Voter Guide Spurs Debate over Political Role for Jews

The first-known voter guide tailored to the Jewish community is testing how far synagogues and Jewish institutions can – - and will — delve into electoral politics.

A legal and ethical row has erupted over the recently released “1996 Jewish Community Voter Guide.”

The guide, published by the Chicago-based JAC Education Foundation, lists the votes of all members of Congress “on issues of concern to the Jewish community,” including foreign aid, abortion rights, school prayer and welfare.

The JAC foundation, established last year by leaders of the pro-Israel and pro- choice political action committee, JAC PAC, says it has distributed copies of the six-page pamphlet to Reform and Conservative congregations across the country and to groups such as Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women.

Most Jewish federations and community relations councils across the country have also received copies of the guide.

Less than six weeks from Election Day, the voter guide has become a political hot potato as Jewish groups have begun to debate how and whether they should distribute it to their members.

At issue is the line between political advocacy and political education. The Internal Revenue Service forbids tax-exempt non-profit groups from engaging in partisan politics. They are, however, allowed to educate voters.

Legal experts familiar with the guide disagree on whether the effort amounts to partisan endorsements. But they agree that the distribution of the guide raises difficult questions about the appropriateness of voter education efforts around election time.

At the same time, the National Jewish Coalition has charged that the guide was “clearly designed to make Republicans look bad” by “highlighting liberal, not Jewish issues,” said Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish group’s executive director.

The JAC foundation is staunchly defending its efforts.

The guide is “not only a permissible activity, but a desirable activity,” said Linda Sher, president of the JAC Education Foundation.

“Our goal is to let people know how federal legislators voted on issues of concern to the Jewish community,” she said. “This is one of many resources for when people go to Capitol Hill, vote and even watch local news.”

On the question of partisanship, Sher said, “This is absolutely not a liberal Democratic document.”

“If we truly were trying to shape a document, we would have left the welfare vote out,” she said, referring to the recent overhaul of the welfare system. That legislation drew support from scores of Democratic members of Congress but was opposed by most of the organized Jewish community.

Concern that Jewish groups could endanger their tax-exempt status by distributing the guide prompted the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council to convene a conference call last week of legal experts on the issue.

While most of the experts agreed that the guide can be distributed without violating IRS rules, NJCRAC is “urging caution” on its member agencies.

The guide does not rate or endorse candidates and does not identify which members of Congress are running for office this year. It does, however, list 11 Senate votes and 14 House votes of interest to the Jewish community and reports how the members voted.

JAC foundation officials said they plan to release updates as soon as there are enough votes to report on in the next Congress.

One of the issues of concern to pass IRS muster is that groups must distribute such guides on a regular basis, not just around election time.

Much of the controversy also surrounds JAC’s descriptions of the votes.

The guide describes one House vote on a spending bill for the District of Columbia as a bill that “proposes a voucher system which would violate the separation of church and state.”

And a vote on the balanced-budget amendment is described as legislation that “attempts to balance the federal budget largely through cuts in social programs that would hurt people served by Jewish and other social service agencies.”

Some Jewish groups are not opposed to school vouchers and others have expressed support for a balanced budget.

These descriptions “clearly imply who voted right and wrong and states that that should be taken into account,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress. “That’s not education, it’s endorsement of a candidate.”

The JAC foundation disagrees with Stern’s claims.

“This is not a guide to tell you how to vote. It’s to tell you how they voted,” Sher said. “Right and wrong is up to the interpretation of the person holding the guide and reading it.”

Most troubling for Stern is what he termed the “similarity” to the Christian Coalition’s guides. Those guides have drawn sharp criticism from many Jewish organizations concerned about the political influence of the religious right. The group is also under investigation by the Federal Election Commission for its guides.

“This will expose the Jewish community to the charge of hypocrisy regardless of how the tax question is answered,” said Stern, who said he would advise AJCongress chapters not to distribute the guide.

Responding to the comparisons with the Christian Coalition guides, Sher said, “We do not rate candidates in the guide and do not tell people how to vote.”

Unlike the JAC voter guide, the Christian Coalition guides include numerical ratings and frequently compare incumbents to challengers.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, argues in a memo to Reform congregations that the JAC foundation guide “is different both in degree and in kind from the political activity engaged in by the Christian Coalition.”

Whether the guide is similar to the Christian Coalition’s or not is not important to Brooks, who argues that the guide is dangerous because it “makes longstanding friends of ours look bad.”

For example, Brooks cited how Florida Republican Senator Connie Mack fares in the voter guide.

“Mack is one of the strongest friends Israel has in the U.S. Senate. To say that he is wrong with the Jewish community 64 percent of the time is outrageous,” he said, citing his interpretation of the voter guide.

But for this very reason, the JAC foundation argues that the document is an important tool.

“I think maybe Sen. Mack might look at it and say, `I didn’t think that the Jewish community was interested in this issue,’” said Sher. “It’s a positive, not a negative.”

The controversy does not appear to have slowed the JAC foundation’s effort. Officials said they have already sent out about 50,000 guides, the majority of which were requested by synagogues.

As Election Day rapidly approaches, some Jewish groups are mobilizing to distribute the guide.

In the memo to all member congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella body of Reform congregations, Saperstein wrote: “Voting records like the 1996 Jewish Community Voter Guide are extremely useful information sources.”

“These records can provide invaluable information for you and your congregants,” he wrote.

JAC foundation officials sought to downplay the controversy over the guide.

“We strongly urge any organization that is going to pass it out to talk to its own legal counsel,” Sher said. “I guess it’s a compliment that people are reading them and taking sides. Maybe that’s healthy.”

At the same time, she cited concern over the “misinterpretation of the effort,” saying, “Perhaps the title `Voter Guide’ needs to be looked at.”

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