The election may be over, but the debate over Jewish involvement continues.
When B’nai B’rith President Tommy Baer recently criticized Bob Dole’s attempt to link his struggle with his disability to discrimination faced by Jews, there was an outcry.
For what readers of the Sept. 30 article in The New York Times article quoting Baer did not know was that he had already endorsed President Clinton’s re- election bid.
Baer’s comments had Republican Jews seething and sparked renewed controversy about whether it is appropriate for presidents of Jewish groups to endorse candidates.
Although Baer was far from alone in his political involvement this election season, he was singled out by some Jewish activists for attacking Dole in the name of B’nai B’rith while endorsing Clinton in his private capacity.
The incident raised the question of whether presidents of Jewish groups even have a private capacity when they sit at an organization’s helm.
Federal rules prohibit non-profit groups from engaging in partisan activity and endorsing candidates. But the law allows lay leaders as individuals to endorse candidates.
Although the practice of endorsing candidates is not new, campaigns this year at the national and local levels increased their quest for public support from Jewish leaders. The campaigns had hoped that Jewish voters would support their candidate after seeing that prominent leaders had.
Baer was not the only organizational president to sign on to the Clinton-Gore Jewish Leadership Council.
Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement, and Robert Rifkind, president of the American Jewish Committee, also joined the 600-member Jewish support committee for Clinton.
Dole won the endorsement of about 55 people for his Jewish Americans for Dole committee, including veteran Jewish leaders such as Max Fisher, who also served as national finance co-chairman of the Dole campaign. None, however, lead any Jewish organizations.
The issue has many concerned.
“The heads of Jewish organizations, both lay and professional, ought not support political candidates while in office,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
“You can’t turn your affiliation with an organization on and off. It will not be generally understood.”
The Council of Jewish Federations subscribes to NJCRAC’s position, according to Frank Strauss, CJF’s director of communications.
“This is not a question of law but one of prudence,” said Marc Stern, co- director of the legal department at the American Jewish Congress.
“Conflict of interest rules have not been well-applied to the Jewish community,” said Stern, who is slated to speak at a special session devoted to the issue at the CJF’s General Assembly in Seattle later this month.
For her part, Diana Aviv, director of the CJF’s Washington Action Office, believes that the endorsements of candidates by presidents of Jewish groups “is fraught with danger.”
“If someone asked me for my opinion, I would discourage them from being active in a political campaign while serving as president.” Aviv said, adding that such activity “has the potential to close doors” to those who back the losing candidate.
But Baer and others say this is a free-speech issue.
“When I became president of B’nai B’rith, I did not sacrifice the right to endorse Democrats, as I have for a long time,” he said.
“I see no conflict of interest,” he added, “so long as an association is not made between Tommy Baer in my private capacity and Tommy Baer as president of B’nai B’rith.”
As for his criticism of Dole, he said it was not motivated by partisanship.
“I would have said the same things if it were Clinton who made the awkward comparison,” he said.
Baer’s criticism came in response to remarks Dole made during a speech to a B’nai B’rith convention over Labor Day weekend. “Nor have I forgotten that I’m sort of a member of a special group, with a disability, and what would happen to those of us with disabilities if we discriminated in America,” Dole told the convention delegates.
Seeking to reassure Jews, he said, “You don’t face any risks in a Dole administration. I know what it’s all about.”
In a Times story a few weeks later that addressed Dole’s outreach to minority communities, Baer said: “Physical disabilities and discrimination, I don’t think they can be equated.”
“The attempt to draw the two together takes away from both. I thought Dole was trying to show his concern, but the manner in which it was articulated was perhaps a bit awkward.”
While saying that he was not singling out Baer for criticism, NJCRAC’s Rubin said of this exchange, “This is precisely the kind of conflict we are taking about.”
“He would have had much more credibility criticizing Dole if he had not endorsed Clinton.”
But the AJCommittee’s Rifkind, who also endorsed Clinton-Gore, agreed with Baer.
“I did not give away my rights as a citizen when I became president of the American Jewish Committee,” Rifkind said. “I cannot pretend to be something I’m not. My public life is an open book and I’ve been a Democrat all my life.”
While there is disagreement on the propriety of political endorsements by organizational presidents, there appears to be a consensus that political involvement by lower-level lay leaders and by board members can, in fact, be important.
“For the federations to be effective at all, we need lay leaders on both sides of the aisle to be very active so we have contacts with whoever wins,” Aviv said. “We have assiduously sought out lay leaders closely affiliated with candidates and parties.”
Steve Grossman, the former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who now serves as chairman of the board of the pro-Israel lobby, agreed.
“People who are in leadership positions in major Jewish organizations need to maintain strong and productive bipartisan relations,” he said.
“I think that you have to be true to your own principles but at the same time make sure that the endorsement of a candidate does not degenerate into a negative statement attacking the other candidate,” said Grossman, who served as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party before he became AIPAC president.
“If I were still president of AIPAC, I clearly would have supported the president for re-election but probably would have avoided public endorsement of all kinds,” said Grossman, adding that he endorsed Clinton during this election.
Meanwhile, some Republican Jewish leaders say they hope this election cycle marks the end of group presidents endorsing candidates.
“The one thing that Washington does have is people with long memories,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition.