By: Dr. Aref Assaf
It may be Kosher but is it illegal? As the Record reported on February 17, 2012, several presidents of Orthodox synagogues are urging the Republican-registered members of their respective congregations to switch party affiliations in order to vote for Steve Rothman. Rep. Steve Rothman is battling fellow Democrat Rep. Bill Pascrell for the newly redrawn Ninth Congressional District.
The primary elections are set for June 5 and because the district is heavily Democratic, the winner will most likely carry the November elections too. The Record’s article is based on a letter first posted in the Passaic Clifton Jewish Community News. The Record calls into question the legality of such a letter signed by well-known religious leaders and debates the possible IRS code violations that such a position entails. Skirting the gray line of legality, these letters do carry the weight of the religious institutions the signers represent and when you consider the Orthodox community in Passaic is closely-knit, even when the names are not attached to their religious affiliations, they are still a known entity. While religious institutions may engage in local, state, and even federal elections, there are clear guidelines they must not cross to maintain their tax-exempt status under Section 501 of the IRS code, which governs non-profit and tax-exempt entities. Such entities are clearly prohibited from endorsing political candidates and/or contributing to their campaign funds and must provide equal access to all competing candidates.
The question remains when such activities exceed the limit of the law and spill over being a mere informational letter. As quoted in the Record, one of the letter signers, Akiva Hirth, said, “It’s a free country,” adding that “religious leaders were merely communicating with their congregants, not forcing them to take any action.” Yet a closer read tells a different story; and I quote from the original letter: “Our community has the unique opportunity to significantly impact this race. The choice is clear – support the candidate who best understands our needs and interests. Congressman Steve Rothman is the obvious choice in this Primary election.” This is clearly a political endorsement. The IRS is called upon to investigate the legal ramifications of such a violation.
It may turn out to be a non-issue, but I am puzzled that so many Jewish Rabbis would and for mere temporary political expediency encourage their congregation to go against their faith and register Democratic. Like observant American Muslims who also favor the Republican Party, Orthodox Jews would choose the Republican platform for strictly religious reasons dealing with abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, and support for Israel. I would not want my Imam to urge me to change my party label so irreverently. It’s just plain dishonest.
But if it is Kosher for Orthodox rabbis to preach to their members on political candidates, then it must be Halal for Muslim Imams to do the same. We will soon find out if Muslim religious leaders will reach out to their respective congregations. Imams, like rabbis, wield disproportionate leverage in and uncontested access to their congregations.
American Muslims are said to be evenly split between those registered as Democrat and Republicans. If Republican Muslims in New Jersey emulate the Jewish voters, and assuming their numerical symmetry, they will at least cancel out the ‘converted’ Jewish ‘votes. Real democratic voters will then decide the election outcome.
Unquestionably, this primary election is pitting two otherwise harmoniously coexisting communities: the Muslim and Jewish communities. To what extent the Muslim community will be energized by these developments will have to be determined. As total and blind support for Israel becomes the only reason for choosing Rothman, voters who do not view the elections in this prism will need to take notice. Loyalty to a foreign flag is not loyalty to America’s.
Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum
Below is the text of the letter sent to Republican registered members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Passaic. Source: Passaic Clifton Jews Community News
Thursday, February 16, 2012 : A MESSAGE REGARDING ELECTIONS
Dear Member of the Community: February 8, 2012 Recently, our 36th District Assemblyman and Passaic City Council President, Gary Schaer, wrote to you regarding the June 5th Primary for United States Congress. Like Gary and Passaic Councilmen Chaim M. Munk and Daniel Schwartz, we are endorsing Congressman Steve Rothman in the Primary. This election is different from most. Our new congressional district leans heavily Democratic and whoever wins the June Primary Election will most likely win the congressional seat in November. The next Congressman will, in all likelihood, be decided by the Primary in June rather than November’s General Election. Our community has the unique opportunity to significantly impact this race. The choice is clear – support the candidate who best understands our needs and interests. Congressman Steve Rothman is the obvious choice in this Primary election. THE CATCH AND ACTION WE’RE ASKING YOU TO TAKE…In order to vote for Rothman in June, you must be registered as a Democrat. According to publicly available voting records (which show party affiliation, if any, but not for whom you actually voted) you are registered as a Republican. The deadline to change your registration and vote for Rothman in the Primary is April 11, 2012. While we understand this choice may be difficult for you, please know that after the election you can immediately reverse your Party affiliation back to Republican or Independent; how you vote in the Primary in June does not in any way influence how you vote in November. We believe it is of the utmost importance to the community that you register as a Democrat in order to vote in the June 5th Primary. Included, please find a *State of New Jersey Political Party Affiliation Declaration Form.* We are respectfully asking you to fill out this form in order to register as a Democrat as soon as possible. The last day to register is April 11th. We have included a stamped and addressed envelope for you to return it. *All you need to do is complete the form and drop it in the mail.*There are many reasons we are endorsing Congressman Steve Rothman over Rep. Bill Pascrell. On the back of this letter, please find a list of some of the actions and positions Steve has taken which, we think, deserve our endorsement and your vote.
Eliyahu Aron Scott Goldberg Heshy Greenfield Duvy Gross Akiva Hirth Avi Leiter Marty Lovy Pinny Milchman Howard Penner Shmuel Sanders Gary Schild Jonathan Sperling Dovid Weinberg Yehoshua White Fred Zemel