Israeli flags. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem PostFounded in 1897, the Zionist Organization of America is the oldest pro-Israel organization in the United States…. ZOA is dedicated to educating the public, elected officials, media and college/high school students about the truth of the ongoing and relentless Arab war against Israel.
– ZOA website
Elections for the position of ZOA president will be held on March 9. It is difficult to overstate the potential impact the result may have.
Indeed, these elections could well prove to be a watershed event in pro-Israel advocacy in America, with far reaching implications for right-wing activism within the US – and for the interfacing with like-minded organizations within Israel. But whatever the result it seems highly probable that what was in the past, will not be in the future – at least not for long.
Why these elections are important
Why are the upcoming ZOA elections so pivotal, with implications far beyond the intra-organizational question of who will inherit, or retain, the mantle of leadership? As readers will recall, in several recent columns, I have leveled severe criticism at the performance of the Israeli Right for failing to generate any effective impact on Israel’s policy- making regarding what is arguably the most vital issue on the national agenda: The promotion/prevention of Palestinian statehood, and its necessary derivatives – the territorial dimensions of the State of Israel and the question of its delegitimization as the nationstate of the Jews.
Back to ZOA elections and their broader significance There exists – for better or for worse – a symbiotic relationship between Israel-advocacy organizations in the Diaspora, notably the US, and like-minded entities in Israel, be they political parties, ideological movements or policy-oriented institutions. Vapidity or vitality in one will inevitably induce similar qualities in the other.
Perhaps one of the most effective – albeit regrettable – examples of this mutual invigoration of co-ideologists, is that which prevails between left-wing organizations in Israel and abroad. The mutual exchange of financial resources to sustain dovish advocacy operations, on the one hand, and intellectual inputs to support the promotion of dovish ideology, on the other, have resulted in the virtual dominance of left-wing perspectives over Israeli policy making – despite their manifest failure.
Mutual nourishment on Left; mutual deprivation on Right
By contrast there is virtually no such parallel process of mutual nourishment on the Right. On the contrary, there has been, to a large measure, a condition of mutual deprivation, in which hard-line hawkish entities in Israel have been starved of financial resources and, hence, have been unable to provide powerful and persuasive intellectual inputs for ideologically compatible organizations abroad to help them garner public support overseas.
The most cursory survey of the ideo-intellectual landscape in Israel will swiftly corroborate this contention.
While there are a few policy-oriented organizations/ institutions that, on an ad hoc basis, raise courteous reservations as to the efficacy/prudence of the dovish paradigms of the Left, there is not a single such organization of influence that proactively advocates a comprehensive and actionable hawkish approach of the Right. There is certainly no entity that – as an entity – advocates the tough, uncompromising policy positions that ZOA purports to endorse and hence ZOA positions have no effective means through which they can resonate among Israeli policy makers – in stark contrast to their ideological rivals on the Left.
End of an era?
Throughout the last two decades, the elections for ZOA presidency have not been particularly newsworthy events, with results being largely a foregone conclusion. The iron grip the current president, Morton (“Mort”) Klein has exerted over the organization has virtually ensured his repeated – and unchallenged – reelection since he took over the position in 1993.
But this time, things are very different.
Klein, is facing a resolute – and apparently, increasingly effective – challenge from his erstwhile protégé, national vice-president Steve Goldberg, a well-known Los Angeles attorney.
The contest, which is becoming increasingly acrimonious as Goldberg’s campaign seems to be gaining unexpected traction, does not revolve around any substantive ideological differences. Rather, it focuses on issues of managerial transparency, use/misuse/abuse of the organization’s financial resources, lapses in management – and regrettably, increasingly on the character and integrity (or lack thereof) of the protagonists.
For Klein, in particular the emerging situation is, in many ways, a tragedy. For even his most vehement detractors (presumably Goldberg included) would not deny his claims that when he took over as ZOA president in 1993, he saved the then-moribund organization from demise – through considerable effort and sacrifice of his own.
The question that must be raised today, however, is whether his past achievements grant him immunity for what increasingly appears to be serious subsequent lapses and the right to unchallenged lifetime tenure on the presidency; or whether after two decades at the helm, the time has not come for a new post-Klein era at ZOA ?
Credit where credit is due
Klein deserves much credit for what he has achieved at ZOA over the years. In doing so, he has displayed awesome grit and energy, as well as impressive intellect.
He clawed back an organization, depleted financially and disintegrating operationally, and made it relevant as a significant force in the public debate on Israel and the Middle East conflict. Indeed, with the notable exception of the much smaller Americans for a Safe Israel, ZOA under Klein has been virtually the only clear and consistent voice in American Jewry opposing the fatally flawed formula of land for- peace.
Klein has also elevated himself to a figure of national stature, meeting with leading opinion and policy makers, bringing to their attention ZOA perspectives and the sound rationale on which they are founded.
His accomplishments are all the more remarkable since he achieved this despite suffering from perhaps the most onerous burden for a public figure in the modern telegenic age, a pronounced speech defect, due to Tourette syndrome from which he suffers.
The courage he has shown in overcoming this severe disadvantage – which would have been devastating for lesser beings – only adds to the esteem that he should be accorded.
But this is only part of the picture, and recently, decidedly less flattering details are beginning to emerge as to what has transpired within the organization under his 20-year term as president.
On the debit side
In recent months reports have been flooding in of abusive management of employees, lack of transparency, misrepresentation of membership and grossly disproportionate compensation that Klein has paid himself.
Although Klein has hotly denied them, emerging evidence seems to suggest that many of the charges are – to somewhat understate the case – far from implausible.
Initial rumblings began in 2012 when it was discovered that ZOA had lost its tax exempt status for failing to file its 990 form, which discloses its annual financial activity, with the IRS – as required by law for all US non-profit organizations. Although ZOA has since regained its tax-exempt status several troubling facts emerge from the episode.
Firstly, it appears ZOA declined to inform donors of this development, and the claim that they were not obliged to do so by law, but merely not to present itself as an organization having such exemption, has a distinctly hollow ring to it.
Even more disturbing was the fact that the last proper 990 filing by ZOA , prior to the loss of its tax-exempt status was in 2007. Subsequently, there were dramatic surges in Klein’s compensation. As can be confirmed from documents now available, it rose from a very generous $315,000 in 2007 to a staggering $1.25 million in 2008 and $717,000 in 2009.
The fact that the failure to file extended for three consecutive years makes ZOA claim that this was merely a “technical” lapse somewhat difficult to accept.
Accordingly, whatever the truth, this combination of circumstances cannot but cause raised eyebrows – even among the most credulous and naïve of beings.
Further analysis of these documents reveals that in the period 2007-2012 Klein’s total compensation was almost $5m. This makes his claim that – since he initially worked for six years without any remuneration – his average annual salary was overall “only” $200,000 a little less than convincing – and arithmetically implausible.
Indeed, just how disproportionate Klein’s compensation is, is highlighted when compared to that in other organizations. Take for example StandWithUs, another pro-Israel advocacy group, that raised over $6m. in 2011 and $8m. in 2012 – significantly more than ZOA ’s $2-3.5m. According to its 990 form, in 2012 StandWithUs’s CEO, Roz Rothstein, earned a “mere” $196,000 – around 2 percent of contributions received. David Harris, CEO of the much larger American Jewish Committee, which raises over $40m. in contributions, received compensation of a little over $850,000 – again around 2% of total contributions.
On the other hand, Klein – in the five years following failure to file (in 2008-2012) – received $3.42m. (averaging almost $685,000 annually), which comprised almost 30% of the total contributions raised in that period ($11.83m.). In 2008, the year immediately following failure to file, Klein’s $1.25m. compensation comprised more than half (!) of the $2.29m. contributions.
Who says that pro-Israel advocacy doesn’t pay?
Misleading and maligned?
There also appear to be serious questions as to the credibility of much of the information being put out by the organization. For example: The claimed 30,000 membership seems to be greatly exaggerated. According to informed sources, there are little more than 10,000 members formally registered and an email list of barely 1,000, with 20% of the addresses in it, apparently inoperative and material sent to them returns undelivered – which seems to indicate that the actively participating membership is infinitesimal.
Klein frequently flaunts a Wall Street Journal citation stating that ZOA is “the most credible advocate for Israel on the American Jewish scene today.”
While I do not necessarily dispute the sentiment conveyed, it should be noted that the 2002 citation is well over a decade old, leaving one to wonder if there are no more recent commendations that might make the reference to “today” a little more appropriate.
And if there are not, why not.
Indeed, since 2012, inclement headlines seem to be ever-more frequent. Thus in the widely read Jewish Voice, a recent news article was headlined: “Tensions simmer in scandal ridden ZOA ;” while an opinion piece appeared under: “Free ZOA – Mort Klein must go!!” The Times of Israel carried a story this week bannered by “Alleging mismanagement, VP bids to oust longtime head of US Zionist group.”
After the loss of the tax exempt status the Forward ran a piece entitled: “ZOA faces doubts about management” and the Los Angeles Jewish Journal proclaimed “ZOA ’s lost tax-exemption status prompts demand for new leadership.”
So something seems seriously awry – and it its happening on Klein’s watch.
Landlord or activist?
In many ways Klein has made ZOA his personal fiefdom – and according to unkinder souls, his personal cash cow.
Earlier this week Jeffrey Wiesenfeld a prominent figure in New York’s Jewish community remarked “ZOA needs a massive overhaul for it to be effective with its tiny budget.”
Perhaps one of the most glaring instances of the misuse of the resources of an activist organization is the fact that ZOA owns a building in New York, which, according to both the Jewish Journal and the Forward has an appraised value of $18m. The organization also has property in Israel valued at several millions.
This raises the question of whether ZOA is still really into advocacy or real estate; whether it is an activist organization or a landlord.
It takes little imagination to picture how the cash-equivalent of those properties could be put to use at this difficult hour, to advance the ideas and policies that ZOA purports to endorse.
It is not difficult then to understand Wiesenfeld when he suggests: “We definitely need a fresh, younger face in ZOA ... now more than ever Jews are in unprecedented danger around the world and we need... a vibrant, activist movement.”
A snapshot of ZOA today reflects a view of Klein’s accumulated efforts over 20 years. He must be given credit for the good and must shoulder the blame for the bad. But after two decades at the helm it seems increasingly clear that he cannot take ZOA to the “next level.”
Goldberg has yet to prove that he is the man who can, but it would appear that he needs to be given a chance.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategic-israel.org)