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ZOA fires back at critics with official Conference of Presidents grievance

The Zionist Organization of America has filed a grievance against fellow members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pushing back against its critics at a time when discord is testing the conference’s self-appointed role of representing the breadth of the Jewish community.

The right-wing ZOA, which is financed by the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, filed an official complaint on June 23 against 16 member-organizations that signed an open letter condemning the ZOA’s leader, Mort Klein, for his tweets attacking Black Lives Matter amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.

By signing the letter, the ZOA complaint contends, the groups violated the conference’s public discourse rules forbidding “insults, ad hominem attacks, name calling or other invective.”

“Name-calling is not permitted,” Klein, 72, said in an interview. “This is all about silencing me, but they can’t silence me, because it’s not a part of my nature. I’m a child of survivors.”

Klein himself is the subject of a similar internal complaint, because he recently challenged the Jewishness of another conference member, the century-old resettlement group HIAS. He tried to block Diane Lob, former head of HIAS, from becoming chair of the conference on the grounds that the group helps Muslims. After HIAS responded by filing an official complaint against ZOA under the public-discourse rules, ZOA filed a counterclaim against HIAS.

Violations of the rules go before a seven-member committee within 60 days if they’re not resolved informally. Possible repercussions are a confidential written warning, public censure, suspension, or expulsion. Suspension is only possible if the member has already been found to violate the rules once; expulsion requires two prior violations.

Klein has a reputation as a take-no-prisoners advocate for Israel with a track record of making remarks that infuriate and embarrass liberal groups. He is the only member the conference has ever sanctioned: He received an ostensibly confidential written warning in 2017 that was leaked..

Now his attacks have been provoking more backlash, including the open letter, written and disseminated by Ken Bob, who is president of the progressive pro-Israel group Ameinu. More centrist groups who advocate on a broad portfolio of issues, not just Israel, like the Union for Reform Judaism, the country’s largest Jewish denomination, and the 90,000-member National Council of Jewish Women, signed on. HIAS signed as well.

“There is no room for hate in organized Jewish life,” said the letter, which you can read here.

Bob is also on the Forward’s board of directors.

He said in an email that the ZOA’s complaint is without merit because the letter condemned Klein’s words but didn’t attack him personally.

In June, an ideological opponent reached out to the Forward to reveal that Klein exaggerated the size of the coalition he led in the elections earlier this year for the World Zionist Congress. The congress meets every five years and helps shape policy, select leaders and allocate funds at major organizations that support Israel, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish National Fund.

The Forward independently confirmed that unlike the other slates, which consisted of official nonprofits registered with the IRS, seven of the ZOA coalition’s member-groups were not.

Klein said it is his duty as ZOA president to expose Black Lives Matter as anti-Israel, especially now that its profile has risen in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May. In 2016, a group called the Movement for Black Lives included support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel in its platform.

Klein says he cannot understand why his colleagues in the conference are criticizing him, and defending those who attack Israel.

Established in the 1950s to give the Jewish community a unified voice for communications with the White House and world leaders, the conference 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. It is one of the Jewish world’s last big, diverse forums, where right and left, religious and secular, still work together — or at least talk to each other.

Disagreements within the conference are nothing new, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American-Jewish history at Brandeis University, but they are heightened right now because the group is about to get a new leader in Lob. This is normal in times of transition and isn’t specific to ZOA’s attempt to keep her out of the job.

“In time, responsible representatives of all sides will need to go off into a backroom and make the compromises necessary for the conference to be able to do its job,” Sarna said.

William Daroff, chief executive of the conference, did not respond to requests for comment.

Helen Chernikoff is The Forward’s senior news editor. Contact her at [email protected] or follower her on Twitter @thesimplechild

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