Presidents Conference ‘warns’ ZOA over tactics

Presidents Conference ‘warns’ ZOA over tactics

Sanctioned for ‘demeaning insults’ against colleagues; Mort Klein vows to continue ‘zealous’ advocacy

ZOA president Mort Klein says he’ll continue his form of advocacy despite peers’ objections.
ZOA president Mort Klein says he’ll continue his form of advocacy despite peers’ objections.

In a confidential and first-ever such ruling, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has issued a “written warning” to a member group, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), for violating an internal ban against “insults, ad hominem attacks and name-calling … directed against the Conference of Presidents, its member organizations or their leaders,” The Jewish Week has learned.

The findings of the Conference’s Committee on Rights and Responsibilities, a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week, was intended to remain private and in-house, and to quell an ugly and lengthy round of charges and counter-charges among several of the groups and their leaders. (The 51 member organizations were to be notified only that a warning was issued – not to whom it was issued and for what conduct.)

But so far it has only exacerbated the long-simmering conflict between ZOA’s ardent president of the last 25 years, Morton Klein, and members of the Conference who view his behavior as aggressive and confrontational, both within the group and beyond. Both sides are upset with the results of the committee’s resolution, issued after many months of laborious and often contentious deliberations, and are calling for further action.

The committee co-chairs, Richard Stone and Allen Fagin, as well as Conference executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, declined to comment, noting that the committee’s work and findings were confidential.

In its five-page report, which noted the difficulty of navigating the “tension between free speech and civil discourse,” the committee listed eight examples, among many others, of public comments made by ZOA since 2015 that it considered in violation of its Statement on Civil Discourse. The Statement says that advocacy efforts among member groups “must be issue-focused and civil in tone and substance.”

Activists with HIAS gather in front of the White House to share stories of their family members who were refugees or immigrants, March 1, 2017. Courtesy of Ted Eytan

Seven of the examples mention ADL, criticizing the group for giving “legitimacy” to “despicable, Israel-hating groups” like “radical Islamists/Israel haters” and “promoting Black Lives Matter and … the extremist anti-Israel group J Street.”

  • ADL National director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt is called out by ZOA for “engaging in character assassination” of Stephen Bannon and Breitbart Media by “essentially accusing” Bannon of anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred.
  • HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield and the organization are described as receiving “tens of millions of dollars of government grants to resettle Muslim immigrants in America,” and the group is said to have “changed its name from Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to HIAS, apparently to reflect that they now concentrate on bringing Muslims to America.”
  • HIAS, ADL, AJC, the Reform movement and Orthodox Union are criticized for being part of an “unholy consortium of Jewish and anti-Israel groups falsely claiming that Syrian refugees should be admitted” to the U.S.

Key Charge Against Style And Tone

The five-member Conference committee noted in its findings that while member organizations have every right to free speech and to be “zealous” in the advocacy of their positions, “ZOA knew, or should have known, that its repeated, patterned public criticisms of two of the complainants were unnecessarily shrill and personally directed, and that they would be seen as personal or organizational insults as much, or more, than they would be seen as substantive criticisms.”

The key issue, the committee concluded, citing ZOA’s “demeaning insults,” was “not on what was said, but how it was said.”

The committee chose not to act on two complaints lodged by ZOA.

In the most serious grievance, ZOA charged ADL’s Greenblatt with physical assault against Liz Berney, ZOA’s general counsel. Berney alleged that in May 2016, after a panel discussion at the United Nations on BDS, Greenblatt grabbed her by the neck, pushed her down a hallway and yelled at her about Klein’s behavior toward him and ADL.

ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt at 2014 annual meeting in L.A. Courtesy of ADL

ADL officials have said that, after an internal review, the claim was found to be baseless. ZOA maintains that Berney was never contacted by ADL for its inquiry.

The Conference committee concluded that its jurisdiction was confined to written and oral statements and did not include alleged assaults, which should be adjudicated elsewhere.

In addition, the committee dismissed without explanation ZOA’s claim against Ameinu, a progressive member of the Conference that promotes social and economic justice in Israel. According to ZOA, Ameinu has described ZOA’s form of Zionism as promoting violence.

The three organizations that brought up charges against Klein — ADL, HIAS and National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) — agree with the findings of the Conference committee but feel the penalty — an internal reprimand — was too lenient.

HIAS’ Hetfield said he and the leaders of ADL and NCJW “concur with the reasoning of the decision but have questions about the sanctions as to how a confidential reprimand fits the litany of violations cited in the decision.” He said the three groups have “expressed our concerns” to the committee and are calling for “further consideration of the sanctions or a better explanation.”

There are four levels of penalties against member groups of the Conference for violations of its rules: a confidential internal warning (as in this case); public censure in writing; suspension; and expulsion.

Hetfield noted that the motto of the Conference, a coalition of diverse organizations, is “strength through unity,” so “it’s imperative to have civility and respect among the members, and toward other groups as well. And when that respect is lacking, the coalition is at risk.”

Klein asserts his controversial statements have not violated the Conference standards, that no definition or explanation was given as to how ZOA violated those standards and that the ruling reflects a bias against his and ZOA’s positions and self-described “zealous” style of advocacy for its causes.

ZOA’s Mort Klein with Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2016.

In a statement issued to The Jewish Week, Klein wrote: “We are disappointed by and strongly disagree with the committee’s mistaken decision, which fails to provide any proper support for its inexplicable conclusion” in sanctioning ZOA as well as dismissing its complaints against Ameinu and ADL.

Klein called on the Conference to rescind the warning and to investigate “the leak of the confidential committee decision to The Jewish Week” and sanction the party responsible for it. “We will consider all our options regarding this entire matter,” Klein said, and concluded that ZOA will continue its “zealous advocacy, which we believe is within the Conference of Presidents guidelines, on behalf of the Jewish people and Israel.”

Shades Of The Trump Era

It’s disturbing but not surprising to learn that, behind closed doors, the members of the Conference of Presidents, which is committed to consensus and civility, accuse each other of misconduct ranging from insults to physical violence. Should such goings-on be attributed to our community’s sometimes self-proclaimed leaders’ personal agendas and/or political differences — especially when the debate has grown increasingly toxic over issues like Israel, Donald Trump and the direction in which American society is headed? Or is it simply about one national leader whose personality and behavior is deemed sufficiently offensive to turn even like-minded political allies against him within the Conference?

(Sources say that the Conference created its Statement on Public Discourse years ago — it was revised in 2017 — specifically with Klein in mind as a result of his many controversial remarks about member organizations and their leaders.)

How did Klein, 71, come to be a lightning rod in the Jewish community?

Stephen Bannon, left, and Morton Klein confer before Bannon’s speech at the ZOA gala in 2017. Courtesy of Joe Savitsky/ZOA

A German-born child of Holocaust survivors, Klein had a career as an economist and biostatistician before stepping in, seemingly out of nowhere, to revive the Zionist Organization of America 25 years ago and has transformed it, in his image. He describes his mission as “zealous advocacy” in fighting anti-Semitism and in supporting Israel and the Jewish people. Originally serving as lay president and later drawing a salary, he seemed to be a one-man operation who made headlines by forcefully calling out perceived adversaries, inside as well as outside of the Jewish community. Along the way, Klein’s blunt and combative style offended mainstream colleagues in the Conference, and beyond, while endearing him to many among amcha, or the Jewish masses on the right, who praised his willingness to call out perceived enemies.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the current controversy within the Conference echoes the drama in American Jewry that has played out in the era of Donald Trump over the last several years. Klein has long been accused by fellow members within the Conference of public statements, written and spoken, that morph from issue-related to personal attacks on group members and others. But the stakes, and tensions, are higher now.

“Mort used to be an anomaly within the Conference, in calling us out,” one member said. “For a long time he was basically ignored; it was just noise.” But as the national mood darkened in recent years, and as sharp differences over immigration, Syrian refugees, American Muslims and criticism of some policies in Jerusalem emerged, Klein was seen by some colleagues as mirroring President Trump’s most controversial traits.

Sheldon Adelson with wife Miriam at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas, Feb. 24, 2017. Getty Images

Adding to the charged atmosphere is that Klein’s ZOA, with support from Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire confidante of the president, has become the ascendant Jewish group in the eyes of the White House under Trump, much as J Street was during the Obama years.

Critics say it wasn’t Klein’s alignment with White House policies that troubles them as much as his pugnacious personal attacks against Conference colleagues, using uncompromising language and employing guilt-by-association tactics like describing ADL, HIAS, AJC, the Reform movement and the Orthodox Union as being part of an “an unholy consortium of Jewish and anti-Israel groups” that promote immigration of Syrians to the U.S.

Klein maintains that the Conference “warning” was intended to silence him and the ZOA, though it does not seem to have had any effect. A week after receiving the Conference ruling, Klein issued a statement urging ADL to apologize for its “abhorrent attack” on Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who described George Soros as having “turned on fellow Jews” during World War II.

With the ADL, HIAS and NCJW calling for tougher sanctions on Klein, and Klein holding firm, the Conference is now faced with a decision that, either way, could further erode the fragile consensus that holds it together.

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