Nonpartisan Nonprofits a Sine Qua Non

By Ira Forman

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.
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Next week Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican in the midst of a most difficult re-election campaign, is scheduled to host a “Jewish Leadership Forum.” The event is to feature a number of prominent Jewish Republican leaders, as well as representatives of two Jewish nonprofits, the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Critics of this affair, among them myself, claim that in an intense election-year atmosphere, Jewish nonprofit institutions should scrupulously avoid events that could very well be used for partisan purposes. The O.U., for its part, claims that this event is not related to election-year activities, and that representatives of the group appear at non-campaign forums with both Democrats and Republicans.

Regardless of who is “correct” about the appropriateness of this particular event, the debate highlights a particularly dangerous situation for Jewish 501(c)3 institutions: the willingness of politicians in both parties to use inherently nonpartisan religious organizations, including synagogues, for partisan purposes in election years. That some religious institutions seem to be willing to be used by these same politicians makes the danger all that much greater.

Let me be clear: This is not a problem that is caused by only one political party. Both Democrats and Republicans in difficult elections campaigns are quite willing to engage in such behavior.

For years, many conservatives have decried the tendency of some black ministers to endorse liberal candidates from their pulpits. Moreover, in the Jewish community one suspects that over the last eight decades — a time during which many of our Jewish communal organizations have had liberal agendas — there have undoubtedly been cases in which those institutions have stepped over the line in helping like-minded candidates for public office.

But while the problem is not a recent phenomenon, it clearly is increasing in frequency. We live in an age when partisan divisions may be more intense and polarizing than at any time since the end of the 19th century. In addition, today politicians are increasingly comfortable making direct and open appeals to religious communities. And closer to home, there are significant Jewish voting blocs in many of the key battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Florida.

There are plenty of culprits to blame. Criticism should first and foremost be aimed at the politicians in both parties who are willing to use 501(c)3 religious organizations to help them get elected or re-elected. But shame, too, on those Jewish organizations that allow themselves to be put in such a situation.

Even when nonprofit synagogue or communal organizations do not have the slightest intention of helping a candidate for office, it is incumbent upon their leaders to make sure that there is not even an appearance of partisanship in their activities. Not taking such precautions can come at a very real price: Nonpartisan organizations could endanger their tax status.

Jewish institutions should also avoid being used by politicians because our community — perhaps more than any other religious community in the United States — has a major stake in keeping church and state separate in the public square. And though there may be a short-term interest in “thanking” a politician during his or her re-election campaign, Jewish communal organizations have a long-term interest in keeping our issue agendas free from partisan bias.

Figuring out what kind of behavior is kosher for Jewish nonprofits does not require a degree in rocket science. If Democrats are invited to an event, make sure that Republicans are too. If an elected official who is running for re-election is invited, make sure that the incumbent’s challenger is too, either to the same event or to one of equal quality. Most importantly, in election years Jewish nonprofits need to be extremely cautious about what kind of forums they provide to elected officials who have tightly contested re-election contests.

It may seem strange for a Jewish organization that by its very name is unequivocally Democratic to be advocating that Jewish 501(c)3 organizations scrupulously avoid even the appearance of partisan activity. But it is exactly to avoid such appearances, and to create an address for proper partisan issue advocacy, that the Jewish community has the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition. It does neither our community nor our larger democracy any good when nonprofit Jewish institutions, be they religious or communal, get into the gray zone of partisan activity.

Ira Forman is executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

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