Health care, immigration, dominate JCRC agenda

JEFFERSON CITY — As the Missouri legislature enters its final month, Jewish leaders in St. Louis have adopted an agenda focusing on greater access to health care, more tolerant immigration policies and protection for stem cell research.

The agenda, approved last month by the Jewish Community Relations Council, also opposes efforts to restrict taxation through what has become known as a Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR.


And the agenda calls for increased activism against the genocidal slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC, said the council decided that immigration issues should be a top priority for two reasons: First, because of growing efforts by state and local government to regulate it. Second, because it touches on core Jewish values.

The council, she said, concluded that the U.S. immigration system is broken and needs to be repaired on a national level rather than piecemeal by individual states and cities. Therefore, it has taken the position that states, including Missouri, would be best served by ignoring proposals to take a more active role in rounding up illegal immigrants and in denying them access to education and other social services.

Since 1997, the JCRC has opposed proposals to make English the official language because such laws are exclusionary and divide society into “us versus them,” Abramson-Goldstein said.

“We want to encourage all Americans to speak, read and write English,” she said. “But when you probe this legislation, the basic message it sends is not consistent with an open society that is so important to this country.”

Abramson-Goldstein said the immigration issue resonates because so much of the Jewish experience involves living as outsiders.

“The Passover story is about strangers living in a strange land,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “After Exodus, the Bible goes on again and again emphasizing the protection of strangers. It reminds us ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'”

The Jewish community, she said, is sensitive to the challenges that immigrants face and the great benefits immigrants bring to the country.

The JCRC is also concerned at the shrinking access to health care and plans to make it a focus for the next year. The council set up a committee to study the issue and develop policy recommendations, Abramson-Goldstein said.

“The need is great and we feel a responsibility to give informed opinions that reflect the gravity the issue deserves,” she said.

The JCRC has not evaluated specific health care proposals made by Gov. Matt Blunt and the Republican majorities in the legislature. Abramson-Goldstein said the solution needs to be as broad as possible. The current system, she said, causes suffering even when uninsured people are not sick because people live in fear of becoming ill.

“We believe in maximum access, comprehensive coverage and not making people jump through hoops to obtain coverage that should be the right of every citizen,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “We’re tolerating a broken system in health care and in immigration. We want to fix what is broken. We don’t delude ourselves that this is simple, but we can’t continue with all these disparities.”

The council also remains concerned about efforts by some legislators to repeal Amendment 2, last year’s ballot initiative that gave constitutional protection for stem cell research. Abramson-Goldstein said council members were heartened that the efforts appeared to be going nowhere.

After being deadlocked for weeks, a House committee recently approved a proposal that would overturn voters’ approval of Amendment 2. Approval came on a 5-4 vote when one lawmaker was absent.

The proposal also would ban researchers from cloning human cells in the search for new medical treatments. However, the measure has remained bottled up in the House Rules Committee, which is headed by Rep. Shannon Cooper, a Clinton Republican who is a strong supporter of stem cell research.

The council also took a strong position against the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights. When examined closely, Abramson-Goldstein said, the proposal is truly bad public policy that would starve government of the resources needed to provide public services.

A petition drive was undertaken last year to put the tax-limitation measure on the ballot. But the out-of-state sponsors fell just short of gathering the required number of signatures.

“We believe this would hurt education, economic development, the environment and schools,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “We’ll watch to see that it is not put forth again. If it is, we’ll respond very actively.”

Abramson-Goldstein called Darfur “the tragedy of our time.” She said the JCRC is coordinating a rally later this month in St. Louis to raise awareness of the dire situation facing refugees there.

The rally will be sponsored by the Save Darfur Coaltion, a group of some 70 faith and educational organizations. To get young people involved, the rally will include a hip-hop song composed specifically for the occasion.

Jews know too well the importance of a worldwide response to atrocities aimed at a single group, she said.

“It is incumbent on a community that knows genocide must be responded to, to get involved,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “As Americans who believe in a responsibility to care about what is going on in the world, we want to marshal support in the United States to bring about positive change. At the very least, we want to know that we tried.”