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Should Jews Support the Debt Bill?

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The 'debt ceiling debate,' described by the Wall Street Journal as one of the most 'ferocious fights ever over government spending,' is nearing a close. The end of a battle, but not likely the end of the war, as the pros and cons, results, successes and failures are likely to be key talking points going into the 2012 presidential election discussions.

In the upcoming election, it is widely believed that as a result of the president's positions on Israel, the largely Democratic Jewish voting bloc and donor base is to some extent up for grabs. Whilst Israel is a matter that is close to the hearts and minds of many American Jews, typically, there are also a number of other matters that come near the top of this list. Foremost among them is a candidate's commitment to social justice, and adherence to a framework that enforces the responsibility of the rich to aid the needy. Therefore, the ongoing deliberation over the 'debt deal' is likely to also play an important role in the battle between Democrats and Republicans over American Jewry.

So, in terms of Jewish ideas for social responsibility, where does this debt bill leave us?

Although the bill stipulates that Social Security, Medicaid, federal employee pay, and benefits for veterans and the poor would be exempt, some Democrats are still concerned.

"There is deep disappointment by the American people that at time when the rich are becoming much richer and there are corporations making billions in profits and not paying a nickel in taxes that deficit reduction is taking place on the backs of children and the elderly, the sick and the poor," said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Huffington Post reported that Sen. Frank Lautenberg said he'd vote against the bill, arguing that its cuts would inevitably come from programs that help the poor put food on the table and heat their homes.

Assuming for a moment that this is the case, the bill could be perceived by some as essentially un-Jewish. However, in order to reach a proper conclusion in this debate, what needs to be determined is an authentic Jewish perspective on wealth redistribution and charity in general.

Famously the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides lists eight grades of giving to others, whilst all involve philanthropy, the supreme act does not:

The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a poor person by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.

In his book, The Dignity of Difference, Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes with regard to the above, "this ruling is the result of a profound wrestling, within Judaism, with the fact that aid in the form of charity can itself be humiliating for the recipient. It can also create welfare dependency, reinforcing, not breaking the cycle of deprivation. The greatest act of charity is therefore one that allows the individual to become self-sufficient." He added "Protecting dignity and avoiding humiliation was a systematic element of rabbinical law."

However, as Sacks also writes, that whilst "economic growth is more powerful than simple redistribution, it is only true if there is a genuine willingness on the part of those who gain to ensure that the losers also benefit; and that does not happen through the market mechanism on its own." He concludes, "What Judaism can do and must, is to inspire us collectively with a vision of human solidarity."

It follows therefore that in actuality a utopian Jewish social support system is likely more in line with the Republican vision for creating wealth, in tandem with the inspiration of the Jewish tradition for giving and solidarity. Certainly the 'Welfare State' concept is not a Jewish one.

However, an amendment to the bill that would include additional "Inspirations for Human Solidarity," would be welcome. Possibilities could include greater incentives for businesses to keep hiring, for venture capital firms to invest in start-ups and for the establishment of mentoring and internship programs.

From a Jewish perspective, when coupled with the "vision of human solidarity," the premise of this bill is no doubt a strong step in the right direction.

The Author is the director of the Algemeiner Journal and the GJCF and can be e-mailed at defune@gjcf.com.