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Special Analysis: Reform Jewish Leaders Respond to The State of the Union

January 29, 2003

Last night, President Bush delivered his second State of the Union address, discussing a wide range of issues, including many of special concern to the Reform Jewish Movement. In the comments that follow, some of the Movement's social action leaders offer their reactions to the speech and the President's policy proposals:

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) on Iraq

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), on the Faith-Based Initiative and the President's "compassion" agenda

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Executive Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), on the President's economic plan

Rabbi Marla Feldman, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA), on Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief

Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), on Freedom Fuel initiative

 

Concerning Iraq, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), noted:

    The President laid out a powerful indictment of Saddam Hussein. We share his view that disarming Hussein is necessary to protect not only our national interest, but Iraqi citizens as well. We share the President's deep concern about Iraq's failure to account for weapons of mass destruction. We are pleased that Secretary Powell will be continuing consultations with the United Nations and other allies; we would prefer that this crisis be resolved by peaceful means, and if military action is necessary, we believe that multi-lateral action would be far preferable to unilateral action. Although we urge the President to pursue all diplomatic means with urgency and resolve, we know that the time for such efforts is limited.

On the Faith-Based Initiative and the President's "compassion" agenda, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) noted:

    Last night, the President urged Congress to pass the Faith-Based Initiative much of which he instituted through executive fiat in December. The Faith-Based Initiative is a government endorsement of religion, blatantly violating the First Amendment. It threatens the autonomy of houses of worship, promotes divisive sectarian competition for funding, impinges on the rights of social service beneficiaries, authorizes government funded discrimination, and does little to help those in need. Legislation codifying the Faith-Based Initiative would have a destructive effect on houses of worship, the government, and on the most vulnerable members of society who may have to submit to religious coercion to receive the food, shelter, job training, or drug treatment on which they depend.

    We share the President's concern for those who are addicted to drugs and welcome his call for funding of substance abuse treatment. However, his plan to grant this funding to pervasively sectarian organizations is unconstitutional and unwise. There is little evidence to prove the efficacy of programs that use Bible study and prayer to cure drug addiction. It is unconscionable that the President's plan will divert taxpayer dollars from medical treatment programs to houses of worship. President Bush talked about the "miracle of recovery," describing a former drug addict treated at a church who said, "God does miracles in people's lives." Faith and even miracles, can transform lives, but they cannot always substitute for other effective treatment programs.

    Religious institutions play a vital role in helping to meet the basic needs of Americans. We are ready to work with President Bush and Congress on the wide range of public-religious partnerships that are cooperative, constructive, and constitutional. President Bush's ideal of a more compassionate nation is noble. However, it is time for President Bush to realize that he cannot build a more compassionate nation by urging the government to abdicate its responsibility to provide for those in need, diverting vital funding to houses of worship, coercing social service beneficiaries to engage in religious activity, and tearing down the wall between church and state.

    In addition, we were disappointed, but not surprised, to hear the President include limits on women's reproductive freedom as part of his "compassion" agenda. There is nothing compassionate about the government making decisions on behalf of women about when and whether they choose to have children.

Regarding the President's economic plan, Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Executive Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), noted:

    President Bush asserted that our economy must grow "fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job." Yet the President's economic plan does little to stimulate the economy and could actually harm our ability to meet pressing needs in social security, health care, and homeland security in the future. The President's formula for fixing the U.S. economy is to give tax cuts to the rich and to fund those cuts on the backs of the poor, disadvantaged, and unemployed.

    The centerpiece of the President's plan - his massive tax cuts - would put more money into the hands of the most wealthy Americans. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, 31% of all taxpayers would get nothing from the Bush plan this year, and the median tax reduction is only $289. In contrast, the top 1% of taxpayers, who earn more than $1 million, would receive tax cuts averaging more than $30,000 this year.

    The long term cost of these enormous tax cuts would be particularly devastating on the states, which currently face their worst fiscal crises since World War II. Schools, police and fire departments, health programs, and many other vital services have all been cut. Oregon has laid off state police officers, Kentucky has freed prison inmates, and Nevada has delayed buying needed algebra textbooks for students.

    The tax cut would also strangle important federal programs such as education and housing. In his speech last night, President Bush called for "some spending discipline in Washington, D.C." Spending discipline is well and good, as is trimming the fat - but we are already cutting to the heart of key programs. At the White House's insistence, the House and Senate have passed appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2003 that would cut $101 million from the program that helps poor working families pay for child care, $530 million from job training programs for dislocated workers and other adults, and $63 million from Head Start.

    It is irresponsible, short-sighted, and an abdication of federal responsibility to slash vital programs that strengthen our economy and our communities while proposing a tax cut that would deprive the federal government of $674 billion that could be spent on strengthening social security, providing health care to uninsured Americans, or putting 200,000 more community police officers on our streets. President Bush rightly highlighted the health care crisis that America is facing today. However, the President rejected universal health care as a source of health care for all Americans, and he did so without providing a viable alternative, which translates into "pouring salt on the wounds" on a countless number of Americans. By speaking about health care as the pressing issue that it is, but ruling out any steps toward true universal coverage, President Bush offered nothing to the tens of millions of Americans without health insurance.


Pertaining to the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Rabbi Marla Feldman, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA), noted:

    We applaud President Bush's proposal to commit $15 billion to an emergency relief fund in Africa. The global AIDS crisis is, indeed, one of the most urgent public health emergencies humanity has ever seen. There are 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS across the globe, 95 percent of whom have no access to the high-cost medications that have made HIV a manageable illness for many in wealthier countries like the United States. Worldwide, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 18 million people, almost 15 million of them in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, and that number is expected to double over the next decade. As the President rightly declared, this pandemic is a humanitarian crisis, and "seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many."

    In the face of this human catastrophe, we must all be guided by the commandment of Leviticus 19: Lo Ta'a-mod al Dam Re'echa, You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Moreover, we reaffirm the commandments of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), pikuach nefesh (saving of lives), gemilut chasidim (deeds of loving-kindness), and tzedakah (economic justice) - these values and commandments, which have been guiding us since Sinai, come together on the issue of Global AIDS and form a confluence of obligation. Even as we await the details of the President's proposal, we applaud his affirmation of this obligation in last night's address.

    Of course, this long-overdue commitment now requires immediate action. We urge Congress to follow the President's lead by making this issue an immediate budgetary priority. Aid to the nations in greatest need must not be held hostage to a political agenda that usurps the rights of foreign governments to set their own legal standards, as has been the case with aid for family planning. There is much more our government leadership can do to help developing countries deal with this heath care crisis beyond providing aid. Our government leaders should work with drug manufacturers and the World Trade Organization to provide life-saving medications at low cost to the affected nations. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should be encouraged to cancel the debt that is crippling the world's most impoverished nations so as to allow these nations to direct sufficient funds to provide preventative measures, care, and treatment in the battle against the global AIDS pandemic. In doing so, we will replace the neglect and inequity that previously prevailed on this issue with compassion and mercy.


Regarding the Freedom Fuel initiative, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) noted:

    The President's comments regarding the importance of "dramatically improving the environment" are a welcome recognition that we ignore our land, air and water at our own peril. The proposed $1.2 billion to fund research for fuel cell powered cars is a step in the right direction, but an incomplete response to this crisis. The future development of fuel cell technology will be a valuable tool in enhancing U.S. energy conservation. Yet the President must take action that affects the present, not just the future. America cannot, and does not need, to wait for future advances in order to improve the fuel efficiency of our automobiles. The technologies exist today that can significantly increase the distance our cars can go on a gallon of gas.

    Automobile emissions are the largest single source of global warming, and the second largest source of air pollution in the United States. Global warming has already caused changes in precipitation patterns, warming in oceans, and Arctic ice thinning. The scientific consensus is that, if not reversed, these global changes will endanger coastal areas, disrupt agriculture, increase drought and desertification, lead to spreading diseases and the proliferation of chronic illnesses.

    The U.S. imports 56% of the oil that it uses every year. According to 1999 estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States contains only 2.8% of total proven world oil reserves. At the same time, the United States uses 18.5 million barrels of oil daily, which is more than any other single country, and many whole continents, in the world. The war on terrorism and the conflict in Israel are inextricably intertwined with our dependence on oil from the Middle East. Almost one quarter of the oil we import comes from the Persian Gulf, and from regimes that have historically been autocratic, corrupt, or violent and have been engaged in conflict with Israel that continues to this day. Dependence on foreign oil imposes unnecessary limitations on our pursuit of peace and stability. The only way to successfully decrease our dependency on foreign oil is to decrease our consumption. And that begins in our cars.

    America deserves an energy plan that protects our children's health and dramatically reduces our dependence on foreign oil. We encourage the President to live up to his words from last night, and "promote energy independence for our country, while dramatically improving the environment."

January 29, 2003

Last night, President Bush delivered his second State of the Union address, discussing a wide range of issues, including many of special concern to the Reform Jewish Movement. In the comments that follow, some of the Movement's social action leaders offer their reactions to the speech and the President's policy proposals:

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) on Iraq

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), on the Faith-Based Initiative and the President's "compassion" agenda

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Executive Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), on the President's economic plan

Rabbi Marla Feldman, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA), on Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief

Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), on Freedom Fuel initiative

 

Concerning Iraq, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), noted:

    The President laid out a powerful indictment of Saddam Hussein. We share his view that disarming Hussein is necessary to protect not only our national interest, but Iraqi citizens as well. We share the President's deep concern about Iraq's failure to account for weapons of mass destruction. We are pleased that Secretary Powell will be continuing consultations with the United Nations and other allies; we would prefer that this crisis be resolved by peaceful means, and if military action is necessary, we believe that multi-lateral action would be far preferable to unilateral action. Although we urge the President to pursue all diplomatic means with urgency and resolve, we know that the time for such efforts is limited.

On the Faith-Based Initiative and the President's "compassion" agenda, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) noted:

    Last night, the President urged Congress to pass the Faith-Based Initiative much of which he instituted through executive fiat in December. The Faith-Based Initiative is a government endorsement of religion, blatantly violating the First Amendment. It threatens the autonomy of houses of worship, promotes divisive sectarian competition for funding, impinges on the rights of social service beneficiaries, authorizes government funded discrimination, and does little to help those in need. Legislation codifying the Faith-Based Initiative would have a destructive effect on houses of worship, the government, and on the most vulnerable members of society who may have to submit to religious coercion to receive the food, shelter, job training, or drug treatment on which they depend.

    We share the President's concern for those who are addicted to drugs and welcome his call for funding of substance abuse treatment. However, his plan to grant this funding to pervasively sectarian organizations is unconstitutional and unwise. There is little evidence to prove the efficacy of programs that use Bible study and prayer to cure drug addiction. It is unconscionable that the President's plan will divert taxpayer dollars from medical treatment programs to houses of worship. President Bush talked about the "miracle of recovery," describing a former drug addict treated at a church who said, "God does miracles in people's lives." Faith and even miracles, can transform lives, but they cannot always substitute for other effective treatment programs.

    Religious institutions play a vital role in helping to meet the basic needs of Americans. We are ready to work with President Bush and Congress on the wide range of public-religious partnerships that are cooperative, constructive, and constitutional. President Bush's ideal of a more compassionate nation is noble. However, it is time for President Bush to realize that he cannot build a more compassionate nation by urging the government to abdicate its responsibility to provide for those in need, diverting vital funding to houses of worship, coercing social service beneficiaries to engage in religious activity, and tearing down the wall between church and state.

    In addition, we were disappointed, but not surprised, to hear the President include limits on women's reproductive freedom as part of his "compassion" agenda. There is nothing compassionate about the government making decisions on behalf of women about when and whether they choose to have children.

Regarding the President's economic plan, Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Executive Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), noted:

    President Bush asserted that our economy must grow "fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job." Yet the President's economic plan does little to stimulate the economy and could actually harm our ability to meet pressing needs in social security, health care, and homeland security in the future. The President's formula for fixing the U.S. economy is to give tax cuts to the rich and to fund those cuts on the backs of the poor, disadvantaged, and unemployed.

    The centerpiece of the President's plan - his massive tax cuts - would put more money into the hands of the most wealthy Americans. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, 31% of all taxpayers would get nothing from the Bush plan this year, and the median tax reduction is only $289. In contrast, the top 1% of taxpayers, who earn more than $1 million, would receive tax cuts averaging more than $30,000 this year.

    The long term cost of these enormous tax cuts would be particularly devastating on the states, which currently face their worst fiscal crises since World War II. Schools, police and fire departments, health programs, and many other vital services have all been cut. Oregon has laid off state police officers, Kentucky has freed prison inmates, and Nevada has delayed buying needed algebra textbooks for students.

    The tax cut would also strangle important federal programs such as education and housing. In his speech last night, President Bush called for "some spending discipline in Washington, D.C." Spending discipline is well and good, as is trimming the fat - but we are already cutting to the heart of key programs. At the White House's insistence, the House and Senate have passed appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2003 that would cut $101 million from the program that helps poor working families pay for child care, $530 million from job training programs for dislocated workers and other adults, and $63 million from Head Start.

    It is irresponsible, short-sighted, and an abdication of federal responsibility to slash vital programs that strengthen our economy and our communities while proposing a tax cut that would deprive the federal government of $674 billion that could be spent on strengthening social security, providing health care to uninsured Americans, or putting 200,000 more community police officers on our streets. President Bush rightly highlighted the health care crisis that America is facing today. However, the President rejected universal health care as a source of health care for all Americans, and he did so without providing a viable alternative, which translates into "pouring salt on the wounds" on a countless number of Americans. By speaking about health care as the pressing issue that it is, but ruling out any steps toward true universal coverage, President Bush offered nothing to the tens of millions of Americans without health insurance.


Pertaining to the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Rabbi Marla Feldman, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA), noted:

    We applaud President Bush's proposal to commit $15 billion to an emergency relief fund in Africa. The global AIDS crisis is, indeed, one of the most urgent public health emergencies humanity has ever seen. There are 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS across the globe, 95 percent of whom have no access to the high-cost medications that have made HIV a manageable illness for many in wealthier countries like the United States. Worldwide, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 18 million people, almost 15 million of them in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, and that number is expected to double over the next decade. As the President rightly declared, this pandemic is a humanitarian crisis, and "seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many."

    In the face of this human catastrophe, we must all be guided by the commandment of Leviticus 19: Lo Ta'a-mod al Dam Re'echa, You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Moreover, we reaffirm the commandments of bikur cholim (visiting the sick), pikuach nefesh (saving of lives), gemilut chasidim (deeds of loving-kindness), and tzedakah (economic justice) - these values and commandments, which have been guiding us since Sinai, come together on the issue of Global AIDS and form a confluence of obligation. Even as we await the details of the President's proposal, we applaud his affirmation of this obligation in last night's address.

    Of course, this long-overdue commitment now requires immediate action. We urge Congress to follow the President's lead by making this issue an immediate budgetary priority. Aid to the nations in greatest need must not be held hostage to a political agenda that usurps the rights of foreign governments to set their own legal standards, as has been the case with aid for family planning. There is much more our government leadership can do to help developing countries deal with this heath care crisis beyond providing aid. Our government leaders should work with drug manufacturers and the World Trade Organization to provide life-saving medications at low cost to the affected nations. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should be encouraged to cancel the debt that is crippling the world's most impoverished nations so as to allow these nations to direct sufficient funds to provide preventative measures, care, and treatment in the battle against the global AIDS pandemic. In doing so, we will replace the neglect and inequity that previously prevailed on this issue with compassion and mercy.


Regarding the Freedom Fuel initiative, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) noted:

    The President's comments regarding the importance of "dramatically improving the environment" are a welcome recognition that we ignore our land, air and water at our own peril. The proposed $1.2 billion to fund research for fuel cell powered cars is a step in the right direction, but an incomplete response to this crisis. The future development of fuel cell technology will be a valuable tool in enhancing U.S. energy conservation. Yet the President must take action that affects the present, not just the future. America cannot, and does not need, to wait for future advances in order to improve the fuel efficiency of our automobiles. The technologies exist today that can significantly increase the distance our cars can go on a gallon of gas.

    Automobile emissions are the largest single source of global warming, and the second largest source of air pollution in the United States. Global warming has already caused changes in precipitation patterns, warming in oceans, and Arctic ice thinning. The scientific consensus is that, if not reversed, these global changes will endanger coastal areas, disrupt agriculture, increase drought and desertification, lead to spreading diseases and the proliferation of chronic illnesses.

    The U.S. imports 56% of the oil that it uses every year. According to 1999 estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States contains only 2.8% of total proven world oil reserves. At the same time, the United States uses 18.5 million barrels of oil daily, which is more than any other single country, and many whole continents, in the world. The war on terrorism and the conflict in Israel are inextricably intertwined with our dependence on oil from the Middle East. Almost one quarter of the oil we import comes from the Persian Gulf, and from regimes that have historically been autocratic, corrupt, or violent and have been engaged in conflict with Israel that continues to this day. Dependence on foreign oil imposes unnecessary limitations on our pursuit of peace and stability. The only way to successfully decrease our dependency on foreign oil is to decrease our consumption. And that begins in our cars.

    America deserves an energy plan that protects our children's health and dramatically reduces our dependence on foreign oil. We encourage the President to live up to his words from last night, and "promote energy independence for our country, while dramatically improving the environment."




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