The fallout from the controversy about whether a Florida synagogue should have invited Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to give a speech at a Sabbath service continues to simmer. But while partisans are taking predictable stands on the issue, it’s distressing to see the way some officials at supposedly non-partisan Jewish organizations are advocating letting politicians use the sanctuary to promote political positions and are seemingly supporting the Democratic talking point that those who protested Wasserman Schultz’s appearance are “bullies.” As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports, Mark Pelavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee both take the position that there is nothing wrong with a synagogue letting a politician take over the bima during a service.
They have a point when they argue that the question of a religious institution’s tax-exempt status isn’t the issue. But while any organization with a 501©(3) status needs to be careful about partisanship, the issue here isn’t just taxes, it is fairness. Any synagogue, church, mosque or temple of any sort that gives a politician the moral authority that a speech from the pulpit during a worship service affords is taking sides in the election unless there is equal time provided to the other side. Just as troubling is the hypocrisy of Jewish groups seeking to support the effort by the Democrats to portray their critics as suppressing speech when they may have failed to speak up in the past to defend Republicans who played the same game as Wasserman Schultz.
As JTA rightly recalls, four years ago, Democrats pitched a fit when Sarah Palin, then the Republican candidate for vice president, was invited to address a rally outside the United Nations protesting Iran’s nuclear program. Four years earlier the Jewish Policy Center, a think tank associated with the Republican Jewish Coalition, was lambasted for hosting a program at a synagogue that was seen as hostile to then Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Yet even there the analogy breaks down, as in neither of those cases was a candidate or even partisans allowed to take over a worship service as Wasserman Schultz sought to do.
Both Stern and Pelavin not unreasonably suggest that the way to handle the situation is to insist on equal time–meaning it would have been okay for Wasserman Schultz to appear at a Friday night service so long as a Republican was invited at the same time on another occasion. Perhaps had Miami’s Temple Israel scheduled a GOP speaker to come a week or two later, they might have avoided all the negative publicity they wound up getting. Yet the problem with opening the door to allowing services to become political rallies is that balance is rarely the result once synagogues start being manipulated by their most partisan members and their parties.
Even more to the point, allowing a religious event to become the venue for partisan politics is always asking for trouble. No one is saying, or ought to say, that synagogue buildings can’t be used for debates or forums in which politics is discussed. But there is a big difference between a Sunday morning bagel breakfast to which politicians are invited and what ought to be a purely religious event.
Far too often in this country we have seen inner city churches used as launching points for Democratic campaigns or evangelical churches employed for the same purpose by conservatives and Republicans. The willingness of some liberal Jews to use Reform institutions such as Miami’s Temple Israel in the same way is regrettable. Rather than being the rallying cry for those who wish to impose more partisan politics on helpless congregants, it should serve as a warning to all religious institutions to stay away from politicians while they are running for office and seeking to exploit them.
In the case of the Wasserman Schultz controversy it also ought to be remembered that those who protested her appearance were not the bullies. It was those congregants who attempted to turn a Friday night service into a Democratic rally who were the ones bullying the Republican members of the synagogue into a cowed silence. Their willingness to speak up and demand equal time for their side of the question was in the best traditions of American democracy. That Democrats who once moved heaven and earth to keep Palin from appearing at a secular rally against Iran now claim Wasserman Schultz should have the right to parachute into Torah services speaks volumes about the way partisanship can turn people into shameless hypocrites.