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Political Fireworks at Local Synagogue

July 19, 2012 By:
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U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz fields questions at K.I. -- Photo by Richard Chaitt

For U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, the toughest question of the evening came at the end: Why had President Barack Obama urged Israel to retreat to its pre-1967 borders?

Speaking to the roughly 1,200 people who had gathered Monday night at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, the Florida congresswoman said she was eager to address this particular issue.

"This is one of the mischaracterizations and outright distortions that opponents of the president have been trying to perpetuate," she said.

Before she began her next sentence, one particularly vocal audience member yelled out, "Including the Washington Post?" -- a reference to a 7,000-word article that ran over the weekend chronicling the administration's involvement and lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"Oh, shut up!" a man sitting nearby shouted.

This was one of several such exchanges on an evening in which half-a-dozen or so speakers -- including U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro -- lauded the president and his commitment to Israel and the Jewish community. Some in the audience responded with heckling, shouting phrases like, "That's not true."

The fact that so many people turned out for an election-related event in the middle of July -- and that partisans shouted at one another months before Election Day -- illustrates how intensely focused many Jews are on a race that polls show is a virtual dead heat.

The program also focused attention on the thorny question of when and how to host political events at a synagogue. At what point could a synagogue risk incurring IRS penalties or even lose its tax-exempt status, which precludes nonprofits from direct campaign involvement or endorsements?

Wasserman Schultz eventually explained in answer to the question that the idea of mutually agreed upon land swaps was an important part of Obama's 2011 statement on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"Opponents of the president always leave off that second part, which is the critical component," she said. "Those swaps would be mutually agreed upon, making sure that Israel's security was paramount."

Obama, she said, has made clear that "the only path to this possibly two-state solution, for the Palestinians, is through direct negotiations. That is the bottom line, that is the truth, those are the facts."

In many quarters, the question of whether Obama changed or reaffirmed U.S. policy with his remarks -- in advance of a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- remains a hotly debated topic.

It is certain to come up repeatedly in the months ahead as Jewish surrogates in both parties vie for the Jewish vote, particularly in a swing state like Pennsylvania.

Though synagogue gatherings featuring presidential candidates or their surrogates are routine occurrences in election years, the Keneseth Israel event was unusual in that it was held at a synagogue but actually organized by the Obama campaign, moderated by Montgomery County Democratic Party chair Marcel Groen and featured so many pro-Obama speakers.

Several Republicans in attendance -- as well as some neutral observers -- described it as a campaign rally, replete with campaign posters and material, rather than an informational session.

The local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition had protested about the one-sided nature of the event and lamented that the group wasn't contacted before the evening was scheduled.

The synagogue, in its original publicity for the event, made clear it was planning a separate event that would focus on Mitt Romney. Rabbi Lance Sussman has said that he's in touch with the RJC to help plan that event.

According to Marc Stern, general counsel to the American Jewish Committee, the IRS guidelines concerning political activity in synagogues are pretty clear.

"The basic rule is that you can't endorse or oppose candidates," Stern said, adding that it's fine for a congregation to host a program promoting one candidate as long as it makes an effort to host the other.

"There really is no question at all about legality as long as a synagogue makes an offering of equal time," said Stern.

That said, the attorney noted that following the letter of the law won't necessarily counteract the perception that a synagogue is favoring one side over another. In this hyper-partisan era, congregations need to exercise good judgment and take pains to consider how a particular event will be perceived, he said.

The Jewish Federations of North America sent a memo in May to federations and Jewish Community Relations Council executives nationwide focusing on some of the perils of election activity and tax-exempt status. Part of the memo focused on appearances by candidates or surrogates.

"It is permissible for the nonprofit to hold sequential sessions when only one individual candidate is asked to address the nonprofit, as long as the likely audiences, types of event, and manner of presentations of the speakers are similar," stated the memo, sent by William Daroff, JFNA's vice president for public policy.

The document also stated that activities of political parties and their representatives are typically considered out of bounds for religious nonprofits. But "such activities would be permissible if equal opportunities are provided to representatives from all political parties to attend such events."

In an interview the day after the event, Sussman marveled at the turnout and adamantly maintained that the synagogue was an apt venue for the event.

"This was an event sponsored by the Obama campaign, they presented their case and on occasion they criticized the opposition. I saw no attempt to rile up the crowd" as at an election rally.

He estimated that about 50 of the 1,200 people in attendance engaged in any heckling, and he never considered intervening.

"Considering what could have been, it was really very minor, a couple people asked me why I didn't take a stronger hand and the answer was I didn't want to. I decided to just let them do their thing, he said.

He added that he's a little frustrated he's had a hard time finding GOP speakers. "I have a goal which transcends any of these minor communication blips, and that's to balance the equation and provide my community with access to leading figures from both sides. The whole world can't just depend on television news."

Wasserman Schultz, in an interview before the Keneseth Israel program, accused the RJC of trying to make something out of nothing in questioning the propriety of the program.

"It just gets Jewish Republicans talking because they don't want voters to know the truth," said Wasserman Schultz. "Their goal is to continue to be able to lie and distort the president's record."

For his part, RJC activist Richard Tems said that he and others attended the program "to make sure that the lies of the Democrats don't go" unanswered.

Tems, a 64-year-old from Bucks County, said the event felt like a campaign stop, which he said was inappropriate.

"We're here to remind them that they need to be balanced," he added.

Obama supporters clearly made up the majority of the audience -- as they are in national polls of Jewish voter preferences. Those who were interviewed said they had no qualms about the event.

Freyda Thomas, a 69-year-old Elkins Park resident, said that she was voting for Obama because she trusts "his intelligence and his integrity."

Thomas said she has a hard time identifying her top issue, but noted that Israel is among her chief concerns. "We need to keep Israel where it is and safe because it is the only democracy in the Middle East."

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