The Trump effect already has transformed the organized Jewish community from A to Z — literally.
That is, it has changed who’s in and who’s out in terms of White House preference, from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a legacy institution now more in the role of outsider given its feisty readiness to openly criticize the president’s policies, to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which in recent weeks has moved from the communal wilderness on Israel issues to best reflecting the emerging views of the new administration on the Mideast.
In fact, ZOA is to the Trump White House what J Street was to the Obama White House: the go-to Jewish organization on Israel.
Quite a dramatic shift.
Until recently, neither of the professional heads of these two venerable Jewish institutions — the ZOA was founded in 1897, the ADL in 1913 — was a household name for most American Jews. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the ADL, and Morton Klein, the national director of the ZOA, make as sharp a contrast in style and perspective as one could imagine, underscoring the deep divisions in our community over key issues ranging from combatting anti-Semitism to ensuring a secure Israel.
Not surprisingly, there is no love lost between them.
Klein has publicly slammed Greenblatt and the ADL for sharply criticizing President Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist; not being tough enough on Black Lives Matter; initially speaking favorably of Rep. Keith Ellison, the Muslim-American candidate to head the Democratic National Committee; opposing the Trump ban on Muslim immigrants; and for Greenblatt’s appearance at a J Street conference.
(Klein says the Washington-based J Street lobby is “not far left, it’s anti-Israel.”)
Greenblatt’s policy is not to publicly criticize his peers, and blunt, open criticism by one national Jewish leader of another is rare. Klein takes a certain pride, though, in being a lone wolf. He says his track record over more than two decades in opposing the views of mainstream Jewish organizations speaks for itself.
“It’s painful for me to criticize other Jewish organizations but I feel I have a duty to pressure them to do the right thing,” he told me this week.
“I wish other Jewish groups had told [Rabbi] Stephen Wise” to criticize his friend FDR for the president’s passive attitude toward saving European Jewry during World War II.
“I am almost the only leader to assess the [Mideast] situation correctly,” Klein continued. “ZOA and I were the only ones to predict everything: the failure of Oslo, [the false promises of] Arafat, the missiles” [that Israel would endure in return for evacuating Gaza].
Klein is still odd-man-out among his peers in mainstream Jewish organizations. He is an outspoken advocate of Bannon, asserting the Trump strategist is as “philo-Semitic and deeply supportive of Israel as anyone I’ve ever known working in the White House.” Klein is opposed to the two-state solution and in favor of increased settlement building in the West Bank, and he supports Trump’s immigration ban.
Only now, his views are in sync with the White House, and his major supporter, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is part of the president’s inner circle.
(Klein denies reports that Adel son bankrolls ZOA. He says the Las Vegas casino owner and philanthropist accounts for about 15-20 percent of ZOA’s budget, noting with pride that other very wealthy businessmen, like Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, are also major contributors.)
A Philadelphia-based statistician and economist for the government, Klein rose out of nowhere to become president of ZOA in 1994. For the first six years, his was a volunteer post, but since then he has drawn a salary as chief executive of the group, whose membership numbers “20,000, counting children,” Klein said. He pointed out in an interview this week that he’s been elected “every two to four years,” though he only once faced opposition.
Even his strongest critics acknowledge that Klein, who inherited a bankrupt ZOA, is a tireless fund-raiser and advocate for his cause. And even his defenders admit that his insistent style can be exasperating. Fellow members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are known to roll their eyes when Klein gets up to challenge guest U.S. officials or other dignitaries with sharp questions about Mideast policy.
“We were considered right-wing for opposing Oslo and Arafat,” Klein said of ZOA, “but to tell the truth, I consider myself a rational centrist. And I wish other Jewish organizations, like AJC [American Jewish Committee] and the ADL, would become as animated and upset at the PA [Palestinian Authority], which promotes murder and refuses to negotiate [with Israel], as they are about the settlements.
“I think they mean well,” he said of his peers, “but [their position] stems not from principle, but from fear of Muslims and other non-Jews who hate us,” he asserted. “It may be subconscious, but they are frightened of Jews trying to appease those who hate us.”
Klein and Donald Trump seem to share a similar worldview: the good guys are under siege, too often ready to give in rather than toughen up. The key is to buck the establishment, be more aggressive, and put our enemies on the defensive.
So to Klein, a national Jewish leader like the ADL’s Greenblatt, with his emphasis on engaging American Muslims, blacks, and other minorities, represents precisely the wrong way to respond to a world in chaos.
But for many Jews opposed to and fearful of Trump’s actions, Greenblatt is an emerging hero, praised for being at the vanguard of mainstream Jewish leaders in willing to confront Trump’s policies head-on.
He has come a long way in a short time on the national Jewish scene.
Succeeding the iconic Abraham Foxman, a veteran of five decades at the ADL, in 2015, he is 30 years younger than his predecessor. With an intense, but low-key persona, Greenblatt has had a varied and impressive background as a successful social entrepreneur, university faculty member, and corporate executive before heading up the office of social innovation and civic participation in the Obama White House.
Foxman, a child survivor of the Holocaust, was a beloved figure to several generations of ADL supporters for his warm, down-to-earth manner, shoot-from-the-kishkas style, and deep commitment to Israel.
But the lay leadership recognized that in order to maintain the group’s prominence, “we needed to be relevant to the next generation,” Barry Curtiss-Lusher, a Denver businessman and immediate former national chairman, told me recently. He played a key role in bringing Greenblatt to ADL, convinced that his skills set and outlook would engage millennials and other younger Jews perceived to be less emotionally attached to Israel and more deeply committed to a wide array of social causes.
“Jonathan’s is a new voice, but he is speaking with an ADL voice,” Curtiss-Lusher said, noting that the non-partisan organization has always had a dual mission to fight anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, and to partner, when possible, with other minority groups.
“Our job is to speak out when we see potential harm to the community,” he said, even if it sometimes means disagreeing with a president. “We put a premium on access, but we don’t believe the ends justifies the means.”
As for results, “we’re engaging the next generation big time,” Curtiss-Lusher said. “We had 25,000 new contributions to ADL in the last two months.”
Much of that support is believed to be coming from younger Jews whose more universalist outlook is in sync with several positions Greenblatt has taken. He received loud applause at a major ADL conference on anti-Semitism in December when he announced that if the administration starts registering Muslims, he will register as a Muslim in solidarity. And he was the first mainstream Jewish organizational leader to blast Trump’s appointment of Bannon.
In an interview, Greenblatt noted that in these difficult times it’s difficult to navigate between engaging with the new administration and working with other groups to oppose the president on positions that seem inconsistent with ethical values.
“I believe that we’re stronger when we work together,” he said, citing an African proverb that you run faster alone but farther if you run with others. For Greenblatt it’s part principle, part pragmatism. “At best we Jews are 3 percent of the American population,” he said. “We punch above our weight but I believe that the only way we can engage the other 97 percent effectively is through partnerships with others who have shared interests.”
He attributes the dramatic increase in donations for his organization of late to being “true to our ADL heritage, speaking truth to power. We were strong. We showed up. We didn’t straddle. We were principled, not political.”
Those statements echo Morton Klein’s attitude as well — a commitment to act on principle rather than politics. The fact that the ADL and ZOA leaders’ views are so diametrically opposed, and are each attracting greater attention, speaks to the rift within the Jewish community that seems to grow deeper each week.
Last week’s love-in between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump at the White House could tip the scales one way or the other.
U.S. Jews may be greatly relieved to see the U.S. and Israel on the same page, after eight years of deep tension, or deeply disturbed to find the leaders of both countries in sync, under strong criticism for perceived cracks in their democracies.