Will DHS fight endanger community?

Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr
Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

As attacks on and threats levied against Jewish communities are on the rise around the globe, a fight is raging in Congress over the funding of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Now, Jewish communal officials and security experts in the United States are beginning to worry that a possibility of departmental shutdown would strip away significant support that the DHS provides to help domestic Jewish communities monitor and safeguard against impending threats. A DHS shutdown puts in jeopardy the points of communication that keep Jewish communities informed of impending threats and would end the Nonprofit Security Grant program, for which Jewish organizations have long lobbied for.

“No other government department in the United States has provided more precious resources to the Jewish community than [DHS], from a security standpoint,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, a faith based threat assessment and advising organization affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America focused on protecting the American Jewish community.

“It’s a matter of record, over the past six weeks, the Jewish communities in Westernized nations are under attack, and they’re under attack from a sophisticated, well-trained, well-inspired, and well-funded assailant,” said Goldenberg.


According to Goldenberg, although there is no current imminent threat, violence against Jewish communities in the United States and Europe have increased dramatically, pointing out incidents like the recent murder of a guard outside a Copenhagen community center during a bar-mitzvah celebration, the attacks on Hyper-Cacher kosher market in Paris last month, the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, and at home, last year’s deadly shooting rampage at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kan. Goldenberg said that the Jewish community in the United States has become the quintessential “soft target” and that in most cases when a terrorist attack is committed but did not directly target the Jewish community, Jews and Jewish institutions are often the assailant’s secondary target.

“There isn’t a day that I’m not in touch somewhere in the United States where I’m connecting members of the DHS directly with members of the Jewish community who are providing expertise and resources on the ground. We are at a very, very sensitive time and a very challenging time, where our assailants and those who desire to kill us are having great success,” he said. There’s never been a more important time than now “where we have a need for an entity or an enterprise like the DHS, and for Congress to think about not funding it at a time in history when we have enemies that are extremely sophisticated and desire to hit the homeland is absolutely absurd.”

Angry over President Barack Obama’s executive order last November to grant amnesty to millions of undocumented aliens, Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives prevented DHS from being funded for the entire length of fiscal year 2015 during the 113th Congress, providing DHS with a short term extension until Feb. 27. Their hope was that a majority in both legislatures in the following year would allow them to pass a DHS funding bill with amendments that block funding for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to implement the president’s executive order.

Conventional wisdom of legislative tactics on Capitol Hill used to mean that both parties might continue to fight bitterly on such issues until the deadline, but at the last minute, would come to an agreement through a process of backdoor negotiation and exchanging of political favors – avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation where both parties could face a backlash from constituents.

But as sequestration and the 2012 government shutdown has shown, Congress’ division makes it not entirely unlikely that an agreement on DHS funding is not reached, which would force a shutdown of all non-essential DHS services. This leads some observers to ask, if lawmakers once shut down the whole federal government, what incentive do they have when it is only one federal department on the chopping block?

With the deadline fast approaching, Congress has a number of ways it can choose to proceed. The House passed H.R. 240 on Jan. 14, providing $39.7 billion for the department, but which included amendments that would restrict any federal funds, fees and resources to go toward the president’s immigration initiatives.

But Senate Democrats, now the minority, successfully blocked consideration of the House version of the bill, instead, they introduced S. 272, which is identical to the House bill, but without the anti-executive order amendments. Even if the House version passed the Senate, as it stands now, the GOP would not have enough votes to prevent a presidential veto.

With less than a week left until DHS loses its funding, the possibility of shutting down the department responsible for domestic security in the event of a terrorist attack or national disaster, is very real. Though essential activities will still continue, some fear the strain on the organization would make the United States vulnerable the ever growing terrorist threats and many in the often targeted Jewish community, feel especially concerned.

After years of lobbying by the Jewish Federations of North America, Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel and other Jewish advocacy organizations, the DHS established the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provided capital grants of up to $75,000 to nonprofit organizations to harden their facilities. Funding for this program has ranged over the years from between $9 to $25 million annually and helps cover security measures such as video surveillance systems, bollards, reinforced locks, blast proof windows in sensitive areas.

Jewish community centers, synagogues, schools, federations and other institutional facilities throughout the United States have been successful in leveraging this aid and according to the Orthodox Union, 90 percent of the $13 million program funds for fiscal year 2014 went to 186 Jewish nonprofits.

“From my perspective, from JFNA’s perspective, this is a critical resource and it’s something that we fight for every day knowing how difficult it is with the budgets and how competitive the whole appropriations process is,” said Robert Goldberg, senior director of legislative affairs at JFNA. “There’s not a day I’m not working on this program for 10 years.”

Rabbi Abba Cohen, head of the Washington office of Agudath Israel, a group representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, was part of the coalition that created the grant, and said that even though the $13 million divided to organizations throughout the country may not seem large, the grants help communities of all sizes prioritize the their resources on charity and other communal objectives.

The community itself is already invested in its own security, “because we know that these grants don’t go to every city and they don’t go to every institution,” said Cohen. But the grant’s “funds are meant to go, and they do go, to things like concrete barriers, security camera, as they say, to harden the site. And really that is our most immediate need and that’s exactly what the program provides.”

Beyond such funding, DHS does more to secure the Jewish community that is rarely noticed by community members, continued Goldenberg.

These programs include DHS agents who develop and implement training exercises to help Jewish communities know how to respond to various threats such as an active shooter situation, protective security advisers to advise on how to strengthen a community’s security, and various offices throughout the country that communicate real time threat intelligence to help Jewish organizations make the correct security decisions.

“The sad part is that these members of Congress, when they think of DHS, they’re thinking TSA, they’re thinking ICE, they’re thinking the border; they don’t realize that DHS is on the ground with these communities and these services and are essential,” said Goldenberg, calling DHS officials unsung heroes. “Right now, we have never been in a more challenging time with regard to threats against Jewish communities globally. We need these partnerships to be strong. And DHS is our greatest partner. If DHS is not strong then we may not have the resources that we need to stay resilient.

“This is the wrong time to do this,” he added, referring to the partisan fight.

Desperation to prevent a DHS shutdown has entered the GOP’s ranks with some like Sens. John
McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and others, are calling for the GOP to support passing an unamended bill, known as a “clean” bill, and then deal with immigration separately.

These calls intensified after Feb. 16, when a federal district court judge in Texas struck down the administration’s immigration initiatives, forcing DHS to suspend the executive action’s programs while the issue is fought over in the courts.

With the president’s immigration program suspended, even if a clean bill is passed, the immigration policies that the Republicans oppose might not even be implemented at all if higher courts find the president’s executive actions unconstitutional.

But other Republicans are not convinced because of the chance the president’s executive action could proceed if the administration wins its appeal. To them, the Texas court’s ruling confirms that the president went beyond his authority in issuing the executive order and that now that the administration itself suspended the program, the Senate should pass the amended House bill.

“It wouldn’t make any sense for any senators to hold up funding the Department of Homeland Security because they want to fund an executive order that isn’t being enforced and was ruled as being improper by the courts,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who also took issue with some who call a bill which does not include amendments “clean.”

“A clean [Continuing Resolution] in my opinion, does not include funding an illegal executive order,” said Zeldin. “I would not support an ‘unclean’ C.R. that funds an illegal executive order…”

Yet, Zeldin is confident that the department will not close because both parties support the work DHS does beside immigration.

“I put the onus on the Senate to pass it,” he said. “…[I]t’s a responsibility of Congress, regardless of the letter next to your name…. Regardless whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, it seems to be everyone’s very strong preference that it’s in our best interest for the [DHS] to be funded.”

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