Reform lobbyist to speak here on bias, hate crimes

In a sense, Rabbi David Saperstein doesn't care who's in the White House — Al Gore or George W. Bush.

It's not that he has no opinion. But as a religious lobbyist who will represent the Reform movement to a divided Congress and an unknown administration, his agenda will stay pretty much the same: He will address religious discrimination, hate-crime legislation, separation of church and state, and other issues of religious freedom.

But in a telephone interview from Washington on Tuesday, Saperstein, who will speak Friday evening, Dec. 1 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, did say: "Obviously, I'm watching to see what happens."

He also admitted that Gore and Bush's differing stances on certain critical issues, particularly Israel and hate-crime legislation, would make for different playing fields in 2001 — depending, of course, on who is president.

"No one knows exactly where Gov. Bush is going to be on foreign policy…Israel in particular. Whereas Gore is likely to surround himself with people who share his long-term commitment to peace in the Middle East," Saperstein said.

"And while Gore is very supportive of hate-crime legislation, Bush somewhat dodged the issue — he had not supported similar legislation in Texas."

No matter who ends up in the Oval Office, Saperstein, a 25-year veteran of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, expects that the contrasting stances of Gore and Bush will be reflected in a sharply split 107th Congress

"We are likely to have a Congress more divided on the Middle East peace process then we ever have had before," he said. The same goes for hate-crime legislation, which "has been opposed by a number of people on the right" and supported by most Jewish groups.

Saperstein, however, remains optimistic.

"We have a long track record of working with bipartisan coalitions and we've been successful in the past," he said. "During the Reagan and Bush administrations…we managed to help put together bipartisan coalitions that passed 24 of the most important civil rights laws in the U.S., stopped most of the legislative efforts of the religious right and kept…strong on behalf of Israel and endangered Jewry."

Saperstein also believes that no matter who becomes president, Gore's choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the first-ever Jewish vice presidential candidate will always remain a landmark moment.

"My reaction was somewhat the same as my 10-year-old son who said, 'Gee Dad, it's just like Jackie Robinson.' [Lieberman's] selection and the enthusiastic reaction is an affirmation that something significant has changed in American life. The constitutional promises that in America your rights and opportunities would never depend on your religious beliefs and practices is now being embraced by the American people."

As for election irregularities in Florida, particularly in Palm Beach, Saperstein said he has not gotten formally involved. However, he encourages those who feel their rights were impaired to "find legal help and pursue their claims."

"To have a predominantly Democratic, liberal and Jewish community vote way out of proportion for Buchanan, compared even to the most conservative districts in Florida — it makes no sense at all," he said. "It's self-evident that the confusion in the ballot meant a lot more people voted for Buchanan than intended to do so. That means fewer people voted for Gore."

However, with the current Congress yet to recess, Saperstein remains focused on lobbying for human rights, rather than worrying about hanging chads and butterfly ballots.

In particular, Saperstein cited President Bill Clinton's recent trip to Vietnam.

"President Clinton, just last week, put the issue of religious freedom very much on his agenda in Vietnam," he said. "That's the kind of thing we've been urging the administration to do. We're constantly raising these issues."