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Correspondence

Sunday, March 1, 1998

Sectarian Scuffles

To the Editor:

I appreciate David Dalin’s thoughtful and timely statement in "Judaism’s War on Poverty" (Sept.– Oct. 1997). He properly highlights the Jewish people’s ancient tradition of self-help.

One premise of the article, however, is fundamentally mistaken. Dalin contrasts the self-sufficiency of the Jewish community with the welfare state. The contrast is between community and state. The problem here is that he uses "Jewish community" in its modern sense when referring to it, crucially, in its ancient and medieval applications. That is, he gives the impression that the modern voluntary community, attending to its own needs, was also the model of the pre-modern community.

In truth, the pre-modern community was effectively a "state within a state." Jews were legally and politically obliged to be self-sustaining. The medieval Jewish "community" ("polity" is a better term) levied taxes on its members to support its charitable practices. It discouraged its members’ use of non-Jewish social services in order to preserve its tax base and its authority.

Although the culture of giving (tzedakah) was pervasive in Jewish society, the relationship between community and state changes when the "community" turns out to resemble a "state." I suspect that modern Jews have relatively few problems with the concept of the welfare state because of their group memories of coercive Jewish "communities" that were, effectively, welfare states.

Another problem with Dalin’s thesis is the true nature of the Jewish preference for self-reliance rather than reliance on the welfare apparatus of the general society. In Germany, for example, Jews maintained their own communal welfare institutions (hospitals, schools, poor relief, et cetera) after they were fully emancipated in the 19th century in part to demonstrate that they would not become a burden on the German society or state. That is, self-sufficiency was meant to prove a political point: We Jews will not impose our needs on you gentiles if you continue to treat us like fellow citizens.

There were, of course, traditional reasons for maintaining these institutions, but the desire to avoid offending gentile society was always a strong one. This may have been necessary at the time, but it is hardly to be condoned today. I don’t know whether this sort of thinking was typical of American Jews, although I suspect that it was. The implication is that Jewish self-reliance, however praiseworthy, also bespeaks a deep anxiety about the degree to which Jews are accepted by society.

Alan Mittleman
Prof. of Religion
Muhlenberg College
Allentown, Pa.


To the Editor:

David Dalin’s article provides an excellent review of classical tzedakah and Jewish self-help values. In several instances, however, he ignores historical facts and wrongly insists that the Jewish textual emphasis on preserving the dignity of impoverished people necessarily supports his conservative views about welfare:

First, while Jewish tradition advocates self-help strategies to reduce poverty, neither biblical nor rabbinic sources denigrate the provision of charitable "relief." Organized responses to natural disaster and social displacement, including the plight of widows, orphans, impoverished resident aliens, and captive citizens and travelers, all have well-known textual and historical precedent.

Second, the ubiquity of charitable relief led to extensive rabbinic discussion about its appropriate practice. Hence, seven of Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah are concerned with the practice of charitable relief, including the proclaimed desirability of anonymity on the part of the recipient. The Maimonidean scale, however, does not call for anonymity in connection with the highest level of charity, that of business lending or partnerships that, by nature, must be negotiated openly if not directly.

Third, Dalin wrongly embraces the "reasonableness" of Jews accepting the Stuyvesant Promise (and other similar edicts by authoritarian rulers), which granted residency to Jews only if they would contribute to the general economy without asking society to support impoverished Jews. This acceptance was born out of the fear, insecurity, and shame engendered by living in an anti-Semitic society. By the 20th century, it was not a betrayal of the Jewish religious or intellectual tradition to believe that it was right, reasonable, and responsible for Jews to contribute to society and to look to it for assistance when necessary—just as other American citizens do.

The notion that the non-Jewish poor should be cared for by the state, but that the Jewish poor had to be wards of their own ethnic group, just does not wash. In the open and pluralistic United States, the Jewish community has an obligation to see beyond its own poor to those in poverty throughout society.

Lastly, for today’s largely suburbanized Jewish community, provision of tzedakah (communally obligatory "righteousness," as Dalin correctly noted) through investment partnerships has great potential to establish stronger actual—not symbolic—reciprocity with impoverished people in the nation’s cities where so many Jewish fortunes were made. Efforts to stimulate community development investment, such as those by the Shefa Fund, a Philadelphia-based public foundation, can lead to direct benefits for Jewish Federations and their agencies, which Dalin criticizes as having abandoned Judaism’s classically ideal strategy for poverty alleviation. In northern New Jersey, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service recently applied for and received a $250,000 capital loan that will enable the agency to better serve poor people—both Jewish and otherwise.

Jeffrey Dekro
President, Shefa Fund
Philadelphia, Pa.


David Dalin responds:
Jeffrey Dekro is simply wrong in his categorical assertion that rabbinic sources do not denigrate charitable "relief." The rabbis of the Talmud, for example, were deeply concerned about the Jewish poor being shamed by the method of providing charity. Hence, Rabbi Meir was one of several rabbinic sages to propose that charity should initially be given as a loan so that the recipient would retain his personal dignity despite his poverty. Jewish charitable relief that fostered dependency and that did not protect the personal dignity and self-respect of the recipient was widely condemned by the rabbis of the Talmud.

Moreover, Jewish leaders during the rabbinic period had already begun to oppose Jewish dependence on general public relief. Despite the persistence of Jewish poverty in late antiquity and the inability of Jewish public charity to completely eradicate it, Jews who relied on Roman public relief available to them as Roman citizens were roundly criticized. Indeed, Jewish communal sanctions on those who accepted relief from non-Jewish charities ranged from rabbinical criticism to a prohibition on testifying in a Jewish court.

Dekro’s critique of the Stuyvesant Promise reflects a misunderstanding of the Promise’s role in the American Jewish philanthropic tradition. Prior to the New Deal era, the Promise was accepted by many American Jewish leaders who were committed to Jewish religious and philanthropic life. In 1906, Judge Julian Mack of Chicago stated that even if one believed that the Promise was inconsistent with the enjoyment of the full rights of American citizenship, a Jew "conceives it to be his duty—no longer to his fellow Americans, but to himself, to his religion, to his fellow Jews—faithfully to carry out this pledge given by his ancestors." Mack, one of the preeminent Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists of the early 20th century, was joined in this opinion by Julius Rosenwald, Jacob Schiff, Mayer Sulzberger, and many other prominent Jewish leaders of his era. Mack, a proud defender of Jewish rights, was also the antithesis of the assimilated, insecure Jew whose acceptance of the Stuyvesant Promise, Dekro claims, was "born out of the fear, insecurity, and shame engendered by living in an anti-Semitic society."

It was during the New Deal that many Jewish social workers and communal leaders betrayed the ancient tradition of Jewish self-help by repudiating the Promise and championing active Jewish participation in the emerging welfare state. Until this time, as Beth Wenger notes in her book New York Jews in the Great Depression, the Promise had remained for Jewish social workers and philanthropists "a source of pride and a legitimating ideal of Jewish philanthropy and social work."

I agree with Alan Mittleman’s distinction between the "modern" voluntaristic Jewish community and the "pre-modern" Jewish community that was "effectively a ‘state within a state.’" This is a useful distinction that I hope to utilize in one of the chapters of my longer study in progress, of which my Policy Review article was but a brief part.

 

The Real Veritas

To the Editor:

In his critique (Correspondence, Jan.–Feb. 1998) of my article "Virtual Veritas" (Nov.–Dec. 1997), Chris Whitten surfs the Internet and, seeing some conservative philosophy in a few e-texts that float by, declares, "We’re already there!" This is the same as someone warily eyeing the Weekly Standard or Policy Review and declaring, "We don’t need anymore conservative magazines. We already have National Review!" It may in fact be the same Zeitgeist that triumphantly announced the reign of conservatives the day after the Reagan Revolution, and eventually gave us the hapless presidential ticket of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.

The intent of my piece was not to provide a listing of conservative resources already on the Web—which could have been done in about 500 words—but to give a sky-is-the-limit proclamation of what a conservative Web site could become. My proposed Electronic Conservative Clearinghouse Library (ECCL) will become the site to find all things conservative. It will not have a few snippets of conservative thought, but a full-scale library of books and articles. In addition to being an electronic library that houses tens of thousands of texts, it will identify where one might find texts that cannot be placed on-line for whatever reason. It will also offer opportunities for conservatives to network with one another, making it, in time, the Yahoo! of all things conservative.

Nothing now on the Web provides anything like what the ECCL will become. Imagine not having to bookmark a dozen or more sites because there is one that will provide either full text or full access to everything conservative that’s on- or off-line! That’s the goal, and our future, if I can find others of "like precious faith."

Mark Y. Herring
Dean of Library Services
Oklahoma Baptist University
Shawnee, Okla.

 

Adios, Bilingual Ed

To the Editor:

Three cheers for Jorge Amselle’s insightful article "Adios, Bilingual Ed" (Nov.–Dec. 1997). Amselle notes that bilingual advocates now typically seek "five to seven years of instruction in the native language before children are taught English." This not only defies common sense, it falls far short of the benchmarks set by congressional bilingual supporters when the program was crafted in the late 1960s.

As Congressman Claude Pepper noted at the time, "It is envisioned that children with a Spanish mother tongue will be taught in this familiar language in the early grades while studying English as a second language. By about third grade, when concepts of reading and language have been firmly established, they will begin the shift to broadened English usage" (emphasis added).

The bilingual establishment, as Amselle discusses, is aggressively fighting Hispanic parents seeking education alternatives for their children. Such conduct is all the more troubling in light of the fact that the bilingual establishment has failed to meet the promises on which its programs were created.

Paul F. Steidler
Senior Fellow
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
Arlington, Va.

 

Get on the Bus, Ben

To the Editor:

In "Fifty Ways To Cut Your Taxes" (Nov.–Dec. 1997), Bernadette Malone credited Democratic governor Ben Nelson for cutting taxes in Nebraska. It would be more correct to say that he was governor when it happened.

During Nelson’s term as governor, overall spending in Nebraska has exploded. He has talked a good game, but his previous "leadership" on reducing taxes led to a cut of less than $1 per week for the average Nebraskan, while spending has grown by hundreds of millions of dollars. This year, with the forecast of revenue surpluses approaching $300 million over the next two years, Nebraska taxpayers were given a temporary two-year tax cut of $63.5 million per year. Where is the rest of the money going? To finance increased spending passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Nelson.

Across the river in Iowa, taxpayers received a permanent 10 percent decrease in state income taxes and the state estate tax was eliminated—with more promised next year. In Colorado, taxpayers had $140 million returned through credits and Missouri taxpayers will receive more than $300 million in refunds. The 5 percent temporary two-year tax cut for Nebraska looks puny compared to the relief enjoyed by our neighbors, and does not reflect leadership in pushing tax cuts on the part of Ben Nelson. He does not deserve praise.

Chuck Sigerson
Chairman, Nebraska Republican Party
Omaha, Neb.

 

Parlez-vous . . . ?

To the Editor:

Tyce Palmaffy’s article "See Dick Flunk" (Nov.–Dec. 1997) was excellent. I would support every word. Yet I would have added the very important fact that everybody who learns to read with the "whole language" method has a difficult time learning foreign languages that use the Roman alphabet. English, which has the most difficult and inconsistent spelling among European languages, is not written like Chinese, with "characters" that the brain processes differently than letters. Most European languages are pronounced as they are written, and the ability to string letters together quickly lessens the difficulties English-speaking people have learning foreign languages. To be monolingual is no advantage!

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn
Lans, Tyrol, Austria

 

Gender Inequity

To the Editor:

In "The Gender Refs," (Nov.–Dec. 1997), Elizabeth Arens wrongly claims that the shrinking ranks of male sports is the result of the "misapplication" of a federal anti-discrimination statute (much like unrepentant socialists claiming the Soviet Union merely "misapplied" socialism). She decries the "distorted interpretation of Title IX," claiming it was a "benign anti-discrimination statute." The evidence tends to prove that this is an oxymoron.

If a law is so readily subject to the misinterpretation Arens criticizes, it is surely a poorly conceived or constructed law. We should return to basics and radically rethink our preoccupation with "gender equality" statutes, much as Burke, Tocqueville, Madison, or Hamilton might have done. For one thing, the common law, with its reliance on long-proven custom and practice, is far superior to statutes contrived in the heated debates of the moment, in this case debates orchestrated by feminists whose distorted ideology has long been disproven by scholarship.

Laws on "discrimination" can only be overreaching, statist, even despotic, and lead inevitably to increased powers for the courts. How else can a court decide such a vague standard as "discrimination" without resorting to measures such as quotas, proportionality, and the like? It is simply inane to complain of their "misapplication" while continuing to enact more of them. Such intricate matters are best left to custom, human action, and the common law.

Unfortunately, Arens’s solution offers more of the same: Title IX didn’t work before, let’s make it work next time. We need only, she writes, "restore it to its original function as an anti-discrimination statute." She forgets that the same judges preside over the same courts, thus we should have no rosy expectations for Title IX.

Edward Chynoweth
Sanger, Calif.

 

Civility, Please

To the Editor:

I found the tone of Robert Rector’s response to Peter Barwick’s article ("Charity Tax Credits—and Debits," Jan.–Feb. 1998) inappropriately harsh, especially for a presumed colleague. It is fine that he disagrees with the charity tax proposal, but civility and camaraderie require a more respectful engagement of the ideas, not disdainful dismissal. I believe that it is accurate to say that Rector wants to maintain control of welfare in Washington, at least to some degree, so I can see why he would disfavor a plan that gives more influence to individuals, private organizations, and states. As a traditional federalist, my view is that virtually all domestic policy belongs with state and local government, if not to the people, an uneasy idea for those with a stake in the power of the federal government, whether of the Left or Right.

Barwick’s proposal is not perfect, but I think it is a prudent transitional approach, moving closer to private and local responsibility for the work of charity. Its liabilities are certainly not worse than the status quo, it credibly addresses the most serious conservative worries, and it has the virtue of having some political feasibility. The idea deserves a more respectful engagement than it received.

T. William Boxx
Chairman
Commonwealth Foundation
Harrisburg, Pa.

 

Correction: A photo of Barry Goldwater that appeared in the article "Virtual Veritas" (Nov.–Dec. 1997) should have been credited to the Arizona Historical Foundation.

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