As President Barack Obama and Congress tackle the financial crisis and the politically explosive issue of tax reform, the American Jewish community has remained quiet — until now.
Nearly 240 rabbis have signed a letter in support of the president’s proposal to allow tax cuts to expire at the end of the year for those making above $250,000 annually. The letter was written by Bend the Arc Jewish Action, which bills itself as the largest Jewish social justice organization devoted to domestic policy issues.
It is believed to be the first time a major American Jewish group has taken a position on a tax issue — other than advocating for preserving the charitable tax deduction — since the Jewish Council for Public Affairs did so in 2002.
It comes at a time when the aging American Jewish community is experiencing increasing levels of poverty, which results in a strain on the social-service network. UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Study of New York 2011 found that nearly 507,000 people in Jewish households in the eight-county New York area are classified as “poor” or “near poor.” That means that one in four people living in Jewish households in the city is poor — an increase from one in five in 2002. There was also a large increase in poverty in the suburbs.
The JCPA, an umbrella organization representing 125 Jewish community relations councils and 14 national organizations, said in 2002 that the Bush tax cuts should not be renewed when they expired in 10 years. But it has not repeated that call during the current debate, saying it no longer “gets involved in tax issues because there is too much disparity between people’s views,” according to Rabbi Steve Gutow, its president and CEO.
“We are a consensus organization and it is … complicated to find a consensus when there are so many different interests and stakeholders,” he said. “Businessmen may see things differently than labor, and we represent them all.”
The JCPA is affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America, and some major donors to federations reportedly insisted that the group keep mum this year because they and their businesses would be adversely affected if tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 annually were allowed to expire this year.
But Bend the Arc Jewish Action has no such qualms and launched a campaign to influence Congress by asking rabbis to sign its letter. Hadar Susskind, its director, said that although rabbis from all branches of Judaism signed the letter, most were Reform and Conservative.
The letter, addressed to elected representatives, said the tax cuts “have contributed to the escalating inequality of the past decade” and that “building a healthy, ethical society isn’t just a personal duty, but a communal one.
“Ending the tax cuts for those who need them the least will bring in hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade,” it continued. “Together with a careful examination of our government spending, one that is not based on once again taking the most from those who have least to spare, this money will enable the crafting of a moral budget, one that protects our social safety net, strengthens our public education system, and increases job growth.”
In addition, the group plans to have at least 20 house parties and other gatherings on Sunday to celebrate the first day of Chanukah and to ask participants to tweet and post on their Facebook pages their support for allowing tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent to expire. In addition, they will be asked to call their members of Congress with that message.
“We want members of Congress to come in Monday morning and find messages from 40 or 60 people who said they are Jews calling for the repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts,” Alan van Capelle, CEO of Bend the Arc said.
The group also is asking the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to sign a letter posted on its website saying they support ending the Bush-era tax cuts.
“We are informed by our Jewish faith, which enjoins us to share our resources equitably,” it said. “The 613 commandments in the Torah are all grounded by Isaiah in the two commandments of keep righteousness and do justice. Building a just America means that we who have enjoyed this great nation’s opportunities must also share its burdens. Those of us who comprise that top 2 percent have a responsibility to stand up and lead.”
The tax issue is the first issue the political arm of Bend the Arc has tackled since it was formed in January as a result of a merger of Jewish Funds of Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Susskind said it was particularly important to enlist the support of rabbis to kick off the campaign.
“It’s easy for rabbis to come out against domestic abuse — everybody’s against that,” he said. “But to sign this letter speaks to how important it is for the Jewish community.”
Van Capelle said his is the first major Jewish organization this year to “engage the Jewish community in a conversation about progressive taxation on the federal level.”
“The Jewish community has been a good advocate for getting government dollars to programs we care about, but that has been a one-sided conversation in which we ask for money and don’t ever have a conversation about how those services are going to get paid for,” he said. “It costs money to continue having these services, and it can’t continue to be a one-way conversation.”
In fact, he said lawmakers want their input.
“Every time a Jewish person calls a member of Congress, it’s almost always about foreign affairs,” van Capelle said. “Rarely do they believe in calling about a domestic issue. … My experience is that members of Congress are looking to the Jewish community with whom they enjoy good relationships, and we have to weigh in on the side of saying that those who make $250,000 should see their Bush-era tax rates rolled back to the Clinton-era tax rates.”
JTA reported last year that two senators urged a JFNA board member to help them lobby other members of Congress against extending the tax cuts that were to expire. But JFNA failed to act, opting instead to simply support continuation of the charitable tax deduction.
Renewal of the tax cuts, the Obama administration has argued, would necessitate cuts to government social service programs. Jewish federations are the largest providers of social services to the Jewish community, administering a reported $10 billion in federal funds.
“This country is in a different place financially,” van Capelle said. “Traditionally Jews don’t sit on the sidelines when our country faces difficult challenges. We didn’t on the issues of abolition, suffrage or the struggle for civil rights. We shouldn’t now when the services to those most vulnerable in our population are now at risk.”
One of the rabbis who signed the letter is Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, an associate professor of rabbinic literature at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
“I believe very strongly that to create a more perfect union you have to have a union based on understanding the country and cities as communities of obligation,” he said. “We have an obligation to those who are weaker, and a redistribution [of wealth] towards those who are weaker is a founding principle of our tradition.”
Rabbi Cohen said there are “people who are suffering in pain and poverty and in dire need of health clinics that would have to be shut along with all kinds of poverty programs” if the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent were not allowed to expire.
He pointed out that Los Angeles has the highest homeless rate in the country and that this problem “cannot be swept under the rug. … Most of the wealthiest 2 percent — and especially the wealthiest 1 percent — wouldn’t even notice” the tax change.
Rabbi Jack Moline in Alexandria, Va., said his family earns more than $250,000 a year and he still supports ending the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
“That is very much against my self-interest and the self-interest of many of those in our community,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense for people who are not going to pay this tax to advocate for others to pay it. But it gives this position more credibility if people who would be affected say, ‘I’m stepping up and you should too.’ Is it the best solution? I don’t know, but the worst response would be to do nothing.”
“I admire Warren Buffet because he consistently said he was not paying enough of his fair share of taxes, and that is something we in the Jewish community should be emulating,” Rabbi Moline added.