The old joke about “two Jews, three opinions,” is usually true when it comes to Jewish advocacy groups. President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city inspired jubilation in groups on the Jewish right and dire warnings from the left.
But the Trump tax reform proposal, which passed both chambers and is now in conference discussions, offers a moment of unity this typically turbulent community. All groups have come to a rare consensus against the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old prohibition on preaching politics from the pulpit. The repeal is currently in the House version of the tax reform bill.
Jewish groups are also united in their concern that the tax reform effort, which discourages deductions for charitable organizations, will result in a hit to Jewish communal non-profits.
“Wall to wall agreement in the #Jewish community is too rare. We’re together in opposing repeal of the #JohnsonAmendment - a harmful solution to a nonexistent problem,” tweeted on Friday Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel and director.
The Johnson Amendment is a 1954 provision in the U.S. tax code which prohibits nonprofits receiving tax-deductible donations from endorsing or opposing candidates. It was put in place to ensure that organizations that enjoy the tax break will not use it for politicking, and it has special bearing on houses of worship and religious institutions, where only a thin line separates religious values and political attitudes.
In February, shortly after taking office, Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which, he argued, endangered religious freedom. The move was set in motion during the 2016 presidential campaign as part of the discussion held between then-candidate Trump and his evangelical advisory board.
A repeal of the Johnson Amendment would allow political donors to make tax-deductible contributions to churches and synagogues that promote their political agenda, including those that directly endorse candidates for office.
Pushed forward by Trump’s evangelical allies, who believe this would free them from legal constraints limiting churches’ political speech, the move is opposed by all Jewish denominations, even the Orthodox groups who endorsed other aspects of Trump’s political agenda, including those aimed at promoting non-public education,
The Orthodox Union sent a letter on December 7 to leaders of the House-Senate Conference Committee, listing their hopes for changes in the final language to the new tax bill. Among them is a call for preserving the Johnson Amendment. “The rabbis and lay leaders of our community believe the Johnson Amendment appropriately protects the integrity of our congregations and insulates clergy and congregations from inappropriate political pressure and divisiveness,” wrote Jerry Wolasky and Nathan Diament who lead the OU’s advocacy center.
Agudath Israel, which has backed many of Trump’s initiatives also weighed in against the repeal. “We think that keeping religious entities like synagogues and yeshivos out of politics is the best way to protect the religious autonomy of such entities,” said the group’s executive vice president Chaim Dovid Zwiebel.
“The Johnson Amendment has insulated religious entities from the inevitable pressure they would face to get involved in political campaigns. And that’s a good thing - for the integrity of the political process, and even more so for the autonomy of religious institutions.”
Liberal Jewish denominations, who are not considered to have much sway over Trump’s decision making process, also oppose the repeal and changes to the charitable deducation.
Indeed, the need to preserve that deduction that unites all groups in the Jewish non-profit world. Senate and House versions differ on this issue, but both would discourage taxpayers from itemizing their deductions, thus turning charitable giving into a less attractive option. This could have a major impact on charities across the board and would hurt all Jewish organizations that rely on individual donors.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.