As outsiders in so many of the countries in which they have lived, Jews have always had to create machinery for dealing with the broader society. Since early in the 20th century this activity has taken the form of Jewish “defense,” or what has come in the United States to be called community relations—relations, that is, between the Jewish and other communities in the land. The agencies specializing in this area, beginning with the formation of the American Jewish Committee in 1906 and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1913, now number 11 nationally, with 108 local councils engaged in community-relations work in various cities around the country.
The forces that have led to the improvement of the position of Jews in American life lie deep within the culture itself, but over the years the community-relations agencies have had a significant role to play in the process. When the American Jewish Committee and then the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Congress were first formed, Protestantism or at least Christianity was the semi-official religion of the land, and anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews were widespread. The agencies set about to challenge the barriers Jews faced and to improve their image among their fellow citizens. Summarizing these activities in the 50th Anniversary Book of the ADL, the political scientist John P. Roche declared that the agencies had helped to develop “an ideology of civil liberty . . . [that] put a compelling burden upon the finest elements in the old society and upon the American conscience.
The Jewish agencies have frequently gained the support of the U.S. government on behalf of Jews suffering persecution abroad. In recent years they were a major force behind the passage of the Jackson-Vanik bill linking trade and credit concessions to the Soviet Union with that country’s policy on permitting Jews to emigrate, and they have helped formulate legislation to counter the Arab boycott. They play a large part in efforts by Jews to build public support for American economic, military, and political assistance to Israel. Their presence is felt on the domestic scene when it comes to issues of civil liberties, race relations, or social reform generally.
The Jewish agencies are the wonder and envy of other groups. Only blacks, with organizations like the NAACP and Urban League, have comparable structures to promote their cause. The Sons of Italy is just getting around to developing a professional program—modeled after that of the Jewish agencies. With considerably larger numbers and, presumably, greater political clout, the Roman Catholic Church has been unable to gain support for key items on its theological and social agenda, including government aid for parochial schools and approval of its view that abortion should be illegal.
One reason for the success of the Jewish agencies, at least until recently, has been that they have identified Jewish causes with the American sense of fair play and, perhaps most importantly, that they have operated within or anticipated the broader social and political consensus in the country. Thus, early in the century a small group of upper-class Jewish leaders, mainly of German background, worked closely with members of the Wasp patriciate on a variety of programs of social reform and racial improvement widely seen as necessary at that time. Julius Rosenwald became the single most important patron of Southern black education; Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee, filed at the behest of Catholic leadership an amicus brief before the Supreme Court challenging an Oregon law requiring all children to attend public schools; Joel Spingarn long served as board chairman of the early NAACP. Although their activities may have been somewhat “advanced” politically, all these men worked essentially within what Gunnar Myrdal would later identify as the “American Creed.”
To be sure, this activity was not without its internal complications and paradoxes. As Hasia R. Desia has recently observed, in promoting racial and civic equality some of the Jewish community leaders were at the same time working out “certain tensions of acculturation.”1 Fearful of appearing too “pushy” if they denounced anti-Semitism openly, many displaced their sense of being outsiders through a concern for the position of blacks. Then, too, notwithstanding their support for liberal reform and human rights, not a few were political conservatives. Marshall, for example, feared the growing power of the state over the individual and opposed federal legislation which would regulate child labor, suppress lynching, and provide a minimum wage. Moreover, most did not care for Jewish nationalism, and were wary that Zionism would raise the issue of “dual loyalty.” Nevertheless, their efforts to improve race relations in the United States were based on a premise shared by many in American society as well as by Jews of all classes and backgrounds—namely, that an attack on one group was a threat to all.
By the late 30’s and 40’s, amid the sufferings and strains of the Great Depression, and with the threat of Hitler in Europe, the older generation of leaders was passing from the scene, and a second phase in the history of Jewish defense activities began. A group of full-time professionals now took charge of the agencies. They were lawyers, social workers, and social psychologists—men like John Slawson at the American Jewish Committee, Benjamin Epstein and Arnold Forster of the ADL, and Alexander Pekelis, Will Maslow, and Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress. Unlike their predecessors, they were products of the Eastern European immigration who had grown up between the wars and experienced poverty and discrimination at first-hand. They were more egalitarian in their orientation, and anxious to collaborate with wider elements of the Jewish community. “One cannot do things for the Jewish people; one must do it with the Jewish people,” John Slawson declared at the Committee’s 1944 annual meeting, in what was a far cry from the approach of the pre-World War I era, which had essentially been one of stewardship. But the main thrust of the new Jewish professionals and those they trained and brought into the field was not inward but outward, toward the realization of an ideal of American society in which prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance would have no place. This thrust became (in the words of Stephen Isaacs) “an almost religio-cultural obsession.”
The agencies now launched an all-out assault on discrimination. Employing a group of refugee social psychologists from Nazi Germany, the American Jewish Committee sponsored a renowned series, Studies in Prejudice. The lead volume, The Authoritarian Personality, published at the height of the McCarthy era, argued that anti-Semitism was part and symptom of a generally abnormal psychological pattern in both the individual and society, while liberal tolerance was not only morally right but psychologically healthy. The Committee hired a young black psychologist named Kenneth B. Clark to prepare a paper on the impact of segregation for the White House Conference on Children in 1950. Based in part on the Studies series, the paper, which contended that racial segregation inflicted psychological damage on black children, was subsequently cited by the Supreme Court in its famous footnote 11 in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision outlawing segregation in the public schools. At this time too the ADL mounted countrywide educational campaigns utilizing films, film-strips, radio and television announcements, jingles, and other materials emphasizing the essential oneness of the human family, while the American Jewish Congress, dissatisfied with such “brotherhood sloganeering,” concentrated on litigation that would harness the force of government to counter religious and racial discrimination.
In the 40’s and 50’s the national Jewish agencies and local community-relations councils (CRC’s) wrote, and, along with church, labor, and black allies, pushed through city councils and state legislatures various fair-employment, fair-educational-practices, and fair-housing laws. By the early 60’s, when the action shifted to the national level and the fight was increasingly taken over by blacks, 20 states and 40 cities, covering 60 percent of the population, had some kind of fair-employment law, while 17 states and cities had banned discrimination in the rental and sale of housing. Now the Jewish agencies broadened their efforts to support federal programs to alleviate the plight of the poor and disadvantaged. As they had been an integral part of the New Deal and Fair Deal coalitions, so they were an integral part of the Great Society coalitions of the 1960’s.
Throughout this same span of time, with the American Jewish Congress in the lead, the agencies also set about, through a series of court tests, to seek removal of religious practices from the public schools and other areas of public life. When, following World War II, the Catholic Church began to press for various forms of government financing of private and parochial schools, the Jewish agencies, along with civil-liberties groups and private individuals, challenged this as a violation of the First Amendment. By the late 40’s, a new body of law took shape on church-state relations, reflecting a stricter reading. In Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), the Supreme Court asserted the doctrine of thorough separation. “In the words of Jefferson,” the Court ruled, “the clause against the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation’ between Church and State.” This definition was reiterated the following year in a released-time case and made even firmer four years later. The stage was now set for a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 60’s and 70’s removing Bible reading and prayer from the schools and virtually every form of government financing of private and parochial education.
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the 40’s and 50’s represented the “Jewish phase” of the civil-rights revolution. According to James Q. Wilson in Negro Politics (1960), blacks and black organizations usually played a minor role in these early battles; indeed, there were already signs that black leaders were becoming irritated by the prominence of Jewish groups in the field. Although the economic position of Jews themselves had improved significantly, and direct discrimination against them had declined, the agencies continued to press vigorously for the expansion of civil rights as part of their generalized concern for social justice, a concern which they identified both with the Jewish interest and with Jewish tradition. Similarly with the issue of church and state. The American Jewish Congress and its gifted counsel, Leo Pfeffer, developed the intellectual rationale and had some role in over a third of the leading church-state cases, while acting as adviser in many other cases.2
From the point of view of the agencies themselves, this second phase—roughly from the end of World War II to the mid-60’s—was a kind of “golden age.” The agencies entered into their various battles convinced they were working for a safer and more humane society for Jews and all Americans. And in many of their battles they proved successful.
In retrospect, of course, it may be seen that their idealism was heavily molded by their ideology. The new class of professionals, to be plain about it, shared a liberal-Left perspective. In a 1945 essay entitled “Full Equality in a Free Society,” Alexander Pekelis went so far as to write: “American Jews will find more reasons for taking an affirmative attitude toward being Jews as members of an organized movement, if they are part and parcel of a great American and human force working for a better world . . . whether or not the individual issues involved touch directly upon so-called Jewish interests. The tradition and fate of [Jews] are indissolubly bound to those of the forces of liberalism.” For many of these men the Great Depression had demonstrated the need to curb the excesses of an unbridled capitalism and hence the need for a broadened government role in providing supports and services, especially for those at the bottom of the social scale. In helping to create the American version of the welfare state, the new professionals were in part reflecting their suspicions of the private-enterprise system as a means of distributing the rewards of society.
But the equalitarian ideal that powered so much of their zeal also carried them too far. Thus, their desire to rectify the abuses of the economic system led them at times to deprecate its virtues as well. Or again, in attacking the institutional patterns of segregation in public schools and elsewhere in the society, they went beyond arguing that these arrangements violated the Fourteenth Amendment requiring equal treatment before the law; they rested their case on “psychological” and “sociological” findings which were of dubious relevance to the constitutional issues at hand but which proved politically entangling, for they led inexorably to efforts to achieve racial balance even where, as in the North, legal discrimination for the most part no longer existed.
In striving for the separation of church and state, the agencies earnestly believed they were preventing harassment and providing safeguards for Jews, religious dissenters, and nonbelievers. Their activities, however, reflected a secular bias that was at best indifferent, when it was not actively hostile, to religion itself. They chose not to see that the “church” they sought to disestablish was not just a sect but embraced a collection of beliefs and values deeply embedded in the society, values which while causing uneasiness in religious outsiders, provided an order and coherence that had made it possible for Jews (and others) not only to live comfortably but indeed to prosper.3
The social and political philosophy of the new professionals was subjected to little challenge during the second phase, but it began to encounter special difficulties in the changed circumstances in which America and the American Jewish community found themselves in the late 60’s and 70’s. By this time, an economy which had expanded greatly following World War II, thus helping to fuel the battle against discrimination and disadvantage, was beginning to slow down. The problem was compounded by the age and the dwindling competitiveness of major industries, and by the great rise in oil prices following the Arab boycott of 1973 which contributed sharply to the growth of inflation. The worsening of the economy spurred widespread resentments over the high cost of living, mounting taxes, the existence of a seemingly permanent and even expanding welfare class, and the burden of a vast government bureaucracy necessary to maintain it.
In addition to all this, Americans were becoming worried, too, about the moral climate of the times: the growth in violent crime, the deterioration in sexual standards, the denigration of the values associated with family life. Finally, there was a perceived weakening of the country’s position in world affairs, and impotence in the face of Soviet and other forms of aggression.
Jews shared in much of this new anxiety, and on top of it they were worried about mounting threats to Israel’s security as a result of the rise of Arab oil power and a change in the climate of liberal opinion toward the Jewish state. At home they had witnessed the transformation of the civil-rights revolution into a race revolution, in which black militants, along with a number of their liberal allies, had begun to press for quota systems in hiring and education, and had come to identify with a Third World ideology which was sometimes explicitly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. Without being quite aware of it, the organized Jewish community had entered yet a new phase of its development.
How have the agencies responded to the changed circumstances in which they find themselves? The best way to determine this is to examine the recent Joint Program Plans of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), the umbrella organization through which the national Jewish agencies and local CRC’s join together for consultation and planning. This document, which is reviewed annually, appraises “the changes that occurred during the year . . . [and] projects into the year ahead the programmatic accommodations that these changes suggest.”
The 1981-82 Plan is, indeed, impressive in the range of its concerns and projected activities. Opening with a major section on Israel, it proceeds to cover energy policy, the United States at the UN, Soviet Jewry, Jews in other lands, the Holocaust, issues of social and economic justice, Jewish security and individual freedom, church-state and Jewish-Christian relationships. The previous year’s Plan included as well domestic and family issues and an extensive discussion of the position of the Jewish agencies on affirmative action.
The fact that 11 out of 51 pages in the new Plan are given over to various aspects of the Middle East crisis reflects the centrality that Israel has come to play in the lives of American Jews. (In the 50’s, the Plan barely mentioned the Jewish state.) Similarly prominent in recent years has been the whole complex of issues stemming from Soviet policy toward the two to three million Jews in that country. More recently still, the deleterious effects of Arab oil power on American foreign policy and on American Jews have been reflected in the encouragement the Plan gives to efforts to gain U.S. energy independence, Indeed, on the whole matter of threats to Jews abroad, and on the implications of international anti-Semitism, the organized Jewish community has moved relatively quickly and efficiently.
It is when the Plan turns to domestic and social issues that problems arise. Since the late 60’s, for example, there has been a serious heightening of black-Jewish tensions. In the aftermath of the Andrew Young affair in 1979, a section was added to the 1980-81 Plan on “Anti-Semitism in the Black Community.” Noting that rising indices of black anti-Semitism had “created concern and anxiety among Jews,” the Plan went on to examine the causes of the deterioration of the old alliance, including the shift of the black struggle from the South to the North and “a growing sense of kinship among some blacks with people of the ‘Third World.’” Yet in an attempt, perhaps, to display even-handedness or to demonstrate continued Jewish identification with the plight of the poor, the Plan went on to place a major share of the responsibility for recent tensions on the shoulders of the Jews themselves. It noted the “progressive distancing of the steadily more secure (economically) and accepted (socially) Jewish community from problems of still relatively insecure and disadvantaged minorities,” and urged “intensive interpretation within the Jewish community to overcome anti-black animus among Jews” (emphasis added). Calling on Jewish organizations to seek to restore ties with blacks, the Plan made no sharp demand that black leaders deal with the growth of anti-Semitism among better-educated and middle-class blacks, or that those leaders making provocative statements cease doing so.
Much the same hesitation to confront inimical positions of friends and allies for fear of alienating them or being criticized as illiberal can be seen in the response of the 1980-81 Plan to affirmative action. A number of Jewish agencies had filed briefs before the Supreme Court opposing racial quotas in the Bakke case. When their stand evoked a sharp response from black organizations and others, these agencies backed off (the Anti-Defamation League was an exception). The Plan was thus able to report “no consensus . . . in the Jewish community” in Fullilove and Weber, two cases subsequent to Bakke in which racial quotas were undeniably and explicitly at issue. In reality, there has been extremely strong opposition to affirmative-action practices among rank-and-file Jews (who nevertheless continue to support efforts to broaden the involvement of minorities in all phases of American life). As Morris B. Abram, the veteran civil-rights leader and former president of the American Jewish Committee, put it recently, “The emphasis during the past decade on preferential treatment based on racial distinctions . . . has corroded the liberal body politic.” The Jewish agencies, however, have hesitated to throw their full support behind the principle of merit that is so important to Jews, to Americans in general, and to minorities themselves. When, as in Fullilove and Weber, that principle has been openly challenged, the agencies have remained silent.
In the broader area of social and economic policy the agencies have not been unaware of the growing tide of sentiment signaled by the Proposition 13 movement and the election of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, the agencies have attempted to respond to some of these concerns in their successive Plans. The section on Social and Economic Justice in the 1980-81 Plan urged “study [of] means of easing the burden of inflation and rising taxes on the middle class. . . .” In the next breath, however, the statement went on to declare that the purpose of such relief was “to diminish their hostility toward government programs for the disadvantaged.” One would think that easing the burdens of the middle class, in whose ranks most Jews fall, and which provides the cement that holds society together, would be considered a worthy end in itself. This is, after all, the group that sustained the largest increases in taxation between 1953 and 1977, according to a recent analysis by Seymour Martin Lipset and Everett Carll Ladd, and even in a practical sense it is questionable whether a middle class driven to the wall by high taxes and inflation would be capable of doing much for the poor. But in the thinking of the Plan the middle class seems to be an entity whose defining quality is its alleged “hostility” to government-sponsored efforts to aid the disadvantaged—which is neither true nor politically useful.
Having bowed, at least formally, to the resentments felt by so many Americans, the Plans serve up a rehash of the old and now largely discredited liberal agenda. The 1980-81 Plan called for “a national health insurance program,” increased federal aid to public education, and “accelerated desegregation of public schools” even though most large cities have been rapidly running out of whites with whom minorities can desegregate. “We again recommend,” it stated in response to the outgoing Carter-administration budget, “that Jewish community-relations agencies convey to the President, to the Congress, and to state and local officials and legislators their opposition to cuts in necessary services and programs; and that they join with like-minded groups in vigorous advocacy of these programs.” And the 1981-82 Plan extols the virtues of a wide range of welfare programs including aid to families with dependent children, food stamps, school lunches, CETA, Medicaid, housing and community development, and legal services to the poor. What neither Plan acknowledges is that many of these programs, however well-intended, or even necessary in some form as a temporary means of protecting the needy, offer no permanent solution to an underclass that has grown over the years and has become more difficult to sustain given the country’s declining level of productivity. The only concession the 1981-82 Plan makes to the realities of the 80’s is to call for “continuing close scrutiny of government spending with a view to eliminating inefficiency in administration, waste, needless programs, fraud, and other excesses”—within the context of the Plan, just pious platitudes.
One need not repudiate the whole of what Senator Daniel P. Moynihan has called “a tradition of intelligent involvement of American government in the problems of American society” to acknowledge that the American welfare state has gotten out of hand. Nor need one be a partisan of the economic philosophy of the Reagan administration (as the conservative columnist George Will has observed, there has developed in the Reagan initiatives a “tone of dogmatic disparagement of government . . that suggests that all cuts are morally easy because government cannot do anything right”). But the Plans show no disposition to dismantle any aspect of the welfare state. Quite the contrary. Their ideological bias systematically favors governmental over private-sector solutions, and systematically discounts what people can do to solve their problems by dint of their own struggle. As a first priority for full employment, the 1980-81 Plan projected the need for “a larger number of public-service jobs.” The section on energy in the 1981-82 Plan recognizes the wide range of efforts necessary for the nation to achieve energy independence but criticizes the Reagan administration for looking to “market forces” to “provide adequate incentive for alternative energy source development.”
It is ironic that agencies representing the Jewish community, worried as they are about the break-up of their old coalition with the poor and with blacks, should cling to the formulas of the past just when a significant group of black leaders and intellectuals, as well as broader segments of the black community, have begun to question them. “Very often, legislation intended to help the disadvantaged,” Thomas Sowell has written, “in fact pays people to stay disadvantaged and penalizes them to the extent that they make an effort to rise from disadvantage.” William Julius Wilson, in his widely discussed book, The Declining Significance of Race, has called upon blacks to look up from their preoccupation with racial strategies and recognize that much of the current problem of the black underclass is “connected with the structure and functioning of the modern American economy.” Leon Sullivan, founder of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, has urged a “new pragmatism” in the Reagan era. “We’re going to have to rely more on self-help and the private sector,” he has declared. The Plans devote a number of pages to spelling out support for affirmative-action programs; Wilson argues that they have mostly helped educated blacks and “are not really designed to address the unique problems of poor blacks.”4 And where the new Plan calls for “accelerated desegregation of public schools,” black parents in Boston, Detroit, Atlanta, and, most recently, Dallas have turned their backs on school-busing programs and have sought to improve the quality of education in their local schools.
The fact is that 83 percent of blacks work for a living, 77 percent are not on welfare, and 62 percent do not live in poverty. This suggests that most stand to gain more from policies that lead to economic expansion than from special governmental welfare programs. When this is understood, it helps to explain why an astonishing 44 percent of black Californians thought enough of Proposition 13 to give it their vote. Last June, Data Black Public Opinion Polls, a national polling and research organization, reported that 37 percent of its respondents favored a lower minimum wage as a way of reducing teen-age unemployment (36 percent said that such a wage would adversely affect employment, and 28 percent were not sure). As dissatisfaction with existing policies and programs has grown, there are those, like the political scientist Martin Kilson, who feel black leaders have been locked too tightly into the political formulas of the past. “. . . The Left/liberal axis no longer has—if it ever did have—a monopoly on effective policy for black needs,” Kilson declared at the Black Alternatives Conference in San Francisco last December. The same point could be made to the Jewish agencies, which continue to remain transfixed by welfare-state policies.
Indeed, as traditional liberalism has run out of gas, several “conservative” sources have brought forward a number of new initiatives aimed at helping the poor. The concept of “free-enterprise zones,” imported from England, has been introduced in Congress by Representatives Robert Garcia (D., N.Y.) and Jack Kemp (R., N.Y.), after extensive discussions with the black caucus. The legislation seeks to reduce taxes and government regulations in declared poverty zones as an incentive for businesses which must hire a proportion of the unemployed living in the area. Through its “mediating structures” project, the American Enterprise Institute has been studying how to strengthen voluntary, ethnic, and church groups that stand between the individual and large impersonal institutions like government, corporations, and unions. Neither “conservative” nor “liberal,” these studies, working from a model created by Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, offer no instant solutions to the modern dilemma of the welfare state and may even be flawed as so many of the older panaceas have been. What is significant is that others are doing what the Jewish agencies should be doing—reaching out beyond the formulas of another era in search of policies and programs that fit our current needs.
In all fairness, the Joint Program Plan is genuinely concerned that the poor and disabled will be cut adrift by the Reagan budget cuts. And, from a purely self-interested point of view, it voices accurately the fears of many Jewish social-service agencies and professionals that the Reagan economies will eliminate or sharply curtail programs for the Jewish disadvantaged and elderly which they have come to count upon. This concern, however, fails to take account of the changes which welfare-state policies have wrought in the character and function of many of the Jewish social-service agencies themselves. As federal largesse became available during the Great Society, these agencies expanded. A number took on additional functions, including training minority workers and youth. As Lloyd Setleis, dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work of Yeshiva University, has noted:
In the 60’s, and until recently, the relationship to government became entangled and entwined with grants, contracts for the purchase of services, varied projects, and research. These involvements included conditions, requirements, and observance of legal restraints, such as those stipulated in affirmative-action laws which limited and defused the Jewish interest, often leaving only the name of the agency intact. Even this became an issue as some agencies were given the ultimatum to eliminate symbols and any designation suggesting a Jewish identification. . . . The final irony, if not the low blow: federal programs do not acknowledge the Jew as a recognized minority.5
Setleis sees the Reagan budget cuts as forcing Jewish social-service agencies to return to their basic and proper functions. Sanford Solender, former head of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, has made a related point. He noted last May that although the earnings of prospective Jewish donors have soared, the rise in levels of philanthropy has been “unimpressive,” a circumstance he traced to the excessive reliance of agencies on government grants.
A more serious consequence of clinging to older strategies—more serious from the point of view of vital Jewish interests—is the failure of the Jewish agencies to take a forthright stand on issues of national defense. In a sense, this would appear anomalous, since America’s military posture in the world has a close connection with the safety and security of Israel. Indeed, in January 1981, as the Reagan administration took office, the NJCRAC debated this topic and prepared a compromise draft statement which recommended “establishment of U.S. military facilities” in the Middle East and urged Jewish agencies to “support . . . defense programs” to achieve this goal. The backing given, however, was qualified. The statement avoided any specific endorsement for the defense budget necessary to carry out its recommendation. In a classic “guns or butter” debate, this was the requirement demanded by the “butter” side. As the summary of the session explained, it was feared that “an increased defense budget can adversely affect our relationship with other constituencies with whom we work on domestic issues.”
Some of the other difficulties faced by the Jewish agencies in adjusting to new social and political realities can be seen in sections of the Joint Program Plan dealing with Jewish-Christian relations and the New Right. The 1980-81 Plan expressed concern, properly, about anti-Semitic statements made by Protestant evangelical clergymen, about efforts to restore prayer and Bible reading to the public schools, and about the targeting of political candidates who wander even slightly from a fundamentalist definition of political morality. The seriousness with which the agencies view this threat is indicated by the placement of the discussion in the section entitled “Jewish Security and Individual Freedom,” immediately after “Organized and Political Anti-Semitism.”
The growth of the Christian Right does, indeed, pose serious and disturbing questions for Jews and other Americans, but the discussion in the Plan is framed in the narrowest of contexts—civil liberties. Ignored here is the broad confluence between the Christian Right and a feeling that exists among large segments of the American people—a feeling of rebellion against what Daniel J. Elazar has called “the new paganism” which has been the dominant moral and cultural ethos in this country for almost a generation. “What gives the Moral Majority and other religious groups their clout,” Burton Yale Pines pointed out in the April/May issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, “is that on many key issues the morality they proclaim is the morality of the majority.”
There is no evidence, at least as yet, that the tactics employed by the Christian Right have won the support of most Americans. But what about the issues with which it is concerned? The Joint Program Plans have been virtually silent on such matters as crime, pornography, violence and gratuitous sex on television, the drug culture, rampant abortion, family dislocation, and other forms of behavior that have outraged many Americans, including many Jews. When confronted with some of these issues, the agencies have tended to come down hard on the side of individual freedom and “choice.” Thus the 1981-82 Plan urges the agencies “to make known publicly and to members of Congress . . . their opposition to restrictions [to] unreasonable restraints on the freedom of pregnant women to make personal choices as to abortion.” No distinctions are drawn between abortion when a threat to the life of the mother, rape, or incest is involved and abortion simply as a form of contraception. There is no understanding here of the moral complexities of this issue, no concern for societal norms and standards at a time when an estimated 1.5 million abortions take place each year, or when in New York City, for example, the number of abortions recently exceeded the number of live births.
Closely related is the rigidity of the agencies in dealing with First Amendment questions on the separation of church and state. The removal of religious symbols and expressions from the public schools and other public arenas continues to remain a high priority—“as matters demanding sustained attention.” An entire section of the 1980-81 Plan, “Religious Freedom and Church-State Separation,” was devoted to this subject and catalogued violations currently taking place. In addition to opposing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools—a position the Supreme Court subsequently agreed with—the 1980-81 Plan recommended that agencies file a brief in a case in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, attacking the singing of sectarian musical selections in the public schools during Christmas. The 1981-82 Plan urges continued opposition to legislation allowing or requiring prayer or “silent meditation” in public schools, as well as opposing tax-credit and voucher plans to assist families who send their children to private and parochial schools.
Such opposition is consistent with the secular tilt or ideology of the Jewish agencies over the years, now reaffirmed in the face of counter-activities by the Christian Right. The fear, of course, is that even small transgressions against the principle of separation of church and state may lead to greater and more substantive violations. But one may question whether “silent meditation,” the singing of Adeste Fideles during the Christmas season, and the posting of the Ten Commandments on the walls of the Sioux Falls, or for that matter the New York City, public schools are the critical problems the Plans make them out to be. May not the breakdown of the orderly norms of our society constitute, in fact, a far more serious threat to the Jewish community? To be sure, displaying the Ten Commandments on a schoolhouse wall would not in itself strike a major blow against the “new paganism,” but an argument can be made that removing the institutional and religious supports and symbols of decency may contribute to the decline of morality itself. “It is a mistake to assume that rejecting the lunacy of the far Right means we must deny the value to society of a religious sensibility,” Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the New Republic. The connection between social pathology and the decline of that “religious sensibility” has been commented upon by such diverse figures as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Just as Jews have fought hard and long for social reform, so it has become urgent that they find ways to encourage those forces that contribute to social stability. The Jewish agencies have failed to recognize this area as a primary focus of attention, for Jews and others, in the 80’s.
The strong position the agencies take on separation also collides in some measure with their equally deep concern for America’s disadvantaged when it comes to the matter of tuition tax credits and vouchers for parents who send their children to private and parochial schools. The Jewish agencies are strongly opposed to such programs despite the fact that in recent years large numbers of minority-group parents, dissatisfied with the poor education their children are receiving in inner-city public schools, have been sending them in greater numbers to parochial schools. (A recent survey of 64 inner-city parochial schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, Newark, and elsewhere shows 70 percent of the student body coming from minority groups.) In a recent study of high-school sophomores and seniors, James S. Coleman has reported that students learn more in private and parochial than in public schools. He has argued that “tax credits or vouchers would differentially benefit poor and minority students” because they have the effect of making a “luxury item” more generally available.
In line with this view, Senators Daniel P. Moynihan (D., N.Y.) and Robert Packwood (R., Ore.) have introduced tuition-tax-credit legislation in Congress to provide some financial relief for parents who send their children to such schools. Opponents of the legislation, mainly public-education groups and teachers’ unions, along with the Jewish agencies, fear that these credits will endanger the public schools, which are already financially hard-pressed and which, unlike private schools, must take all who come. The arguments developed by the two sides are serious and commanding, and cannot be decided, or even fully rehearsed, here. The point is that the Jewish agencies have refused to face the broader issues and dilemmas involved—the poor record, in the main, of inner-city schools in educating minority-group children, the desperate desire of poor and lower-middle-class parents to raise the quality of education of their children, the role of private and parochial schools as intermediate institutions, in the Berger-Neuhaus sense, and as anchors holding the last body of whites in the cities. In its automatic way, the 1981-82 Plan simply repeats its opposition “to tax credits, voucher plans, and similar proposals.”
The various social crises of the 80’s pose a serious challenge to the organized Jewish community. Large numbers of Americans have come to question liberal ideology and programs in favor of a moderate conservatism—moderate in temper, moderate in contrast to what is offered by the New Right and the Christian Right, and moderate in contrast to much of the recent rhetoric of the Left. If our current political leadership is unable to bring about a decline in inflation, to revive the economy, and to restore a level of decency in social behavior, one shudders to think of what may follow.
The Jewish agencies can take pride in having helped to shape the American conscience on issues of civil liberties and civil rights over the years. What they have not done is to confront some of the implications and consequences of their activities, their policies, and their ideas, let alone to ponder what will be required of them in the years ahead.
1 In the Almost Promised Land, Greenwood Press (1977).
2 Frank Sorauf, The Wall of Separation, Princeton (1976).
3 See Terry Eastland, “In Defense of Religious America,” COMMENTARY, June 1981.
4 “The Black Community in the 1980's: Questions of Race, Class, and Public Policy,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 1981.
5 “A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Jewish Character of the Jewish Agency,” presented before the Mini-Conference of the Jewish Orientation and Training Seminar, New York City, March 4, 1981.