ZOA Leader’s Pugilistic Style Has Been Provoking Backlash From Progressives

In May, 51 members of the Conference of Presidents signed an open letter condemning ZOA head Mort Klein for excoriating Black Lives Matter on Twitter amid the national uprising against racism

The Forward
Helen Chernikoff
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ZOA President Morton Klein (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (left)at a ZOA gala dinner on November 29, 2017.
ZOA President Morton Klein (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (left)at a ZOA gala dinner on November 29, 2017.Credit: Josef Svetsky
The Forward
Helen Chernikoff

Mort Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, has long been one of American Jewry’s most pugnacious leaders. But lately, his attacks have been provoking more backlash.

After Klein challenged the Jewishness of HIAS, the century-old refugee resettlement group, its leaders filed an official complaint that could lead to his ouster from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

A month later, in May, 16 of the conference’s 51 members signed an open letter condemning Klein after he excoriated Black Lives Matter on Twitter amid the national uprising against racism.

And now, ideological opponents have shown that Klein exaggerated the size of the coalition he led in the World Zionist Congress elections earlier this year, and that he is using the inflated number to overstate American support for Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

Morton Klein with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Morton Klein with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Courtesy of Morton Klein

Klein, 73, has been leading the ZOA since the early 1990s, using his position to put an American-Jewish stamp of approval on Israel’s most hawkish leaders and policies. Critics say he’s poisoning the communal conversation. His supporters say he is a crucial defender of Israel, and also that his critics should toughen up.

Klein’s opponents are using complicated bureaucratic mechanisms to try to contain him, but the principles at stake are big ones that determine how the most important Jewish groups work together — or don’t.

Klein’s extreme language could hurt the community’s ability to achieve its goals, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, a former chief executive of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, co-director of the Religious Leadership and Civic Engagement initiative at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

“You can’t really negotiate when you’re getting attacked,” Gutow said in an interview. “Once one person attacks, then the other does and soon everybody is yelling at each other and nobody’s getting to a goal of what we should be as a Jewish people.”

Klein could not be reached for comment, but Josh Katzen, executive director of CAMERA, the media watchdog group whose mission is to highlight bias of Israel, said the real problem is “speech codes” ” that impair the community’s ability to communicate more than anything Klein has said or done.

“This is all a part of cancel-culture,” said Katzen, who said he was speaking only for himself, not on behalf of CAMERA. ”Mort stands for questioning things that people don’t want to be questioned.” Katzen is also a founder of the Jewish News Syndicate, a wire service.

The latest skirmish over Klein is the most arcane: It’s over the legitimacy of sub-groups in a coalition for an election the majority of American Jews did not participate in — and some are not even aware of.

The election, which took place from January to March, was to the World Zionist Congress, which meets every five years and helps shape policy, select leaders and allocate funds at major organizations that support Israel, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund. It was founded more than a century ago by Theodor Herzl to help create a modern Jewish state, and anybody who is over the age of 18 and self-identifies as a Zionist and a Jew can vote.

This year, the American Zionist Movement, which administers the elections in the United States, made a big push to promote the elections, and about 125,000 people participated, more than double the number in the last election, in 2015. Klein’s slate, backed by what he said was a coalition of 27 groups — by far the biggest on the ballot — came in fifth. That means he gets to select about 13 of the 152 delegates the United States will send to the Congress.

He made the size of his coalition a big selling point in his campaign: “The other best advertisement for our slate is the great partner organizations that joined together to form the ZOA Coalition slate. The ZOA Coalition includes 27 bipartisan, pro-Israel organizations,” he wrote in a January op-ed carried by the Jewish News Syndicate.

More recently, Klein has cited the size of the coalition as proof that American Jews in general favor annexation, as in a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed, for example

Yet the ZOA’s faction is artificially inflated with spurious groups, said an ideological opponent of the ZOA who researched their slate and shared the results on condition of anonymity. The Forward independently confirmed that seven member-groups of the ZOA’s coalition are not registered with the IRS as official non-profit organizations: Torah from Sinai, the National Conference of Jewish Affairs, Aharai USA, U.S. Russian Jews Stand with Israel, Make Israel Great (MIG) Russian-Jewish Coalition for a Strong Israel, ILEAD and Beit Juhuro Gorsky Kavkazi Center.

Using Google, the Forward tried to track down representatives for each of the seven groups. A person answered the phone at Beit Juhuro Gorsky Kavkazi Center, a synagogue and community center in Brooklyn, but spoke only Russian.

Here is a summary of what we found for the others:

Torah from Sinai is a website that directs users to vote for the ZOA’s coalition but describes no other activities and has no contact information.

The National Conference of Jewish Affairs, also known as the Conference of Jewish Affairs, has a defunct website, and a message left at the listed phone number was not returned.

“Aharai USA” doesn’t exist as a registered American charity and does not have its own website, although an Israeli charity called “Aharai” does.

The ZOA’s slate also lists two groups that purport to represent Russian interests. In a statement issued in early January, Klein described one of them — “US Russian Jews Stand with Israel” — as a division of the ZOA itself. Another, Make Israel Great (MIG) Russian-Jewish Coalition for a Strong Israel, cannot be found on the internet.

ILEAD is an Israel travel program that’s part of another organization, the Sephardic Community Alliance.

Other participants in the election, like the Reform Movement’s ARZA and the more right-leaning Americans4Israel also put together coalitions, but they are made up of official tax-exempt organizations.

That’s the norm, said Hadar Susskind, campaign director of Hatikvah, a progressive slate that came in seventh in the elections.

“I’ve never heard of groups that are not non-profits being a part of this process,” said Susskind, who is also the head of Americans for Peace Now.

Herbert Block, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, which ran the election, said the ZOA didn’t break any rules, because the nature of a “group” is not specifically defined.

The ZOA’s behavior has made it clear that new rules are needed, said Nomi Colton-Max, a founder of the progressive Zionist group Ameinu. She said she and her allies had planned to push the World Zionist Congress to craft such a definition at an October governance meeting in Jerusalem, but the Congress has postponed it due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She said the loose rules probably benefited Klein in the elections.

“Voters might have said, ‘They had 27 organizations. What a strong bloc!’” Colton-Max.

Helen Chernikoff is The Forward’s senior news editor. Contact her at chernikoff@forward.com or follower her on Twitter @thesimplechild

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