Washington Lobbyist Rips ZOA Leader About Firing

By Eric Marx

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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The Zionist Organization of America, an organization known for its aggressive tactics and harsh criticisms of the White House, has dismissed its top Washington lobbyist, Sarah Stern.

Stern told the Forward that she and ZOA president Morton Klein had repeatedly clashed over his intense criticism of the Bush administration. But, she added, the differences came to a head with the publication of a flattering profile of Stern in the November issue of Lifestyles, a glossy magazine geared toward upscale Jewish New Yorkers.

“True leadership should want to cultivate talent, support talent, nurture it and see each other as team members,” Stern said. “Unfortunately Mort seems to be threatened by anyone who possesses any degree of honesty, integrity and intelligence and wants to work really hard.”

Klein declined to comment.

By many accounts, Stern is credited with bringing a measure of professionalism and dedication to ZOA’s lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital. More than one insider described her as the perfect complement to Klein’s aggressive—critics say abrasive—nature; supporters say Stern displays tact, charm and a polite relentlessness that endears her to many members of Congress. Most recently, Stern successfully helped gather congressional support for the Syria Accountability Act, a bill that gives the president the authority to slap penalties on Syria if it fails to halt its support for terrorist groups, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its occupation of Lebanon.

While Stern and Klein found common ground in their distrust of the Palestinians, they could not agree on the amount of deference to be paid to the Bush administration, Stern said. They clashed, for example, on how best to handle the administration’s support of Israel’s bombing of a terrorist training camp in Syria.

“When Israel went over the terrorist bases in Syria, I felt that the president had a whole menu of options he could say and he chose to defend Israel’s actions very strongly, and I had to argue with Mort about issuing a press release defending the president,” Stern said. “It has always been a struggle to get him to say anything positive about this president.”

Formerly a psychologist for the Montgomery County Public School in Maryland, Stern first became involved in pro-Israel advocacy in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed. She was upset by what she described as mainstream Jewish groups ignoring Arafat’s Arabic diatribes exhorting his people to destroy Israel. Stern mailed videotapes of those speeches to congressional staffers and began working with the Women’s Pro-Israel National Political Action Committee.

“Sarah is one of the most dedicated people I’ve come into contact with in Washington,” said Rep. Jim Saxton, a New Jersey Republican and a frequent participant in ZOA-sponsored panel discussions. “She spares no degree of effort in trying to accomplish the goals she sets out for herself.”

While Saxton praised Stern, he also defended Klein’s aggressiveness, arguing that it helps ZOA serve an important and necessary role on Capitol Hill.

“ZOA and Mort have a perspective that’s extremely helpful and useful that’s oftentimes driven by other organizations in too soft a manner,” Saxton said. “On balance I think ZOA has been an extremely positive thing for Israel because Mort finds pockets of support that wouldn’t otherwise be found. Mort adds a perspective to the debate.”

Stern said that in the long run the organization would be best served by having less-confrontational lobbyists in Washington to complement Klein.

“There are people within the organization who see him as the symbol of the resistance, the only person to tell truth to power. But I was able to tell it in a nonacerbic, nonthreatening way, and I don’t see the world in black and whites,” Stern said. “What can I do? I tried. I tried. They’ve made their determination.”

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