Obama budget a huge problem for Jewish social justice groups, but will they fight?
02/15/2011 - 08:47
James Besser

A Jewish community that relies on federal, state and local government programs to help fund a wide range of health and social services is about to feel the repercussions of a budget fight in Washington that will almost certainly result in severe cuts; the only question is, how severe.

Yesterday President Obama presented his $3.7 trillion budget outline that includes substantial cuts in a number of programs long favored by Democrats. Education and health would get more under the Obama plan; anti-poverty programs would get clobbered.

The proposal - with most of the cuts coming from non-military spending, which means its impact on the record-high deficit will be limited – leaves Jewish social justice groups with a big problem.

With a Democratic president trying to recapture the political center by taking a largely Republican approach to the budget and with energized congressional Republicans saying the cuts aren't nearly enough, it will be harder than ever to mobilize Jewish support for what was once pretty much a consensus position – that the federal government has a responsibility to use resources to protect the nation's most vulnerable citizens and to advance the cause of social and economic justice.

In recent years most Jewish groups have retreated from that view, instead focusing on protecting selected programs that serve their own constituents – the OU fighting for tax credits and other incentives to charitable giving and for homeland security funding for religious institutions, the Jewish Federations of North America fighting for specific health and human service spending streams serving their member agencies, B'nai B'rith fighting to maintain senior housing and other services.

Only the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Funds for Justice have retained the broader view that it's important to actively advocate for national policy that puts a priority on social and economic justice – which is why they've been the only ones willing to dip their toes into the treacherous waters of the tax cut debate.

With a Democratic president who has apparently abandoned that view, their efforts have suddenly become a lot more difficult. Will these groups be willing to actively fight a president whose domestic policies they've mostly supported? Will they fear that challenging his GOP-like budget proposal will make it easier for the Republicans to enact even deeper cuts?

The bigger question I have: will the Jewish community care? Is New Deal / Great Society liberalism still a value for the Jewish community, with the big Jewish organizations now mostly out of step?

Or has that focus faded, replaced with the more parochial view that government health and human service programs are critical when they serve our own needs but expendable when the primary beneficiaries are other populations?

Honestly, I just don't know the answer, and there's not enough polling data to support any reasonable conclusions. I do know that President Obama's gamble that he can outflank the GOP on government spending cuts has left the progressives – including many in the Jewish community – with a big problem.

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It might be difficult to continue to support the president, but if you think of the alternative, supporting any republican budget will eliminate EVERYTHING near and dear to Jewish hearts and culture.