Washington – Taking on politicians, especially during election season, has always been a tricky issue for Jewish not-for-profit organizations. The fear of being painted in partisan colors and tax regulations limiting charities’ political speech, have led Jewish organizations to take extra caution before speaking out on issues relating to political candidates.
But not this year.
Donald Trump’s takeover of the political arena, with his broad, defamatory rhetoric aimed at minorities, has led many Jewish groups to step into the debate more forcefully.
The Anti-Defamation League has been at the forefront, with public statements criticizing Trump for singling out Muslims and for accepting support from white supremacists. On Wednesday, ADL added Ted Cruz to the list, issuing a statement in response to Cruz’s call for special police security patrols in Muslim neighborhoods across America. The group described Cruz’s call as an “irrational approach,” which is “misguided and counterproductive.”
“This is a very unusual political season, and what we’re seeing is another aspect of it,” said historian Jonathan Sarna from Brandeis University. “People are torn between the feeling that Jewish institutions should be neutral, and the moral sense that Mr. Trump represents something the Jewish community can’t really accept.”
The ADL’s February 25 press release calling on Trump to distance himself from former Ku Klux Klan chief David Duke and to disavow white supremacist groups garnered national attention after Trump stumbled on national TV when confronted with the question. Trump claimed he did not know of Duke. CNN News host Jake Tapper pressed Trump three times on whether he’d distance himself from the KKK — but Trump never mentioned the group in his answers. “I have to look at the group,” he said, speaking generically about allegedly racist organizations supporting him. “I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I’d have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them.”
Helpfully, ADL followed up on February 28 with an offer to provide Trump and other candidates with information about hate groups that may get involved in their campaigns. One day later the group issued a list of individuals and groups supporting Trump that it found racist, along with thumbnail summaries of their backgrounds.
ADL’s national director Jonathan Greenblatt, meanwhile, took to the airways with a clear demand that Trump disavow hate groups and make clear he rejects their support.
In an email to the Forward, Greenblatt said his organization has not stepped up its political activity this election cycle. “We are doing what we have always done during the political season, which is speaking out when there are expressions of bigotry or stereotyping of marginalized groups such as immigrants or minorities,” Greenblatt said, “Our founding mission impels us to speak out when there are expressions of racism, prejudice or bigotry from people in public life, whether [or not] those are candidates, and regardless of whether they are Democrats, Republicans or Independents.”
ADL has been the most active in taking on Trump, but other Jewish groups have also weighed in, putting aside stances of strict neutrality to direct strong statements at Trump.
The American Jewish Committee, last November, denounced Trump’s call to create a registry of Muslim Americans, and earlier this month issued a statement condemning violence in the presidential campaign, without mentioning Trump by name.
“AJC is strictly non-partisan. It abstains from taking stands on candidates and is content to let the electoral processes play out,” the group explained in its statement. “But when the process is infected with threats of violence and disruption, it is not a candidate at issue; it is the viability of democracy itself.”
B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and major religious denominations also spoke out against Trump’s comments on Muslims.
Beyond Trump’s comments as a trigger, there may be other underlying reasons for the organizations’ willingness to enter the political fray. “Many Jewish institutions have chafed seeing evangelicals speak out so strongly on political issues,” said Sarna. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, endorsing the right of corporations to contribute without limit to nominally independent political committees as a form of free speech, also caused religious groups to feel greater freedom in expressing their own political views, he said.
Most Jewish groups are registered as not-for-profit charities under IRS clause 501(C)(3), which prohibits them from endorsing or funding candidates. They are also limited under this clause in how much and to what extent they may publicly voice political views relating to candidates running in elections. Violations could lead to loss of their tax-exempt status and subsequently to a serious drop in donation revenue.
But according to charities law expert Gail Harmon, “Unfortunately, the IRS does not have bright line rules about political activity.”
Harmon, a partner in the Washington firm Harmon, Curran, Spielberg and Eisenberg, explained that while endorsing and funding candidates are clearly prohibited, the rules are murkier with regard to political communications by these organizations. They cannot ask constituents to vote for a certain candidate nor are they allowed to target their communications to a specific electorate. But in practice, she said, the IRS has been very cautious in going after charities expressing views on political issues relating to candidates.
“Technically, these groups are at risk, but there is a very strong First Amendment consideration that comes into play,” Harmon said. An IRS move to revoke a group’s tax exempt status because of its political involvements is extremely rare, something that happens “once a decade.”
Greenblatt made clear the ADL sees no legal problem with its statements regarding Trump and Cruz, because the group does not focus on the candidate but rather on the issue. “It is not about individuals, it is about ideas,” he said. “It is not about political parties, it is about core principles. “We speak up and speak out in pursuit of our mission. And we will vigorously continue to do so with conviction, with real firmness, when necessary.”