groups complained in two widely circulated letters last year that the council's consensus doesn't represent the views of an increasing number of American Jews on such issues as affirmative action, school vouchers, universal health care and quality affordable housing.

While polling data indicates that Jews remain solidly Democratic, "there does seem to be a shift among Jews on economic issues," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist who tracks voting trends. "There's somewhat less interest in an expanded government sector, somewhat greater sympathy for tax cuts, some interest in decentralized government, returning power to states and localities. There does seem to be a greater degree of dissent."

Some observers say the shift has less to do with a move to the right than a tendency for the Jewish community to turn inward, concentrating on its community schools and health and social service agencies rather than focusing on social justice issues.

Conflict could arise next week over support for living-wage laws that would require state and local governments to pay substantially more than the minimum wage. Opposition to the living-wage proposal is being led by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, which fears that Jewish agencies receiving government funds would be held to the same standard, creating an economic burden for some. Abe Pollin, majority owner of the Washington Wizards National Basketball Association team, has placed ads in Washington Jewish Week supporting the living wage.

Rubin, who will announce his resignation this weekend from the post he had held since 1988, said such differences of opinion are natural, considering the breadth of the Jewish community.

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, a JCPA member, agrees. "If the JCPA is nothing more than a reflection of its constituent agencies, if those constituent agencies express a position that is then seen as too liberal, that's JCPA reflecting the consensus of the various organizations that make it up," Abramson said.

In addition to the debate on resolutions, the JCPA will hear from a number of prominent speakers: Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, will address the group tomorrow.

The JCPA will release the results of its study on "Building One Nation: Race, Ethnicity and Public Policy," which will re-affirm its support for affirmative action, a topic that could lead to another contentious discussion. In conjunction with the study's release, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume will speak Monday morning.

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