Are ZOA’s Claims Inflated?

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 10, 2006, issue of March 10, 2006.
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A potential donor browsing promotional material for the Zionist Organization of America would see a strong organization that has 50,000 members, 36 regional offices and three programs in Israel.

But these numbers appear to be exaggerated. The number of dues-paying members is overstated by almost 40,000, and two of the three Israel programs no longer have any affiliation with the ZOA. Of the 36 regional offices listed, information gathered by the Forward suggests that no more than five have an office or paid staff.

Since Morton Klein became national president of the Zionist Organization of America in 1993, he and other leaders at the ZOA have often boasted of the its revitalization. Klein says the organization only had $3,000 in the bank when he took office. Since then, he has stepped up fund raising and ramped up the organization’s lobbying efforts, turning the ZOA into the most visible right-wing Jewish group in America.

But judging from information acquired by the Forward, the organization’s revival has not been as dramatic as ZOA leaders have claimed.

In 2003, Klein told Philadelphia magazine that the organization had grown to 40,000 members. On the ZOA’s Web site today, the organization says that the figure now stands at 50,000. Internal documents acquired by the Forward, however, indicate that the ZOA has 11,700 dues-paying members, a number of whom are lifetime members from before Klein’s time.

When asked about the apparent discrepancy, Klein said that under the ZOA bylaws, membership tallies include all people in the households of dues-paying members.

In addition to the membership claims, the organization’s Web site lists 36 “regional offices.” Of the 36 offices listed, internal documents indicate that the only cities today with an office or paid staff are Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York.

The Web site and recent promotional material also state that the ZOA “sponsors important educational and cultural programs in Israel.” Three initiatives are listed: ZOA House, Kfar Silver school and Masada, “one of the largest programs for sending young Jews to visit Israel.”

Masada was the ZOA’s youth division, but it seceded from the ZOA in 1996 because of funding shortfalls from the ZOA. ZOA House was the organization’s base of Israeli operations, but it was sold to a fashion designer in 2004. The former executive director of the house said that the ZOA had not sent any funds in the five years before that.

Klein acknowledged that Masada and ZOA House should not be listed on promotional materials. He promised to remove any references to them from the Web site.

Kfar Silver, an Israeli school, is still owned by the ZOA, but the ZOA’s financial documents indicate that the American organization has not sent money to the school in at least eight years; recent pamphlets from Kfar Silver make no mention of the ZOA. The most prominent recent activities at Kfar Silver have been summer camps run by groups that have progressive ideologies running directly counter to those of the ZOA.

Klein said that he still does fund raising for Kfar Silver, but he has told donors to send money separately to the school.

Other funding problems, including the sale of ZOA House, go along with financial struggles of the past few years. Since 2002, the ZOA’s membership dues have fallen to $222,000 from $549,000, according to publicly filed tax documents. While there have been cutbacks, they have not come from the salary of Klein, the highest paid employee at the organization. Since 1999, Klein has received a raise of about $20,000 each year; he now receives $212,000.

A separate question raised by two former executive directors was whether there was proper financial oversight at the organization. The two directors said that during their time at the ZOA, it had no actively engaged finance committee to review and approve a budget.

The chairman of the ZOA’s board Dr. Michael Goldblatt, said that the organization does have a finance committee. But he declined to give details, citing the privacy of the committee members.

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