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More on the Johnson Amendment

I must respectfully disagree with my colleague Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin and the views he stated in his recent opinion piece, “The presidency and the pulpit: Easing fears and uniting the faithful” (May 19). His essay is based on a faulty understanding of the Johnson Amendment, and the important role it plays in our civic discourse.

The Johnson Amendment is a significant godsend (no pun intended) to religious life in America. It is a provision in the tax code that forbids tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. It allows leaders of religious congregations to fully speak about any issue that we wish to speak about. Yet at the same time, it demands that we obey the same rules as every other tax exempt organization. It makes no special provision or exemption for house of worship, nor should it. It defends houses of worship from the political whims and tastes of their largest benefactors by maintaining them as nonpartisan. Yet with one stroke of the pen, in order to satisfy a relatively small percentage of American religious leaders, the president has threatened all that with his ill-considered executive order relaxing enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.

Until recently, I could say to my congregation that I disagree with the president without any fear of reprisal, investigation, or threat to our tax exempt status. Now, however, I also can say that they should not vote for him, or that they should support some other candidate next time around.

Real religious leadership is to recognize how dangerous this power is, and refrain from using it.

Rabbi Rocklin uses the simple language of the Johnson Amendment to generalize about possible attempts by the government to limit speaking about political issues in our congregations, and claims that the executive order protects us. Yet there is no evidence of such limits ever actually taking place, for such speech never was limited or affected by the Johnson Amendment. Over the past several years, I have spoken about health care, gun control, and voting rights, all hot button political issues. And that is well within the law. I have criticized and praised sitting presidents. I have spoken passionately against the Iran nuclear deal. Again, all within the law. So did just about every other rabbi in Bergen County with regard to political issues they have wished to address in their synagogues. Yet none of us ever were investigated by an IRS agent.

I am explaining this to the readership of the Jewish Standard in this fashion so that the community might better understand how the Johnson Amendment actually protects free speech and expression, yet at the same time prevents our religious institutions from hyper-partisanship masquerading as religious piety. For the pendulum always swings between left and right, between Republican and Democrat. And our tax exempt organizations need to stay above the fray. Or have the courage of their convictions and stop taking the government’s money.

For these and so many other reasons, I support the Johnson Amendment and oppose this shortsighted executive order ordering the IRS to relax enforcement of it. We can only hope that legal challenges to this irresponsible and unnecessary executive order will be successful. A great deal is riding on such success — like the future of religious life in this great nation.

Rabbi Arthur Weiner
Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah

Don’t be negative about Trump visit

Reading “Five odd moments from Trump Israel trip” (May 26), I was disappointed but not surprised. It reminded me of an anecdote I heard in a journalism class. A news photographer on his first assignment asked his editor, “Should I take pictures of the candidate picking his nose or kissing babies?” Instead of photos we have words.

1. Contrasting the article’s interpretation of the message left in the guest book by Trump, there could have been quotes from his powerful and direct words in his speech at Yad Vashem. In the paragraph commenting on “an unfortunate typo” the Jewish Standard prints one too, “Dutch count (sic)”.

2. Instead of mocking the comment describing the visit to Saudi Arabia being in the Middle East, which it is, there could have been a description of the reception afforded to President Trump and his party. The pomp and ceremonies began with the deplaning of the presidential party and continued throughout his visit. All of them were highly “First Class.” In a different scenario his reception would have been contrasted with the visit of the previous president.

3. A listing of statements including “the Kotel was ‘part of the West Bank’” by an unnamed “Trump official” presented a lack of clarity by Trump representatives. The fact is that the Kotel is on the West Bank but so are Tel Aviv, Haifa, etc.. Tillerson stated that “The Western Wall is in Jerusalem.” No obfuscation there.

4. “First Wife” or Trump’s “third wife” is only “cringeworthy” to those looking for a certain photo op.

5. We finally arrive at whether the White House considers Jerusalem is in Israel. Trump has stated that he intends to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. One establishes the U.S. Embassy in the capital of the nation it is situated in. Congress has voted to move the embassy to Jerusalem and the President has the power to not do so for “security reasons.”

Hopefully in the future I will be able to “read” the other set of pictures in the Jewish Standard.

Howard J. Cohn
New Milford

Truly a small world

I so enjoyed your article a few weeks ago on the three men from Stoke Newington in England who re-met after many years at the JCC (“The Stoke Newington Connection,” April 7). One of them, Malcolm Galatin, is a good friend of mine.

I showed the article to my English friend, Carole Benson, She told me that her husband grew up in the borough adjacent to Stoke Newington. We ended up all having dinner together and Malcolm and Carole’s husband, Gerry, found a lot of connections. They are even both in the same school photo!

Elizabeth Halverstam
Bergen County section, National Council of Jewish Women

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