Liberal Jewish groups to Mort Klein: No room at communal table for a leader whose tweets inflame

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Mort Klein
Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing discussing hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism, April 9, 2019. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images via JTA)

As many Jewish organizations across the United States sent out statements decrying racism over the past week, the head of the Zionist Organization of America took a different approach.

Black Lives Matter “is a Jew hating, White hating, Israel hating, conservative Black hating, violence promoting, dangerous Soros funded extremist group of haters,” ZOA President Mort Klein tweeted on Saturday.


That tweet, vilifying Black Lives Matters as others sought to show solidarity with nationwide protests calling for racial justice, could be a turning point for the ZOA’s membership in a national coalition of Jewish organizations. Just weeks ago, another group in the coalition lodged a formal complaint that could result in the ZOA’s expulsion. Klein’s tweet now appears to be galvanizing liberal support for such a move.

The conflict comes at a particularly fraught time within the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, one of the last remaining spaces in the Jewish world where groups with disparate political agendas work together on behalf of American Jewry. While member organizations have fought over Israel policy for decades, tensions over President Donald Trump and his domestic policies have ramped up tensions in recent years — at times instigated by Klein and his often inflammatory comments.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, one of the largest constituents of the Presidents Conference, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that silence was no longer an option in dealing with Klein and the ZOA.

By dint of the ZOA’s membership, Jacobs said, “we are now implicated by his views, his Islamophobia, his racism, full stop.”

Jacobs noted the wall-to-wall solidarity voiced by Jewish organizations with the African-American protests that have erupted since May 25, when George Floyd, an African-American man in handcuffs, was killed in police custody by an officer who kneeled on his neck.

“We in the Jewish community are out there fighting with our allies for a more equitable society and we see in these tweets the opposite of what our community holds,” Jacobs said in an interview. “Black Lives Matter is at the center of one of the most critical fights for justice in our country.”

Klein denies he is racist and says it is critical to remind Americans of what he says is Black Lives Matters’ anti-Israel agenda when the movement is accruing credibility because of the protests.

“It will increase their credibility when they turn back to Israel,” he said. “As a pro-Israel activist, I shouldn’t be concerned about Black Lives Matter gaining credibility?”

In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of groups across the country, adopted a platform supporting the anti-Israel Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement and accusing Israel of “genocide.” But pro-Israel supporters of the current protests — and the phrase “Black Lives Matter” — say it is a mistake to conflate the organization and the wider fight against police killings of African-Americans and systemic racism. They also argue that the vast majority of the movement’s activists are likely unaware of a few lines in a 40,000-word tract.

(Klein’s claim in his tweet that Jewish philanthropist George Soros funds Black Lives Matter appears to be based on past support that the foundation founded by Soros, Open Society Institute, gave to groups ancillary to the movement. Open Society says it has a policy of not paying protesters. TheAnti-Defamation League has pegged depictions of Soros as all-controlling as anti-Semitic.)

Klein’s series of tweets lacerating Black Lives Matter helped bring into the open a complaint against ZOA launched by HIAS, a leading refugee advocacy and assistance agency, under the secretive disciplinary process that governs membership in the Presidents Conference. A source with access to the complaint, which could culminate in ZOA’s expulsion, cited Klein’s inflammatory tweets in leaking it to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Also leaked was the ZOA’s countercomplaint against HIAS, filed a week later, and seeking HIAS’s expulsion from the umbrella organization.

The complaints revolve around a recent leadership battle. HIAS’s former chairwoman, Dianne Lob, was set to be elected in April as chairwoman of the Presidents Conference. Klein and some of his allies on the right launched a campaign against her, citing HIAS efforts to resettle Muslim refugees from Arab countries in the United States and Europe.

The ZOA also faulted HIAS for joining a 2017 letter defending Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. At the time Sarsour, who has denied Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and described Israel as practicing Jewish “supremacy,” was dealing with threats and unfounded allegations that she favored imposing Islamic law on the United States.

Over the objections of ZOA and its allies, a last-minute compromise plan was reached: Lob would serve as chairwoman-elect for a year before assuming the top post, giving her time to learn the ropes and demonstrate her pro-Israel bona fides. The plan was approved April 27 in a 31-8 vote with five abstentions.

On May 14, HIAS filed its complaint. The charges were focused on a rule against constituent groups disparaging one another, but Klein’s history of inflammatory statements was very much on the minds of the writers of the complaint.

“HIAS regrets that the Conference lacks any standards forbidding or even discouraging hate speech against other minority groups,” the complaint said.

A person familiar with the HIAS complaint told JTA that the endgame was the expulsion of ZOA from the Presidents Conference.

The communal unity that was the raison d’etre for the establishment of the umbrella body during the Eisenhower administration was no longer viable with Klein and the ZOA in the room, said Hadar Susskind, the president of Americans for Peace Now, another Presidents Conference constituent.

“It’s unconscionable that an organization that strives to be a voice for the community would include in it without any public distancing somebody that tweets out these things that are unquestionably racist,” he said.

Klein says he is not racist, pointing to what he says was an upbringing in a largely black neighborhood. “I have a special feeling toward Blacks,” he said. “I played ball with them.”

In addition to defending his condemnation of Black Lives Matter, Klein rejected claims that his arguments for restrictions on immigration from some Muslim lands are Islamaphobic.

“They are resettling largely anti-Semites,” he said of HIAS’s assistance for refugees from Syria and Iraq, “which endangers the Jews of America and harms Israel because these people end up lobbying against Israel.”

Klein cited ADL polling showing that high percentages of people in Muslim lands are anti-Semitic. He did not provide evidence that those arriving here as refugees arrive with anti-Semitic views, or preserve the views if they have them, or that they lobby against Israel.

During Klein’s long tenure — he assumed the presidency as an insurgent candidate in 1993 — ZOA has established itself as a leading opponent of Israeli territorial concessions and ardent critic of the Palestinian Authority. The organization’s annual dinner in New York attracts an array of influential U.S. and Israeli security hawks, Republican lawmakers, prominent conservative media personalities and leading GOP donors, including Sheldon Adelson. It’s been known to feature video testimonials from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Along the way, Klein and ZOA have developed a reputation for bare-knuckle tactics, actively working to undercut U.S. and Israel diplomatic maneuvers aimed at a two-state solution. Not content to stick to promoting their own views, over the years Klein and ZOA have accused prominent Jewish organizations like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League of not doing enough to defend Israel and Jewish interests. And at times they sought to blackball Jewish writers, speakers and organizations over Israel-related issues, including some who identify as Zionist and command support in some pro-Israel circles. ZOA failed in the early 1990s to stop Americans for Peace Now from being admitted to the Presidents Conference, but in 2014 it helped block J Street’s entry.

Now ZOA is facing the possibility of being on the outside looking in.

A series of complaints and countercomplaints between the ZOA on one side and HIAS, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Jewish Women and Ameinu, a liberal Zionist group, on the other, culminated in January 2019 in a reprimand of the ZOA. The charges ostensibly were whether the groups had disparaged one another, but the underlying issues related to Trump administration policies on immigration, Muslims, women and Israel.

HIAS in its latest complaint argues that the tone of the ZOA’s attacks on HIAS during the Lob controversy showed that the group was not deterred by the 2019 reprimand. ZOA, according to the recent HIAS complaint, was told that its failure to moderate its tone could result in the “most severe sanctions.”

“As you are aware, the ‘most severe sanctions’ would range from a public reprimand to a recommendation of suspension or expulsion,” HIAS said in its new complaint.

The HIAS complaint also calls for sanctions against CAMERA, the pro-Israel media monitoring group, because its executive chairman, Josh Katzen, is a publisher of the Jewish News Syndicate, a news site that has run multiple broadsides against HIAS and Lob echoing ZOA’s allegations.

“The HIAS complaint about CAMERA is completely without merit and seems to be primarily based on the erroneous conflating of CAMERA with news stories from JNS, which is an entirely independent and separate organization,” Andrea Levin, CAMERA’s president, said in a statement to JTA. “We urge HIAS to desist from the false charges which violate the tenets of the Conference of Presidents and focus on the wellbeing of Israel and the Jewish community.”

The ZOA bases its counterclaim, filed May 20, on one of the arguments it pursued when attempting to head off Lob’s election — that HIAS, which was founded in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees and boasts of “touching the life of nearly every Jewish family in America,” is no longer a Jewish organization because almost all of the refugees it helps these days are not Jewish.

“HIAS no longer meets the COP’s Processes & Procedures membership requirement that it must be an organization ‘whose primary purpose is to serve the interests of the American Jewish community and whose activities are consistent with the goals and objectives of the Conference,’” the ZOA complaint says.

HIAS in its complaint rejects ZOA claims that the group is not Jewish, noting its Jewish identification in its published materials. It says that associations that ZOA describes as alliances with figures critical of Israel are overblown and in any case unrelated to Israel policy.

“While HIAS welcomes diversity of opinion, we feel that there has ensued a destructive and regrettable campaign of such toxicity that contravenes the avowed Conference policy requiring member organizations to publicly further the mission of the Conference and the welfare of the Jewish people through unity, mutual respect, and recognition, and an avoidance of vilification,” the complaint said.

Whereas the HIAS complaint quotes directly from ZOA materials, the ZOA counterclaim quotes mostly from materials that HIAS figures have retweeted or have otherwise recommended as worthwhile reading material.

The ZOA complaint argues that the claims in the articles that HIAS figures have seemingly endorsed endanger Klein by identifying him with white supremacists. That echoes the HIAS complaint, which repeatedly notes associations that Klein has drawn between the group and terrorists.

The Presidents Conference has 60 days from the May 14 filing to set up a committee to consider the complaints. Thereafter, the entire body of 49 voting members must consider the complaints as a whole.

 

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