Engels stands at a podium with a sign that reads "diplomacy saves american lives"
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York speaks at a news conference criticizing the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to foreign spending, March 16, 2017. (Photo/JTA-House Foreign Affairs Committee-Democrats)

Trump’s budget gets thumbs-down from Jewish groups

Despite assurances that aid to Israel would be unaffected, Jewish groups are decrying the drastic proposed cuts in foreign assistance funding in President Donald Trump’s budget — citing the importance to Israel of a robust U.S. posture abroad.

After Trump’s proposed budget was revealed March 16, an array of Jewish groups and Democratic Jewish lawmakers expressed alarm at proposed 31 percent cuts to foreign spending, saying it would undercut U.S. influence abroad and noting that it currently constitutes just 1 percent of the budget.

“Our consistent position has been that, along with security assistance to Israel, we have always supported a robust overall foreign aid budget in order to ensure America’s strong leadership position in the world,” an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee told JTA in an email.

Rep. Lois Frankel argued that foreign aid helps stem the unrest that threatens security interests.

At a news conference March 16, the Florida Democrat said, “I wish the president would spend more time talking to the generals because they would tell you that pencils can be as persuasive as cannons and food can be as powerful as a tank.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration said that Israel’s guaranteed $3.1 billion defense assistance next year is a “cutout” and not subject to the other proposed drastic cuts to foreign funding.

“Our assistance to Israel is, if I could say, a cutout on the budget, and that’s guaranteed, and that reflects, obviously, our strong commitment to one of our strongest partners and allies,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said March 16 in a call with reporters.

However, that didn’t fully appease U.S. Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Committee.

“The proposed draconian cuts in areas vital to executing U.S. foreign policy could adversely affect our national security interests by potentially creating more pressure on the American military while essential diplomacy is being undermined,” David Harris, the agency’s CEO, said in a statement. “Deep cuts to the State Department, including in key educational and cultural exchange programs, will severely harm America’s ability to assert our interests and values abroad.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center said in a statement that “U.S. interests are deeply entwined with a stable world order and U.S. engagement with the international community is vital to that effort.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, decried what it said was the budget’s isolationism.

“Over the years, many pro-Israel organizations — including J Street — have argued that Israel cannot be treated as a special case, exempted from cuts to foreign aid while programs affecting the rest of the world are slashed wholesale,” the group said in a statement. “Ultimately, weakening U.S. foreign aid, which is already far below the contributions of other advanced economies in percentage GDP terms, undermines Israeli security as well.”

Next year is the launch of a 10-year agreement that would see Israel receiving an average of $3.8 billion a year in defense assistance.

schumer speaking at a podium with the senate seal on it
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer speaks to the media, Jan. 31, 2017. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-Aaron P. Bernstein)

Closer to home, the budget proposal was slammed by Sen. Charles Schumer for jeopardizing a security assistance program for nonprofits that benefits Jewish institutions.

“At a time where perpetrators are terrorizing the Jewish community across the country, even here in New York, it makes no sense to slash FEMA’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program,” the Democratic minority leader of the Senate said in a statement to JTA. “[W]e should be putting more money in terrorism prevention for at-risk nonprofits, not less.”

Congress currently funds the grant program at $20 million per year. The vast majority of funds have gone to Jewish institutions since the program was launched in 2005, providing the nonprofits with money for security upgrades, including barricades and security cameras. Trump’s budget proposes rolling the funds for nonprofit protection into broader federal emergency preparedness funds disbursed to the states and cutting $667 million overall in preparedness grants.

“These federal dollars have been critical in making sure that high-risk organizations like JCCs, Jewish schools and congregations of all kinds are safe and protected from potential terrorist attacks,” Schumer added.

Robert Bank, the CEO of American Jewish World Service, a human rights and anti-poverty advocate, called on the organized Jewish community to rally against the cuts.

“We call on members of the U.S. Congress to oppose this budget, and we call on American Jews and all Americans who are guided by the value of upholding the dignity of every person to oppose President Trump’s proposed radical cuts to the budget,” Bank said in a statement.

B’nai B’rith International, which advocates for international assistance noted the proposed budget’s 13.2 percent cut to the Housing Department, which would adversely affect the 38 buildings with 8,000 residents in the B’nai B’rith network.

“Lack of access to safe and affordable housing for all older Americans has deep ramifications for the health and welfare of so many,” it said in a statement.

Reform’s Religious Action Center also singled out proposed cuts to domestic programs in its statement. The budget’s “drastic reduction in funding for critical human needs, environmental protection and international aid programs abdicate the federal government’s responsibility to the American people it serves and others worldwide who depend on U.S. leadership,” its statement said.

In terms of the budget and the State Department, spokesman Toner fielded a question from a reporter about whether the cuts would affect funding for U.S. defense assistance to Egypt and Jordan — policies that were written into Israeli peace deals with those countries and seen for years as critical to sustaining the peace. Toner deflected the question.

“With respect to other assistance levels, foreign military assistance levels, those are still being evaluated and decisions are going to be made going forward,” he said. “So we’re still at the very beginning of the budget process, and in the coming months these are all going to be figures that we evaluate and look at hard, obviously bearing in mind some of our — or not some of our — our treaty obligations going forward. But we’ll have more details, obviously, when the final budget rolls out in May, I believe.”

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan urging the Republican to reject the cuts.

“We cede the role as the world’s champion of democracy, freedom and justice. And what happens then?” Engel said at a news conference Thursday unveiling the letter. “Who steps into the void? Probably a country that doesn’t share our values or priorities. Think Russia or some other country like that.”

ron-kampeas-2
Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief