America Decides 2004 Election Forums Held in Shul Lead to Claims of Partisanship

Some synagogue leaders are complaining that an arm of the Republican Jewish Coalition is holding events supporting President Bush and the Republican Party at their temples, after claiming they would hold non-partisan educational programs about the upcoming election. Leaders of a synagogue in a Philadelphia suburb say the Jewish Policy Center held what amounted to a pep rally for President Bush and the Republican Party in their shul. The leaders say the group did not make clear it was affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition when it rented space for the event and asked for the temple’s mailing list, and told synagogue leaders the event would be non-partisan.

A similar event in a Cleveland suburb in September angered several attendees, but synagogue leaders said they knew the group was aligned with the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Event organizers say temple leaders and participants should have anticipated what type of program they were getting, given the fact that conservative Jewish thinkers like Dennis Prager and Michael Medved were the headline speakers.

The controversy is the latest in what has been a contentious battle to secure Jewish votes in key swing states this election year. Jewish officials from both parties say their opponents have been working to stifle their events and prevent them from promoting their candidate to Jewish voters.

The Jewish Policy Center is the sister organization of the Republican Jewish Coalition. It is designated by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 organization, and therefore is forbidden from engaging in partisan political activities.

But attendees say the Jewish Policy Center events included only Republican perspectives and left some congregants angry. Other events planned for swing states have been thwarted after Democrats complained.

“It was definitely not what it was billed to be,” Harry Sauer, president of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pa., said of the Oct. 17 forum at his synagogue. “It was billed as a non-partisan event and it became a Kerry-bashing, George Bush pep rally.”

All synagogues and many Jewish organizations also have 501(c)3 status. These groups can hold candidate forums in which all sides are presented, and can educate voters, but cannot be partisan.

The RJC is not the only political group with a 501(c)3 arm: The National Jewish Democratic Council is aligned with the Solomon Project.

Ira Forman, who directs the NJDC and the Solomon Project, said the project hasn’t held any events this fall and works to be bipartisan. He noted that the Solomon Project held events at the same time as the Republican National Convention in New York in August, and invited Republicans.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Jewish Policy Center and the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the center’s events were not partisan.

“The Jewish Policy Center is a non-partisan, non-political think tank that addresses conservative policy issues,” Brooks said. “We do not engage in partisan political politics.”

Brooks did say, however, that the center does have conservative fellows who speak on conservative issues, and that the organization’s goal is to have a dialogue on conservatism within the Jewish community.

Both events were titled “Liberal Roots and Conservative Solutions: A Jewish Conservative View of Policy Issues Concerning the Jewish Community.”

He also said all panelists were reminded to remain non-partisan. Brooks provided JTA with two pages of guidelines given to speakers before the event: They tell panelists they can’t endorse particular candidates or refer to their election activities, and that they should avoid any activity that “promotes or argues for or against any candidates by name or by political party affiliation.”

It goes on to urge panelists to limit discussions to specific policies or general public policy approaches. If panelists are asked overtly political questions, the guidelines recommend that they “artfully extricate themselves from having to give a direct answer.”

Rabbi Jay Stein of Har Zion said he felt the panelists were promoting the Republican Party and demonizing the Democrats.

At both events, the Jewish Policy Center rented space from the synagogue, and temple leaders made clear that the event was not endorsed by the synagogue.

Stein said he wasn’t told the title of the event when he agreed to rent space. While he knew some of the speaker’s names, it wasn’t clear that the event would be partisan, he said, adding that the Jewish Policy Center stressed that it was a non-partisan, educational group.

“I feel we were misled into thinking they could facilitate a non-partisan event,” Sauer said.

Har Zion’s panel included Prager, conservative magazine editor David Horowitz, columnist John Podhoretz and analyst Daniel Pipes. Pipes was appointed by Bush to the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the other three panelists all have expressed support for the president.

Medved was introduced as the moderator and was supposed to give a Democratic perspective. But observers said Medved was not fair, presenting the liberal arguments sarcastically.

“Medved clearly came in with a bias,” Stein said. “You could see it from the way he was presenting that he was trying to ridicule the left.”

Stein said Horowitz was the most outlandish and overtly partisan in his commentary.

“Conservatism doesn’t mean vitriolic; conservatism doesn’t mean venomous,” the rabbi said. “David Horowitz was just that.”

Attempts to reach Medved and Horowitz were unsuccessful.

Stein said he had to leave the event early for fear of being berated by angry congregants. Over the next few days, he said, he received countless e-mails and telephone messages from upset members of his congregation.

Both Sauer and Stein did say, however, that many other people enjoyed the event, and appreciated hearing a conservative perspective.

The B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, Ohio, held a similar event by the same name Sept. 12. According to an article in the Cleveland Jewish News, the panel — which included Pipes, Medved and several other speakers — “made no attempt to hide their pro-Republican, pro-Bush sentiments.”

Several attendees wrote letters to the newspaper complaining about the event.

The temple’s executive director, Ralph Rosenthal, told JTA that he knew the policy center was aligned with the RJC when he allowed them to rent space.

“Some people raised concerns after the event, but they did not misrepresent who they were,” Rosenthal said.

Forman, of the National Jewish Democratic Council, called the policy center’s activities “unfair.”

“If Jewish institutions want to do something on the election, I think that’s great,” he said. “I encourage them to have one-on-ones with us or other surrogates.”

Brooks said he has seen other activities trying to stifle a Republican response. He claims that a Cleveland-area Jewish community center allowed the NJDC to speak, but would not bring in Republicans for balance, and that Ohio State University’s Hillel is hosting Cameron Kerry — the brother of presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — and other Jewish Democratic leaders.

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