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Elections ’98: Jewish Voter Guides Offer a Compass for Election Day

American Jews wondering where candidates stand on Jewish issues have a handful of tools available to them this election year.

Several Jewish groups have distributed voter guides to help educate Jewish voters about issues ranging from U.S.-Israel relations to the separation of church and state.

The guides, unlike the congressional “scorecards” distributed by the Christian Coalition and other advocacy groups that rate each candidate, do not suggest how voters should cast their ballots.

Indeed, Jewish groups, which are prohibited by federal law guiding tax-exempt organizations from advocating for the election or defeat of any candidate, attempt to remain scrupulously non-partisan. The guides, for the most part, simply attempt to lay out the issues from a Jewish viewpoint and provide voters with a compass with which to navigate through the electoral field.

The JAC Education Foundation publishes perhaps the best known guide in the Jewish community. During this election cycle, JAC has sent out some 75,000 guides to federations, synagogues and other Jewish organizations.

The JAC guide focuses the voting records of all incumbents, highlighting their votes on 11 measures in the House and seven in the Senate that the group considers of key concern to the Jewish community.

The House votes include a school voucher bill for the District of Columbia; a constitutional amendment that would have allowed for school prayer; a bill to deny reinstatement of food stamp benefits that were stripped from legal immigrants as part of the 1996 welfare overhaul; a bill sanctioning foreign companies providing missile technology to Iran; and various measures concerning abortion.

For Senate races, JAC highlighted a bill to sanction foreign companies providing missile technology to Iran; an attempt to limit food stamp eligibility for legal immigrants and refugees; a bill calling for tax breaks to support private or parochial education; and two measures concerning abortion.

The National Jewish Democratic Council, which is also constrained from advocating for any candidate’s election or defeat, said it hopes to distribute nearly 250,000 voter guides in 10 states by Election Day.

Ira Forman, the group’s executive director, said the guides are intended both to “stimulate voter turnout” and to “make sure our community knows what’s at stake in this election.”

The NJDC guide highlights selected candidates’ records, both incumbents and challengers, on U.S.-Israel relations, abortion rights, environmental protections, gun control, the separation of church and state, immigrants’ rights and funding for public education.

The group has targeted congressional as well as gubernatorial campaigns across the country, such as the New York Senate race between Republican incumbent Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and California’s gubernatorial race.

The Orthodox Union, for its part, has for the first time distributed an “election issues guide” to Orthodox synagogues and O.U. members around the country.

Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute of Public Affairs, said the guides are intended to educate both voters and candidates about his group’s core issues. But unlike the JAC and NJDC guides, the O.U.’s guide — as well as a similar guide published by the American Jewish Congress — leave it to voters to do their own research about where each candidate stands on those issues.

On the domestic front, it highlights its support for a school voucher bill for the District of Columbia; legislation to replace the now-defunct Religious Freedom Restoration Act which would make it harder for government to interfere with religious practice; expansion of “charitable choice,” which would permit religiously affiliated institutions to compete with private secular programs for government grants to provide social services; and a bill known as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that would increase penalties for crimes motivated by religious or ethnic bias.

In the international arena, it highlights its support for a recently enacted bill requiring the United States to release data gathered on Nazi war criminals; creation of a U.S. commission charged with studying Holocaust victims’ assets in the United States; and Congress’ recent passage of a bill aimed at fighting religious persecution abroad.

The AJCongress’ guide, meanwhile, highlights its support for such issues as foreign aid to Israel, attempts to contain Iran, new protections for religious liberty and stronger hate crimes laws.

It cites its opposition to a constitutional amendment allowing for school prayer, school vouchers and other subsidies for religious education, and banning so-called partial-birth abortion procedures.

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