WASHINGTON (JTA) — In the rarefied arena of ideas, the American Jewish community has done quite well over the years in making the case for Israel, civil rights and the environment, among other issues.
These ideas may now be tested in the blood sport of politics.
Last week, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upended a ban of more than a century on direct corporate involvement in elections. Politics watchers are still trying to understand the implications of the 5-4 ruling by the court’s conservative majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The decision could have a profound effect on how Jewish groups operate in the public sphere.
Most pro-Israel and Jewish civil liberties groups still operate under the tax code as 501(c)3 organizations — religious, educational and charitable groups. This classification allows donors to write off contributions as a tax deduction but bans direct participation in the political process.
Groups with this classification are limited to pronouncements on issues and ideas: They may, for instance, speak generally about care for the environment or about energy conservations, but they cannot endorse or oppose specific candidates.
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling opens the way for corporations to directly attack candidates.
"It does shift the balance of power in the free marketplace of ideas, said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s activist arm, the Religious Action Center — itself a 501(c)3. "It shifts it dramatically towards corporations, which can now get involved in debate around elections."
The question for 501(c)3 groups is whether it becomes worthwhile to forego the tax exemption to enter the political fray more forcefully. They could do so as 501(c)4 organizations — the classification for lobbying groups.
"People will say, why should I give to a Jewish agency that has abstract policy positions when I can give to a 501(c)4 and have a direct role?" said Marc Stern, the legal counsel and acting director of the American Jewish Congress.
JTA contacted an array of groups to discuss the decision, but most declined to comment, saying they were waiting to see how the decision would bear out.
The group bringing the suit, Citizens United, is a conservative 501(c)4 that sought to screen a film, "The Hillary Movie," that directly attacked then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential run.
Some major pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, already have 501(c)4 status. Under the new ruling, they now have the freedom to weigh in on political battles; the question is whether it’s in their best interests to do so.
One reason they might want to hold back from explicitly backing particular candidates, Stern said, is because "they know their prediction might be wrong, and then there’s a disadvantage if the other guy wins."
That would place groups such as AIPAC, which values its bipartisan reach, at a disadvantage against 501(c)4 groups that are partisan and do not care about alienating one side or the other.
Another collection of pro-Israel groups facing key questions is political action committees, or PACs, which may have been rendered superfluous by the ruling.
Corporations are still prohibited from directly funding campaigns, while PACs may directly contribute. However, under the new rules, corporations may spend as much as they want running attack ads against candidates they don’t like, while donors may contribute only up to $5,000 to PACs.
Also, PACs can contribute only $5,000 to a candidate, although there are loopholes that allow PACs to funnel bundles of the maximum individual donation of $2,500 to a candidate.
In the 1970s, support for candidates by individual pro-Israel donors helped protect Israel from Ford administration threats of estrangement backed by the oil industry. In the 1990s, these donors and pro-Israel groups helped the push for Iran sanctions against the interests of big oil.
Were those battles to be replicated under the new rules, oil companies could marshal astronomical funds well out of the reach of pro-Israel donors to depict candidates as harming U.S. interests overseas.
"The structure of PACs have allowed Jews to focus their money on issues," Saperstein said. "Now you have corporations weighing in without any of the limitations that PACs have."
Some observers believe the anxieties are overstated.
"It’s very clear that the majority of voters are very supportive of Israel," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a founder of The Israel Project, a pro-Israel group that also tracks public opinion on Israel. "While there were times in history when that might have been a problem, this is not one of those times."
Some Conservatives have shrugged off concerns about the new ruling. Just because corporations are now able to weigh in directly on elections does not mean they will do so, Marc Ambinder wrote on his Atlantic Monthly blog.
"Corporate boards are risk averse," Ambinder wrote. "Smart CEOs don’t want to risk internal conflict on boards when deciding which political candidates to back directly."
An official associated with one pro-Israel PAC said her group is now likely to stress the importance of funneling funds through PACs as a means of countering corporate influence.
Other factors are mitigating the implications of the court ruling.
The corporate world is diverse, and different companies may weigh in on both sides of an issue. Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether the ruling allows shareholders to sue to prevent corporations from parlaying big bucks on political campaigning. In this scenario, grass-roots activists seeking to prevent such spending simply would have to buy shares.
In the meantime, Stern said he has been trying — without success — to convene Jewish groups to examine the decision and broader issues.
Saperstein said the decision made the case for greater involvement in which judges make the bench.
"It dramatizes the need for the Jewish community to get involved in nomination fights,” he said, “to make sure that people who don’t abandon 100 years of precedent that served the common good, as happened in this case, are appointed to the court.”