NEW YORK — As the executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, Nathan Diament resists the notion that every issue must be reduced to a zero sum game.
Having spent nearly two decades in Washington, DC, he understands the value of maintaining his well-established working relationships with politicians and policy makers.
“It’s having the ability to find out how your issues fit into the larger agenda of the current administration or Congressional leadership,” said Diament, 50.
In his current role Diament develops and coordinates public policy research and initiatives. Additionally, as the OU’s executive director for public policy, he has testified before Congressional committees and works closely with members of both political parties to craft legislation addressing issues of religious liberty, education reform and family-friendly social policies.
The Times of Israel recently sat down with Diament at the bustling kosher eatery Mr. Broadway to talk about OU Advocacy in a changing Jewish world. He discussed where it aligns with the broader, non-Orthodox Jewish community and where it might diverge. Today more than ever, walking that line is a challenge in a political and cultural climate where compromise and listening seem to be lost arts.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Broadly speaking, what are some of the areas the OU finds that it aligns with, and diverges from, the Jewish community as a whole?
I think the Orthodox community was aligned with many in the non-Orthodox community with at least concern about, if not opposition to, the Iran nuclear deal. At least at the organizational level, at the leadership level, the deep concern was shared. Certainly at the rank and file level many more Orthodox Jews were ultimately upset with and opposed to the deal than rank and file liberal Jews who tended to support [former] president [Barack] Obama.
Similarly, with regard to the last war in Gaza and with regard to the incessant attacks against Israel at the United Nations, I think the broad mainstream pro-Israel community was in a mostly united place across the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform segments.
On the domestic policy side there’s been a lot of work together on getting the resources we need to have security for our institutions — synagogues, schools, community centers, etc. But there are other areas on domestic policy issues where there is divergence.
If you take a recent example, we’ve been fighting for many years with FEMA over the fact they have had a policy where they would not provide federal disaster aid to rebuild a synagogue or a church or some other house of worship that was damaged in a hurricane or an earthquake. We and the Reform movement are on different sides of that question.
[Author’s note: The current appropriations bill in Congress includes a disaster relief package for Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, in which there is a provision for FEMA to provide building grants for synagogues.]
Does the OU have a partner in combating rising anti-Semitism and extremism?
The OU is more focused at a pragmatic level in obtaining resources and support to keep our institutions safe.
I would say on an operational level the federal government is a good partner. This year, on a federal level we’re expecting an appropriation of at least $25 million or more in grants that will go to synagogues and Jewish day schools and other institutions, such as JCCs. Also, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are fantastic partners in terms of monitoring these threats and taking appropriate investigative and law enforcement action when situations arise.
We have the same at the state level and the local level. In New York we’ve worked with Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to get them to provide millions of dollars in security funding to Jewish schools, synagogues and other institutions. We try to pursue our work at all levels of government to keep everybody in the community safe.
As for President [Donald] Trump being a partner, the OU leadership has spoken out at appropriate times when there’s been concern what President Trump may have said or what’s thought he might have said. And so we speak out and that’s important, but the practical policies are more important and the Trump administration has been there for the community’s needs.
Women’s reproductive rights and health issues have been at the forefront since President Trump took office; whether it was the Department of Health & Human Services legal guidance memorandum expanding exemptions for employers from providing certain health services on the basis of the employer’s religious or moral objections, or the Senate’s rejection of a measure to ban abortion at 20 weeks. Talk about the OU’s stance on these points.
The OU generally does not get involved in abortion politics in large measure because the halachically-informed view of how to approach the issue of abortion is — to over simplify — pro-life except when it’s not. There are instances when halacha [Jewish law] recognizes a woman should have an abortion. So you want to have a legal regime that allows for it in appropriate circumstances. But the traditional view would be not to condone what is called “abortion on demand.” So the halachic approach is nuanced and complicated and doesn’t neatly fit into American political debate categories.
However, where we have been partially involved is in conscience issues. If there are going to be laws that allow for and protect a woman’s right to have an abortion or to access contraception, those rights of the woman should not come at the expense of the religious principles of a doctor, a nurse or other health care providers. So if you can set up laws and regulations where women can obtain the services they are legally entitled to, while simultaneously protecting the conscience of those who don’t want to be involved, that’s what we should do.
One of the things I always find interesting is if you jump to another similar, but distinct area. When the State of Washington legalized physician-assisted suicide they wrote into the law an absolute exemption that no doctor or pharmacist has to participate in providing somebody with the medicines or whatever is necessary to commit physician-assisted suicide. Nobody raised any objection to that. Everybody said, ‘Oh yeah, we understand, people shouldn’t be compelled to do that.’ But in the abortion context that is a topic for debate and it really shouldn’t be.
The Supreme Court will soon hear Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, about Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker, who refused to bake a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins on grounds it violated his religious beliefs. Some Jewish groups filed amicus curiae on the side of the couple. The OU joined a brief on the side of the baker. How do you see balancing religious liberty and LGBT rights?
Generally the approach at the Orthodox Union to this sensitive and complicated area is this: we start from the premise that what is unique about the American Jewish experience is that the guarantee of religious freedom for minority religions was built into the founding of the country. As George Washington famously wrote in his letter to the Jews of Rhode Island, the founding philosophy in the United States with regard to religious liberty is that it was not a measure of toleration of religious minorities. It was that religious minorities enjoyed the same level of religious rights as the majority. That has enabled American Jews, whether they’re Orthodox or non-Orthodox, to flourish in this country in a way that’s unprecedented in Jewish history.
Yet, we’re very mindful we’re still a religious minority and we have to be very focused on there being as broad and robust protections for religious conscience as possible. That is necessary for us and for all American communities of faith. So when you get to the issue of the moment, or of the decade, which is the expansion of legal rights for LGBT people, one of the key questions in that discussion, is how is the expansion of LGBT rights interact with religious liberties.
Our fundamental posture is that in a secular society, like the United States, where you have no established religion, where you have religious liberty for all, it’s important that the expansion of legal rights for one set of people does not come at the cost of taking away rights from another set of people.
It’s important that the expansion of legal rights for one set of people does not come at the cost of taking away rights from another set of people
We’re constantly looking for and advocating ways in which if the federal government or the state government is going to expand the legal rights of LGBT citizens, then that must include ways to allow that to happen that don’t come at the cost of the civil rights — such as religious liberties — that are enjoyed by religious citizens. As much as possible it should be a win-win scenario rather than a zero sum game.
What’s working and what’s not in regard to Trump administration. What concerns you, and what do you approve of? Do you think he can act sober and presidential?
Our job at OU Advocacy is to advocate successfully on behalf of the community’s values and interests. You do that by staying focused on the issues and staying focused on the substance. We don’t engage a lot on what might be on Twitter or cable news at any given moment where people are passionately debating whatever the perceived issue of the day might be, but is not actually substantive.
Lastly, tell us a little about the changes the OU has seen regarding the administration’s stance on Israel.
Its no secret that in the 2016 presidential election, a majority of Orthodox Jews voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. The primary reason why they did that was because of their view that under president Obama there had been tensions between the Israeli and government and the American government and that Hillary Clinton would be a continuation of that and Orthodox voters — who put policy toward Israel at the top of their consideration in the voting booth — were looking for a real fresh break and a different approach.
What we’ve seen so far, again if you focus on the policy, is President Trump, Vice President [Mike] Pence and their whole team has really delivered on that. Whether it’s the announcement on planning to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, how they’ve put pressure on the Palestinian Authority, and how they vigorously defend Israel at the United Nations, it is clear the new Administration is taking a fundamentally different approach in policy toward Israel.