A member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called Tuesday for his colleagues in the group to condemn the tweets of another member, seizing on the national outrage over racism and police brutality to spotlight a longstanding concern.
Ken Bob, president of the progressive pro-Israel group Ameinu, started the campaign against Mort Klein, the longtime head of the conservative Zionist Organization of America, after Klein tweeted that the Black Lives Matter is a “Jew hating, White hating, Israel hating, conservative Black hating, violence promoting, dangerous Soros funded extremist group of haters.”
Klein is notorious for provocative, often outrageous statements, and his vitriol against the protests sweeping the nation follow a controversy in April when he tried to block the former head of HIAS from becoming chair of the conference, because the group helps settle Muslim refugees.
HIAS has filed an official complaint against him, and Bob — who is also a member of the Forward’s board of directors — said he now planned a phone and email campaign to force each of the conference’s 50-plus members to declare their stand on Klein’s BLM tweets. Recent weeks of protest might embolden groups that normally are wary of criticizing Klein, he said. Ameinu is a small organization; it ended 2018 with less than $50,000 in assets.
“We want to try to change statements coming out of Mort Klein and the ZOA,” he said in an interview. “They are out of the mainstream and need to think twice about the way they express themselves.”
Conference of Presidents CEO William Daroff did not respond to requests for comment.
Established in the 1950s to give the Jewish community a unified voice for communications with the White House and world leaders, the Conference of Presidents’ official mission emphasizes universal values like peace, stability and human rights, in addition to the elimination of anti-Semitism, according to its most recent tax filing.
It doesn’t specifically mention Israel but that has been an increasing focus — and source of tension — of the group. Six years ago, many protested the conference’s refusal to admit J Street, the large liberal-Zionist advocacy organization, and considered that a sign of its irrelevance in the modern Jewish world.
The umbrella group has a relatively broad membership, including the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA and the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. Among the large, left-leaning groups not included in the conference are J Street, the New Israel Fund, Hazon, Tru’ah and Reconstructing Judaism.
Klein’s group, ZOA, is backed by Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and ardent Zionist who gives huge sums to Republicans and far-right causes. ZOA ended 2018 with more than $36 million in assets.
Klein said in an interview that the Conference’s main purpose is to defend Israel, and that that’s why he posted the tweets excoriating Black Lives Matter. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, one of many groups working against racism in law enforcement, included in its platform support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.
A smattering of anti-Israel tropes have resurfaced amid the George Floyd protests, mostly online.
“You think the Conference of President is there for international human rights? It’s there for Israel,” Klein said. “Almost every speaker is there to speak about Israel. Almost all the Zoom calls in the past two months have been about Israel. Israel. Israel. Israel.”
While many conference members have for years brushed off Klein and his provocative statements as an anachronism, the back-t0-back conflagrations over HIAS and BLM, at a moment of such intense national furor, has some conference members increasingly concerned that they are tarnished by their association with him.
The Forward emailed 92 leaders of the conference’s 50-plus member-organizations on Tuesday, asking if Klein’s tweets were compatible with the umbrella group’s mission. Only four have responded so far — Bob; Hadar Susskind, chief executive of Americans for Peace Now; Mark Hetfield, chief executive of HIAS; Robert Aronson, chair of HIAS board and Bennett Miller, chair of the Association of Reform Zionists, all condemned Klein’s tweets.
Susskind wrote on Twitter that the conference should kick Klein out. But Bob said the most immediate need is for Klein to moderate his statements, so he is focusing first on a statement of condemnation.
Hetfield said the conference has unity on “some fundamental issues,” like advocating “a strong relationship between Israel and the United States, fighting bias against Israel, supporting vulnerable Jewish communities, and fighting anti-Semitism.” But by tolerating Klein, he said, the conference is making it impossible for Jewish leaders to stand credibly against hate and connect with other communities, which is also part of its mission.
“We can’t ask others to stand up against anti-Semitism when we fail to stand up to hateful speech within our own ranks,” he said.
ZOA’s bid to block Dianne Lob, the former HIAS chief, from becoming the conference chair ultimately led only to a delay in her taking the helm , but HIAS charged ZOA with violating a rule against members criticizing each other in public.
As part of the conference’s secretive disciplinary process, the complaint is confidential, but it could culminate in ZOA’s expulsion, JTA reported.
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Helen Chernikoff is the Forward’s News Editor. She came to the Forward from The Jewish Week, where she served as the first web director and created both a blog dedicated to disability issues and a food and wine website. Before that, she covered the housing, lodging and logistics industries for Reuters, where she could sit at her desk and watch her stories move the stock market. Helen has a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University and a BA in History and French from Amherst College. She is also a rabbinical school dropout. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @thesimplechild.