Keeping Politics Out of the Temple

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz disinvited to speak at Miami's Temple Israel.

In the 2012 presidential election, Florida is one of a handful of "battleground states" that will more than likely determine the outcome. One of the key voting blocs in Florida are Jewish Americans. High among the concerns of many is the state of U.S.-Israel relations. Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was scheduled to speak about that topic last Friday at Miami's Temple Israel. Long-time temple member Stanley G. Tate objected to the inappropriate mixing politics with religion. When Temple president Ben Kuehne insisted in having Wasserman Schultz appear, Mr. Tate, a prominent Republican, asked for equal time to rebut Ms. Wasserman Schultz. Kuehne refused. When the dust settled Wasserman Schultz's appearance was cancelled, and Mr. Tate resigned his six-decade membership at the temple.

Both Tate and Kuehne are politically involved. Kuehne is a high-profile Democrat retained by Al Gore during the 2000 Florida recount who has contributed campaign donations to Florida Democrats. Tate is a high-profile Republican, founding member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and is currently working for Mitt Romney's election campaign in Miami-Dade county. Both men are attorneys. Like Kuehne, Tate has also been president of the temple.

According to Mr. Tate, Ms. Wasserman Schultz's invitation to speak from the bema or the pulpit immediately following Shabbat put the the temple's 501(c)(3) tax exempt status in jeopardy, because it violated the prohibition of  partisan political activities within the temple. Mr Kuehne contends that Ms. Wasserman Schultz is an elected official and that her "presentation," not her "speech," would have been given under the auspices of the temple's Social Justice Forum where a series of programs has included a number of speakers on a variety of topics.

"The temple is a non-partisan, non-political organization," said Kuehne. "It promotes Jewish religious and cultural values. Politics surround all of what we do in American society. And politics tend to be very potentially divisive of late. But throughout 90 years, Temple Israel has tried to steer clear of politics by getting involved in social justice programming that we believe is independent of and more compelling than political issues." Kuehne also maintained that the temple "is always making an attempt to utilize a variety of spokespersons on the issues of the day...and we hope to continue that tradition," adding that "generally the programs are independent of the party registration of any of our speakers."

Tate wasn't buying it. "She's the chairperson of the Democratic National Committee," he said. "The topic is the U.S.-Israel relationship. There cannot be any conversation on that topic, none, unless it has to do with the politics." Kuehne's rebuttal? He conceded that Ms.Wasserman Schultz's speech might be considered political, but insisted it would not be partisan. He was asked if he was given a copy of Ms. Wasserman Schultz's speech in advance in order to determine if that were the case. He said no, but that he expected the congresswoman to "comport herself in a non-partisan manner."

Ms. Wasserman Schultz reacted predictably: "I believe strongly that in a democracy people should be able to hear from and interact with their elected officials, which is why I gladly accepted Temple Israel's invitation to speak as I have previously to many organizations and religious institutions throughout South Florida," she said. "It is unfortunate that some would allow politics to stand in the way of citizens' ability to interact with their representative." However, Temple Israel is not within the boundaries of her Florida congressional district, and it thus raises questions about the political nature of her talk, especially with respect to her prestigious position as head of the DNC and Obama surrogate.

This was the apparent conclusion reached by Mr. Tate who, after realizing the program with Ms. Wasserman Schultz would be proceeding as scheduled, asked for equal time to present a rebuttal to her presentation. Mr. Tate pressed on with his intention to speak at the presentation, notifying temple members by email on May 10th, and insisting he would speak on the same topic, “Maintaining a Strong US--Israel Relationship.” A week later he notified the membership that "due to a substantial amount of media publicity ... it would be in the best interest of Temple Israel, and obviously my best interest, that I cancel my intended appearance on the Bema," further noting that "I have been told by the Temple Israel Board of Trustees, that in no uncertain terms, I am not welcome..."

Mr. Tate then resigned his six-decade membership at Temple Israel.

Despite this, Mr. Kuehne cancelled the program, notifying members that despite the temple remaining "an urban center for progressive Jewish values, we face the reality that the level of discourse within our community and across our great country has often become rancorous and disruptive when concerning matters of public policy. Regrettably because of potential safety and security concerns of our Temple our members and our guests, I have directed the cancellation of the and postponement of the program...featuring special guest speaker Debbie Wasserman-Schultz."

The email included a video highlighting a recent event at another South Florida Synagogue as an example of "protest and disruption that potentially imperiled the safety and of the Temple and its congregants." Ironically, the video concerns a May 10th appearance by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice at a Boca Raton synagogue that opponents also characterized as a political speech for the Obama administration. It was not an unreasonable uproar, considering Ms. Rice noted the "folly and illegitimacy of Israel's continued settlement activities," in a speech at the United Nations.

In this particular case, it strains credulity to believe Ms. Wasserman Schultz, whose well-known reputation as a hyper-partisan Democrat is impossible to ignore, would deliver a non-partisan political speech regarding U.S-Israeli relations -- even under normal circumstances. Yet these are hardly normal circumstances. In the 2012 presidential election, the state of Florida's 29 Electoral College votes well could determine the winner.

In his email to the congregation, Mr. Kuehne noted that "going forward, Temple Israel will not invite any candidates or their supporters to speak during this election season." That is a wise conclusion to reach, not just for Temple Israel, but every other church and temple tempted to mix politics and religion during what promises to be one of the more divisive presidential elections of modern times. For Democrats, who champion the "separation of church and state" at every opportunity, it's a no-brainer.

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