Mort Klein, president of a major Jewish pro-Israel group, berated a Forward reporter who called to ask about a joke Klein had made about black people being good dancers in a national magazine story.
“What are you, stupid? What are you, stupid?” Klein said. “Each different peoples have different talents that everyone knows. And everyone knows that blacks are, on average, are better dancers than other people.”
Klein told the Forward that it is “simply a fact” that “blacks are much better dancers.” He added that “most people know” that Asians “are smarter on average than other people in America.”
Klein is the president of the Zionist Organization Of America, a leading right-wing pro-Israel group. He was the first Jewish leader to formally meet with the Trump administration after the inauguration.
In a story published Sunday, Politico Magazine quoted Klein complimenting the dancing of members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement by comparing them to African Americans.
“They were dancing up a storm, these guys,” Klein said of a group of Chabad rabbis he saw dancing at a wedding, according to Politico. “I thought they were black. Instead they’re just black-hat,” he said, employing a term commonly used to describe observant Jews.
Whoa, Mort Klein: “They were dancing up a storm. I thought they were black. Instead they’re just black-hat.” https://t.co/r2UsuaRIET— Annie Karni (@anniekarni) April 9, 2017
Contacted by the Forward on Monday, Klein said that his joke was not racist because it invoked a positive stereotype. “That I attribute a talent that one people have over another? That’s racist? That’s a positive thing,” Klein said. “If people say that Asians are smarter on average than other people in America, that is not racist. That is simply something that most people know happens to be the case. People like you, Josh, you should really be ashamed of even calling me about this.”
Klein said that he did not consider positive stereotypes about Jews offensive. “If people say Jews are better businessmen or are very good financially, I consider that a positive thing to say,” he said.
An hour after the phone call, Klein followed up with an e-mailed statement. “If one mentions a positive trait about an identifiable group it can never be called racism,” Klein wrote. “And some groups do have stronger talents in some areas than other groups. Our differences makes the world a more interesting place.”
In the earlier call, Klein said that he attended all-black schools as a child, and that most of his childhood friends were black. “I want you to put in there that I was in Mississippi fighting for black voter rights in the ’60s,” Klein said. He said that he was jailed for a night in Mississippi as a result of his activism.
“I don’t even think about difference in colors,” Klein said. “Except I recognize that whites cannot compete with blacks in basketball… and on average, blacks are much better dancers. That’s simply a fact. That’s a positive trait.”
Of his quote in the Politico story, Klein said, “I thought it was a clever little line.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.