Katrina & Politics
by Nathan Diament
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations
As published in the Baltimore Jewish Times and the New Jersey Jewish News
September 30, 2005
How far will elements of the Jewish community press their absolutist view that the government ought never support religious institutions?
Last year, this question was posed with regard to enhancing the physical security of Jews against possible terrorist threats in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, synagogue bombings in Turkey, and other violent attacks against Jews around the globe. The question was specifically whether the entire Jewish community would support federal grants to nonprofit entities — that is to say, all nonprofits, including the day schools and synagogues in our communities — to install physical security improvements such as bollards and fences.
This month, the question is posed with regard to the scope of federal aid to schools’ taking in children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. President Bush has proposed, and many United States senators, including several Democrats, have endorsed the principle, that any federal aid to support the educational costs of Katrina kids should include all children and schools, including those attending parochial schools. With regard to K-12 students displaced by the disaster, the president has proposed that the federal government give public school districts approximately $7,500 for each Katrina displacee taken in. In keeping with the president’s general belief that the government must not discriminate against religion in its programs, the proposal also has the same allocation available for the more than 60,000 nonpublic (including parochial) school students displaced by Katrina and taken in by Catholic and Jewish schools around the nation.
The logic of this proposal is commonsensical enough: Katrina did not discriminate among its victims as to religious affiliation, and neither should the government’s relief effort. Inasmuch as relief is to make victims “whole,” it should not force families who are committed to parochial education for their kids to place them in public schools.
The initial response to the president’s proposal came from the teachers’ unions, which denounced the inclusion of parochial schools as an effort to advance the partisan agenda of vouchers generally. And certain Jewish organizations were not far behind in echoing this criticism.
The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Anti-Defamation League voiced opposition to the equal treatment of displaced children in parochial schools. It was these same two organizations who opposed the security enhancement grants going to day schools and synagogues as well.
But isn’t it high time that the Jewish community take a more pragmatic approach to these questions — especially in exigent circumstances?
Nearly 60 years ago, the Supreme Court stated that the Constitution “requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions, than it is to favor them.” In the provision of basic services — among which disaster prevention and recovery must be included — to exclude the institutions where religious people gather and engage in fellowship is the state the adversary. The Jewish community ought to support the proper approach of neutrality without reservation.
Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.