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Conference Riles Critics Again by Promoting Call With McCain Campaign

Washington — A Jewish umbrella organization is once again under fire for what some critics described as showing favoritism toward the Republican Party in the presidential race.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 51 communal groups, distributed invitations to a conference call with GOP candidate John McCain that was organized by his campaign. The Presidents Conference urged its members to “circulate” the invitation to the October 19 call to “local and state levels.”

Jewish Democrats and community activists expressed anger at the invitation, arguing it was inappropriate for the non-partisan group to promote one candidate’s events. “Is this the COP or the GOP?” asked one Jewish Democratic official, referring to the acronyms of the Conference of Presidents and the Republican Party.

The Presidents Conference and its members are not-for-profit organizations that by law are required to be non-partisan and maintain political balance to keep their tax-exempt status. Support for political candidates or parties could undermine that status, critics have argued.

Accusations that the umbrella group was showing partiality toward the GOP erupted last month, following the Presidents Conference’s invitation to Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, to speak at an anti-Iran rally outside the United Nations. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, earlier had accepted an invitation to speak and then pulled out after learning of Palin’s invitation.

Jewish politicians and member groups had argued that Clinton no longer was running for president and an invitation to Palin should have been matched with one to the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden. They feared the Palin invitation could risk the tax-exempt status of Jewish non-profits involved in organizing the

rally. Because of the uproar, Palin was disinvited as were other elected officials scheduled to speak at the event.

This time around, it was not an event organized by the Presidents Conference, but rather a McCain campaign event titled “Tele-town hall for Jewish leaders” that prompted the controversy.

The invitations for the call were distributed by the campaign and by the Presidents Conference. Members of the Presidents Conference received an e-mail signed by Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, and chairman Harold Tanner, prompting participants to go to the McCain Web site to register for the call.

The conference call moderator acknowledged Tanner at the end of the call, thanking him for his help with it.

Hoenlein and Tanner did not return calls from the Forward seeking comment.

Several members of the Presidents Conference expressed dismay after learning of the group’s involvement in McCain’s call. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he felt “uneasy” after seeing the invitation. Yoffie, who heads one of largest groups in the umbrella organization, said that “sending [an] invitation to a candidate-sponsored forum” that was not under the conference’s auspices, “is problematic and very close to crossing the line.” He added that there would not be an issue if members were invited to forums sponsored by both candidates. “This is a time for extra caution,” Yoffie said. “The Iran rally issue raised questions about balancing and staying non-partisan.”

The Obama campaign has made it clear that meetings and conference calls between the candidate and Jewish leaders were arranged by the campaign without any involvement by the Presidents Conference.

Jewish activists within the Democratic Party reacted forcefully to the Presidents Conference’s decision to send invitations to the McCain event. “If this is the way the Jewish community chooses to conduct itself, there will be a political cost for aligning yourself with one political party,” said an activist. “The cost will be access in Washington.”

Another Jewish Democrat added that “there is a general perception that the Presidents Conference leans more to the right, and this is yet another example.” Both activists spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not talking on behalf of their organizations.

At the height of the Iran rally debate last month, groups opposing Palin’s participation provided a legal opinion stressing that the invitation could be seen as a violation of the not-for-profit tax-exempt terms. Now, Jewish leaders have raised the same concern.

One group, the Orthodox Union, avoided potential legal and political problems by sending out invitations to McCain’s event and Obama’s conference calls with rabbis on September 17. The group added a disclaimer, saying it was passing along the campaigns’ announcements without endorsing the candidates and that the invitations were being circulated only for informational purposes. “We did it at the request of the campaigns,” said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Washington office. “As long as you do it for both sides, there is no problem.”

In the half-hour conference call with Jewish leaders, McCain was joined by Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Both the candidate and his leading Jewish supporter stressed their commitment to Israel’s security, but the call focused mainly on campaign issues.

Asked by an American-born Israeli rabbi why he does not “hammer” Obama on his ties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, McCain said that the issue is “pretty well known.” Most of the participants who asked questions were enthusiastic McCain supporters. One said he had already voted for McCain via absentee ballot. Only one of the six people who asked questions did not identify himself or herself as a supporter.

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