Sixteen of the 51 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations have signed onto a letter condemning a fellow member, the Zionist Organization of America, seizing on a moment of national outrage over racism to try to change the tone of the conversation at the umbrella group, which bills itself as representing the entire Jewish community.
The letter authored by Ken Bob, president of the progressive pro-Israel group Ameinu, criticized ZOA’s longtime leader, Mort Klein, who had tweeted on Saturday that Black Lives Matter is a “Jew hating, White hating, Israel hating, conservative Black hating, violence promoting, dangerous Soros-funded extremist group of haters.” Bob is also on the Forward’s board of directors.
“As members of the Conference of Presidents, we must now condemn these tweets in no uncertain terms,” reads the letter, which Bob shared on Friday, along with the list of signers. “I will be contacting you directly to join Ameinu in telling Mort Klein that there is no room for hate in organized Jewish life.”
Klein has a track record of making provocative statements that infuriate and embarrass liberal Jewish groups. In April, he tried to block the former head of HIAS from becoming chair of the conference because the group helps resettle Muslim refugees.
HIAS has filed an official complaint against Klein, but that process could take years. Bob decided he could not wait, given Klein’s recent tweets, and sent the letter Wednesday to the conference membership, asking each to either sign or officially decline to do so.
Bob said Friday that 12 organizations had declined to sign, but refused to say which ones. The other 23 have not yet responded.
The signers include the Union for Reform Judaism, the country’s largest Jewish denomination, the 90,000-member National Council of Jewish Women, Americans for Peace Now, HIAS and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (To read the letter and the full list of signers, click here.
“This resonated with organizations that are bigger, more established and more centrist in the Jewish community,” Bob said.
William Daroff, chief executive of the conference, 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 organization is one of the biggest tents in the Jewish world. It includes groups of various sizes, from all three religious denominations and those with a range of perspectives on Israel — as well as the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi.
Ameinu and ZOA illustrate the conference’s diversity; Ameinu is a small organization, with assets of about $50,000, and ZOA has more than $36 million. Its primary backer is Sheldon Adelson, casino mogul and ardent Zionist, also the Republican party’s biggest single donor.
Klein said in an interview that he would retract or alter his tweets if his critics could prove that he had said anything that’s inaccurate, and that Bob’s letter does not do that.
The purpose of the Conference and the ZOA is to defend Israel, Klein said, adding that he criticizes Black Lives Matter so vehemently because 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.
“My tweet simply told the truth about the Black Lives Matter platform,” he said. “Are they suggesting I shouldn’t tell the truth about a prominent anti-Semitic group?”
A smattering of anti-Israel tropes have surfaced, mostly online, amid the protests against racism in law enforcement after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Klein’s powerful connections are one reason why the ZOA is such a valuable member of the Conference of Presidents, said Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella group serving Orthodox synagogues that is part of the conference.
“There’s no organization that has a closer relationship with the Trump administration than the ZOA,” he said in an interview. “Those who are critical of him don’t have these relationships.”
Bob’s letter is also part of an ongoing effort by a more liberal wing of the conference to assert itself, said Steven Windmueller, a professor at Hebrew Union College’s Los Angeles campus whose expertise is politics and Jewish communal affairs.
“Liberal Jewish institutions are trying to say, ‘If we disagree with you on policy, don’t attack our credentials and let’s keep the debate and discourse on the issues,’” he said.
Six years ago, the conference refused to admit J Street, the large liberal-Zionist advocacy organization.
The leaders of some of the groups that declined to sign the letter told Bob that they support its message but couldn’t sign because they are also umbrella organizations and couldn’t or wouldn’t poll their memberships, Bob said.
For example, while the Jewish Council of Public Affairs did not sign, it is speaking out against Klein’s tweets on its own, said the group’s chief executive, David Bernstein.
“We see these comments as incendiary and absurd,” Bernstein said. JCPA represents 125 local Jewish community relations councils in addition to other agencies.
Even if Klein ignores the letter, Bob said, it will help give all who signed it a way to distance themselves from him. JCPA, Ameinu and other signers of the letter say Klein makes their work more difficult because, as Bob put it, Klein gives Zionism a bad name.
“I speak on campuses a lot,” he said, “and I get told that the ZOA is Zionism.”
Weiss said those challenges are just part of the bargain conference members have to make: For a seat at the table, you must suffer a connection with those you don’t agree with. His own work was made very difficult by other members’ support of former President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, he said.
Even Weiss, however, said he wouldn’t talk the way Klein does. Bob said that’s exactly the point of the letter.
“You can vote Republican and have a different view of American foreign policy but you can’t excuse language like this,” Bob said.
Conference of President liberals vs Sheldon Adelson ZOA
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.