Talmudic Tax Write-Off


 

Few people are eager to pick fights with the IRS. Michael Sklar, now well into his second voluntary tax lawsuit, is definitely an exception.

Sklar is an Orthodox father with several children in Jewish day school. His courtroom quest: to establish religious school costs as tax deductions.

It all comes down to the Church of Scientology. The Scientologists struck a deal with the IRS that has allowed them to count the cost of their spiritual “auditing sessions” as tax deductions since 1993. The Tax Code OKs this practice for any religious expense paid in exchange for intangible spiritual benefits (for example, it also works for High Holiday seats, church pew rents, tithes, etc.).

Sklar goes further and claims that Jewish day school is no different from the Scientologists’ spiritual auditing sessions, and should also be tax-deductible.

“The idea is that everybody should have the same benefit,” said Jeffrey Zuckerman, Sklar’s attorney.

“You get 25, 30 people, you put them in a classroom and you have a guy get up and instruct them in the tenets of the Church of Scientology,” Zuckerman said. “That strikes me, in a jurisprudential sense, as indistinguishable from a teacher instructing 25 kids in Torah.”

But even if one does equate the two activities, there are still questions about the dangers of pushing government even deeper into religious life simply to establish equity with the Scientologists.

“The comfort level that the Jewish community has in this society in good measure stems from the separation of church and state,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles. “It’s certainly clear to me that the Sklars are looking for a loophole,” said Greenebaum.

Interestingly, in 2002, Sklar voiced similar fears in this publication. “As a Jew, I was terrified by what [was] going on,” he said about the Scientologists’ deal. “The current Tax Code amounts to state-sponsored religion, and Jews never fare well under those circumstances.”

But today he seems to have taken parity with the Scientologists as his main concern instead.

“[Even] if we went back to nobody being able to take [the deduction], that would not accomplish anything because then the government would have gotten away with discrimination for 10 years,” Sklar said last week.

Mayoral Election: 102 Days and Counting

Bob Hertzberg’s campaign is rapidly emerging as the assault troop of the Los Angeles mayoral race.

The most recent example: An online petition demanding that the mayor participate in a KNBC televised debate at the Museum of Tolerance on Dec. 2.

Hertzberg writes on his Web site: “Jimmy Hahn is continuing to avoid debating me and my fellow challengers. I don’t know about you, but I am deeply offended by the fact that he is continuing to hide behind press releases.”

“The fact that the mayor is running for re-election, and has raised a ton of money to run TV commercials, but is refusing to stand up and defend his record, we believe is an insult to the voters,” said Matt Szabo, spokesperson for Hertzberg.

Hertzberg’s petition had been electronically signed by 456 people as of Nov. 18.

“Apparently the mayor decided that defending his record would be more damaging than refusing to show,” Szabo said.

The mayor said he simply has a scheduling conflict.

“We actually asked them if they’d be willing to do the debate on another night, but obviously they were not willing,” said Julie Wong, spokesperson for the Hahn campaign.

The debate was originally scheduled for October, but organizer Scott Regberg said it was postponed to avoid distraction with the presidential campaign — and because the mayor asked for another date then, as well.

The mayor has committed to attending another debate later in the month. Expectedly, the Hertzberg campaign is challenging Hahn on choosing to attend the debate three days before Christmas.

“Mayor Hahn will be at the Dec. 21 debate which will be held at the League of Conservation Voters,” Wong said.

She added that this won’t be the last time for a meeting between the candidates by any means.

“I think we’ll have plenty of opportunities for the mayor and others in the race to talk about their vision for L.A,” she said.

Hotel Union Asks Guests to ‘Check Out’

The union representing hotel workers from nine major companies in Los Angeles asked the public to boycott their employers on Nov. 11.

UNITE HERE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union), Local 11 has been engaged in a battle with the Millennium Biltmore, Westin Bonaventure, Hyatt Regency, Wilshire Grand, Regent Beverly Wilshire, Century Plaza Hotel & Spa, St. Regis, Hyatt West Hollywood and Sheraton Universal since last spring.

One of the central disputes between the union and management is the controversial two-year contract. The union wants to renegotiate in 2006, when many other hotel unions nationwide will also be in contract negotiations.

Joining together in 2006 would put them in a much stronger position to bargain for benefits with the multinational hotel chains, rather than negotiating city by city.

The hotels oppose a two-year deal, saying the dispute is local and nationwide union contracts should have nothing to do with it.

In the meantime, with no contract between the L.A. workers and hotels in force, management has suspended the free health care workers had been receiving and began charging a fee.

The long-running dispute is beginning to attract political attention.

City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) attended the Nov. 11 boycott announcement.

California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) has publicly called for a quick resolution, saying the clash could hurt the city’s economy.

Economy Project Crunches L.A. Numbers

Several weeks ago, a variety of newspapers published numbers from a recent report on the health of the Los Angeles economy. The report, called the LA Economy Project, was put together by the Milken Institute and the Economic Roundtable.

Their numbers showed that L.A. workers are at risk of being undereducated for the types of jobs that will be created here in the near future.

Problem is, the study wasn’t finished.

“It’s something that wasn’t supposed to happen for a while,” said Michael Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute. “Part of the report is done. We’re finalizing the rest of it, but it was essentially incomplete information.”The partial information that was released indicated a huge gap between income levels for native English speakers compared to non-native English speaking immigrants. It showed that the majority of the working poor in the city are clustered around just a few low-paying industries like restaurants, construction and housekeeping.

Klowden said that the sections of the report on how to actually address this problem in terms of public policy are still unfinished. He added that matching the workforce numbers with business data hasn’t been done yet, either.

“The mayor’s office has really been interested in what our findings are,” said Klowden. Joy Chen, a former deputy mayor under Hahn, played a prominent role in the project. Klowden said that Hahn has publicly announced his plans to incorporate the LA Economy Project’s findings into his strategy for the city, and would like to have it “coordinated from their end.”

It’s unclear how exactly the statistics-laden numbers that were prematurely released reflected on Hahn when they made the rounds in the major newspapers. It’s also unclear whether the final report will be more favorable to Hahn or not.

But one thing is guaranteed: They will definitely be released in time for the mayoral election.

 

Foundation to Stop Funding Hate Groups


In a stunning reversal, the Ford Foundation has admitted it erred in funding anti-Israeli Palestinian groups and has vowed to establish tough new guidelines to stop its funds from being used for anti-Semitic action anywhere in the world.

The foundation said it was "disgusted" by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation action taken at the 2001 U.N. Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which the foundation helped finance.

"We now recognize that we did not have a clear picture of the activities, organizations and people involved," conceded foundation President Susan Berresford in a letter this month to U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

In addition to establishing new funding guidelines, the foundation’s letter said the group promises to cease financing of pivotal anti-Israel groups and even recover funds, where the grant’s intent was violated. The foundation’s wide-ranging announcement was detailed in a five-page, single-spaced letter to Nadler.

Nadler had circulated a petition signed by 20 members of Congress demanding that the Ford Foundation halt its funding of anti-Israel hate groups. Nadler’s petition and the foundation’s letter came in the wake of a four-part Jewish Telegraphic Agency investigative series, "Funding Hate," which documented how foundation grantees were using the prestigious organization’s money to foment virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation in the Middle East and worldwide — and in some cases advocacy for armed revolution in Israel.

The series prompted immediate congressional calls for an investigation from Nadler, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Senate Finance Committee chairman. There were also indications from the Internal Revenue Service, State Department and Justice Department that officials would review the Ford Foundation’s funding.

In her letter to Nadler, Berresford wrote, "Recent media stories have raised questions about the conduct of certain Palestinian grantees who participated in the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, and the adequacy of the foundation’s oversight of grantees. In response, foundation officers and trustees have discussed these stories with concerned individuals, making clear the numerous steps that the foundation takes to ensure the proper use of its funds."

"Having reassessed our own information on the Durban Conference," the letter continued, "and in continuing talks with others, we now recognize that we did not have a complete picture of the activities, organizations and people involved. Although some Ford-supported grantee organizations repudiated the bigotry they witnessed in Durban, questions remain about others. More troubling still is the fact that many organizations among the large number at the conference did not respond at all."

"We deeply regret that foundation grantees may have taken part in unacceptable behavior in Durban," the Durban section of the letter concluded.

Nadler and representatives of Jewish groups, with whom foundation officials had met after publication of the JTA series, praised organization’s response. Foundation officials could not be reached for comment.

However, Berresford promised more than just apologies. She pledged to take sweeping, new preventive and monitoring measures to address revelations in the JTA investigation that Ford Foundation grantees were openly refusing to sign U.S. government funding guidelines designed to ensure that charitable donations in the Middle East don’t end up in terrorist hands.

In a section of Berresford’s letter titled, "Prevention of Funding for Terrorism," the Ford Foundation said it regularly checks approximately 4,000 active grantees against a State Department list to identify any that might be on the State Department’s proscribed list.

However, the letter continued, new measures will help ensure that funds will not be passed through one organization to another, or that Ford Foundation grantees use other independent monies to promote violence or terrorism.

In addition, Berresford said, the foundation will require additional measures "to make explicit our intolerance for unacceptable activity by any grantee organization."

She said the foundation’s standard grant-agreement letter, which grantees worldwide must sign to receive funds from it, "will now include explicit language requiring the organization to agree that it will not promote violence or terrorism. This prohibition applies to all of the organization’s funds, not just those provided through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Organizations unwilling to agree to these terms will not receive foundation support."

The Berresford letter also contained a section titled, "Prevention of Funding for Bigotry and the Destruction of any State," which declared that organizations promoting the delegitimization or destruction of Israel would be ineligible for funding.

"Grantees refusing to sign this agreement will not receive foundation support," the letter said. "We will never support groups that promote or condone bigotry or violence, or that challenge the very existence of legitimate, sovereign states like Israel."

Addressing questions raised in the JTA series about monitoring of funds to grantees, the Berresford letter included a section titled, "Financial Oversight," in which the foundation announced a major new auditing initiative.

Meanwhile, in a special section specifically addressing the Durban conference, the Berresford letter completely reversed the earlier position of its vice president, Alexander Wilde. In statements and letters to the editor, Wilde had insisted, "We do not believe" that the events at Durban "can be described as ‘agitation.’"

In her letter, Berresford said, "Ford trustees, officers and staff were disgusted by the vicious anti-Semitic activity seen at Durban, and we were disappointed that it undermined the vital issues on the meeting’s agenda. The foundation has reviewed its own information to establish whether Ford grantees took part in unacceptable, ugly and provocative behavior."

"To ensure that we receive a complete picture of grantees involved in the Durban conference, foundation officers and outside advisers will seek out attendees whom we, American Jewish leaders and others concerned about anti-Semitism and hate speech think should be heard on these matters," the letter said.

Promising action, Berresford’s letter also said, "If the foundation finds allegations of bigotry and incitement of hatred by particular grantees to be true, in conformance with normal foundation policy, we will cease funding."

In that vein, Berresford’s letter announced that the foundation "has decided to cease funding LAW, a grantee that has been the subject of criticism." LAW, whose full name is the Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, was a special focus of the investigative series. The group was a principal player in the anti-Israel agitation in Durban. An audit concluded it misappropriated millions in philanthropic funds.

Meanwhile, Jewish community leaders applauded the foundation’s dramatic turnabout.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said, "We welcome the statement by Ford that they will stop funding groups that have been promoting hatred of Israel and the delegitimization of Israel. We look forward to seeing these changes implemented and hope that other foundations that may have engaged in similar conduct will also make the necessary corrections."

Foxman said he welcomed the "the sincere effort by the current leadership of the Ford Foundation to deal responsibly with the past and to put into place safeguards so that these things do not recur."


Edwin Black is the author of the
newly released “War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create
a Master Race,” which investigates corporate philanthropic involvement in
American and Nazi eugenics. The entire JTA investigative series on Ford
Foundation funding can be read at www.jta.org/ford.asp

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