Steve Bannon's Best Jewish Friend: Morton Klein's Rise to Prominence in the Trump Era

He’s been president of the Zionist Organization of America for over 20 years but has never had as much influence as now – but at what price, critics ask

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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Steve Bannon and Morton Klein.
Steve Bannon and Morton Klein.Credit: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, Josef Svetsky
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

When Steve Bannon was President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, his first call to the head of a Jewish organization was reportedly to Morton Klein of the staunchly right-wing Zionist Organization of America.

Bannon invited him to the White House and continued to call on him for advice on Israel before leaving his post in August, according to Klein.

“I knew Bannon was a great friend of the Jewish people and Israel. He’d call for my views on Israel, and ask for my views on various issues like moving the U.S. Embassy” to Jerusalem, Klein, 70, tells Haaretz in an interview.

That access to the White House has continued with Klein’s self-professed close ties to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, the former Trump lawyer-turned-Mideast envoy.

Klein says he is in regular touch with both Friedman and Greenblatt about Israel-related policy issues. Just last week, he says, the latter introduced him to Trump’s deputy national security adviser for strategy, Dina Powell, at an event. And she told him she’d like to invite him to the White House for a meeting, Klein adds.

Haaretz reached out to the White House for comment on this article, but had not received a response by press time.

Klein says he is looking forward to attending the upcoming White House Hanukkah party. This is considered one of the highlights of the year for prominent American Jews, in the past drawing heads of major Jewish organizations, Jewish members of Congress, and Jewish celebrities and journalists. The annual event began during the presidency of George W. Bush and continued under Barack Obama, who had especially strong ties with Jewish organizations. Klein says he attended the first Hanukkah party hosted by Obama but was not subsequently invited to any of the others.

Steve Bannon speaking at the ZOA gala evening in New York, November 2017.Credit: Shachar Peled

Long considered the caustic loudmouth of the organized Jewish community for his hard-line, right-wing stance on Israel and the Arab world, Klein has a new level of access in the age of Trump – where his ideologically driven views, which have stayed largely fixed over the years, now seemingly match those of the White House.

“I’ve never been treated so well in the last 24 years,” Klein says, referring to his stint as ZOA president.

Under his leadership, the ZOA has been among the most prominent voices pushing for the U.S. embassy in Israel to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – despite warnings, including from Israeli officials, that such a move could spark major violence – and bitterly opposes Palestinian statehood, seeing it as a mortal threat to Israel.

He sees Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who the United States views as a moderate, as an extremist who, like his rivals in Hamas, is also bent on the destruction of Israel and fully on board with what he has described as a “the Palestinians’ terrorist agenda."

He also has a regular column on the Breitbart website, which he regards as a staunchly pro-Israel news organization, despite criticism of it as a platform for the white nationalist movement known as the alt-right.

Writing on the news site in September, Klein debunked any Muslim (ergo Palestinian) claim to Jerusalem, stating: “It’s time to end the propaganda myth that Jerusalem is holy to Muslims.” He noted that Jerusalem was once ruled by Jewish kings, starting with King David. As part of his argument he wrote, “Jerusalem is mentioned almost 700 times in the Torah, the Jewish holy books. Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Koran – not even once.”

His positions have landed Klein and his organization, which he describes as centrist, in hot water with those on the center, left and, recently, even the right.

ZOA President Morton Klein, left, with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.Credit: courtesy of Morton Klein

The Forward, which covers the American Jewish community, included him on a list of people Jews should worry about more than Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour – alongside the likes of Bannon, Trump, Louis Farrakhan and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – for his links with Bannon and former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka. “As leader of the Zionist Organization of America, Klein has embraced and defended alt-right figures like Bannon and Gorka for their unabashedly pro-Israel-at-any-costs position, cozying up to anti-Semitic forces if it advances the ZOA’s ardent Zionist goals.”

Bret Stephens, The New York Times’ resident conservative op-ed writer, dedicated a column to criticizing the ZOA after it invited Bannon to speak at its annual gala last month. “It’s a disgrace because no organization that purports to represent the interests of the Jewish people should ever embrace anyone who embraces anti-Semites,” Stephens wrote. “Jews have enemies enough. To provide those enemies with moral cover for the sake of political convenience or ideology corroborates the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes and strengthens the hand of those who mean us harm.”

Douglas Bloomfield is a longtime observer of American-Jewish politics as a syndicated columnist and former chief lobbyist for AIPAC, and he has been watching Klein for years. “The ZOA is doing more than any other Jewish organization to cozy up to the Trump administration,” Bloomfield says.

Citing Klein’s relationships with Bannon and Gorka, he added, “I don’t think the white supremacy and hate-mongering have been impediments for Mort. He sees them as access to the White House. J Street had the ear of the White House under Obama and he wants to be the equivalent now.”

Oslo disagreement

The ZOA was founded in 1897 as the first official Zionist organization in the United States, and rose to prominence under Louis Brandeis, a lawyer best-known for his advocacy of progressive social causes and for being the first Jew appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Klein became ZOA president in 1994, after the organization had long since sunk in prominence, and he used it to promote his hard-line platform, critics say.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Morton Klein (date unknown).Credit: courtesy of Morton Klein

Klein’s professional background is as an economist and biostatistician. He said it was watching the Oslo Accords being signed in 1993 that galvanized him to dive full-time into the fray of pro-Israel work.

“I only went into the work because I thought Oslo was a disastrous mistake and I wanted a podium to express that,” Klein says. “I did not intend to do it for more than a year or two, make my case and then go back to normal life. But things kept getting worse, not better,” he adds.

He earns a generous salary for heading a relatively small nonprofit, his critics say. In recent years, most of it has been covered by a billionaire who Klein says does not want to be named – though he did say it was not Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson.

According to The Forward’s most recent salary survey of leaders of nonprofit Jewish organizations, Klein was 21st on the list, making about $440,000 a year in 2014 – more than the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, but less than the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Adelson is one of ZOA’s main backers, says Klein. The billionaire casino tycoon had been a major supporter of AIPAC, until it followed in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wake in 2009 and endorsed the two-state solution. He has in part shifted his support to the ZOA, which better reflects his right-wing, pro-Israel stance.

Klein says the pair first met many years ago through their involvement with AIPAC, when Adelson was an as-yet-unknown name in American or Jewish politics.

Childhood poverty

The ZOA president has been critical of Trump on occasion, including speaking out when he thought Trump was too slow to distance himself from Ku Klux Klan support during his election campaign and, in August, for his handling of the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville.

Klein is always quick to burnish his anti-Nazi credentials by highlighting his personal story as the son of Holocaust survivors, born in a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany. His father survived Auschwitz but lost his entire first family in the Holocaust, and subsequently found it too painful to talk about with Klein and his younger brother Samuel, now a medical school professor at Washington University, St. Louis.

His father was a Satmar rabbi from what is now Czechoslovakia who struggled to eke out a living in America working in small synagogues in Philadelphia, where the family settled and where Klein still lives. ZOA’s headquarters are in New York City, to which Klein says he commutes at least twice a week. Klein describes growing up poor, with the family living in a one-bedroom apartment until Klein was 16. His mother worked checking coats and hats at local synagogues to help make ends meet.

They first lived in South Philadelphia and then West Philadelphia – both poor, mostly black neighborhoods when Klein was growing up. Most of his friends growing up were black, Klein says.

Speaking with Haaretz in September, he discussed his views on race, saying he believed it was no longer a major problem in the United States, noting that slavery ended 200 years ago.

The Bannon backlash

Klein says he has been deeply offended by the backlash against him in recent months over his ties to and support of Bannon and Gorka, saying his inclusion in the Forward article on people Jews should fear was especially painful to him. “When I was called a top ‘most dangerous person,’ I did not see them defending me,” he said of other Jewish organizations.

For most American Jews, Bannon and Gorka are viewed with suspicion and alarm for their seemingly nationalistic and xenophobic agendas. Both have also been dogged with charges of anti-Semitism, yet both were guests at the ZOA’s gala in New York where Bannon was a featured speaker.

Klein says he’s upset that the media attention was focused on Bannon and not on others who spoke or were honored at last month’s event.

Still, anticipating the Bannon backlash, he offered this self-deprecating comment onstage at the gala: “Imagine,” he was quoted as saying, “all over the internet there are people calling me an unhinged bigot who is promoting [and] mainstreaming Nazism.

Nearly a month on, Klein remains defiant. “Steve Bannon is a tremendous friend of Israel,” he declares. “He has said he condemns neo-Nazis and has said there is no place for them. What more do you want from him?”

“The idea that Bannon could be an anti-Semite is nonsense,” he continues. The same goes for Gorka. “The Jewish media and the entire media has gone on a surge of character assassination and lying about people whose policies they disagree with.”

Interestingly, it was Bannon who reached out to Klein while he was still in the White House and asked to introduce Adelson at the ZOA gala. But Adelson ended up being a no-show, due to what Klein says was a double-booking with another event for Yad Vashem. But there’s speculation that he was actually trying to distance himself from Bannon, who ended up using his platform that night to promote his war against the Republican establishment. Adelson, Bloomfield notes, wants to be a leader, not an enemy of that establishment.

Klein’s critics

Simone Zimmerman, 26, is co-founder of the anti-occupation group IfNotNow and has clashed with Klein recently over her defense of Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, whom the ZOA president calls an “anti-Jewish bigot.” Zimmerman says that as a young Jewish person, she sees Klein as “one of the symbols of a community establishment deeply out of touch with Jewish values and humanistic values.

“To me, Mort Klein is not the story,” she says. “Mort Klein is on the extreme fringe. The question for me is where do the liberals and centrists stand? And they seem to stand in a row more with Mort Klein than people really fighting for economic and social rights in America who are not willing to leave Palestinian rights on the side.”

Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of American-Jewish history at Temple University, sees Klein as an ideologue who has not shaped his hard-line views to please any one political party. The organization itself describes itself as neither pro-Republican or pro-Democrat, but as pro-Israel.

“That Trump and his ilk have embraced these policies has revived ZOA from a totally moribund organization,” says Berman.

The lobbying group J Street, which has which calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace and is among the leading voices pushing for a two-state solution, sees Klein’s new role as reflective of the political climate in both Washington and Jerusalem.

“I think [Klein] is out there on the margins, but he’s not a fringe phenomenon that can be disregarded when people like Bannon or Gorka and others are in American politics and were in the White House,” says J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. “You have far-right politicians in charge in this country and the far-right in charge in Israel, and so people are going to pay more attention to the margin from those power centers.”

“The goal posts have moved right to let people like Mort Klein be normalized, and we cannot let those things happen,” adds Ben-Ami. “It’s very scary times on the right [today], and to have someone [like Klein] making common cause with the bigotry and hatred we are used to fighting is so jarring. ... To line up with them and pretend they are friends...” Ben-Ami pauses. “I don’t remember ever seeing this.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, says the ZOA’s alliance with those she describes as connected to white nationalists and neo-Nazis is “deeply embarrassing to the Jewish community.”

She continues: “I think this organization has decided that it is more important to support the most right-wing government ever in Israel and is essentially willing to sell out their fellow Jews in order to support a settlement party that is neither good for the Jewish people or good for Israel.”

But ZOA supporters like Henry Schwartz, the owner of a large dairy business in New York and the organization’s treasurer, see things very differently. He calls Bannon “an extremely strong voice on Israel, and Bannon is not anti-Semitic,” bristling at any suggestion to the contrary.

He even credits Bannon’s presence at last month’s ZOA gala as a reason why it was the organization’s most successful fundraising dinner ever.

As for Klein, Schwartz says he the ZOA president is nothing less than a modern-day Moses. “He is a giant. I know a few great people in the world – he’s one of them,” Schwartz declares. “He has done remarkable work on behalf of Israel and is alone among Jewish communal leaders because the others are fearful or don’t have ability to take positions that are viewed by many as marginal positions on behalf of Israel. He does not court favor with anyone in power, including the White House, but he is by far the single most powerful Jewish leader because in the Trump administration they listen to him.”

Klein is reveling in his time in the spotlight, noting that a high-profile member of the pro-Israel community in Washington introduced him to others at a recent event as “the most important Jew in America.”

“They are treating me like I’ve become a major player – people who in the past have been cold to me and condescending," says Klein. "I was in shock.”

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