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Lawsuit accuses Mort Klein of sexist, racist behavior as head of ZOA

Klein has long been the subject of controversy over his aggressive public rhetoric

The former deputy to Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, is suing him and the group, accusing the often combative leader of racist and sexist behavior.

John Rosen, whom the organization fired as executive director in August, is seeking $1.2 million in damages. Klein and the ZOA have denied any wrongdoing.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed earlier this month in New York Supreme Court, Klein has a history of denigrating Black people and women. Rosen accused Klein of offensive behavior after he was accused of racism for criticizing the Black Lives Matter Movement as a “dangerous Soros-funded extremist group of haters” during the racial justice protests in 2020.

Klein allegedly demanded contact information for current and former Black employees of his organization before calling one and telling her he wanted a public statement asserting that he was not racist. Rosen said Klein planned to publish the statement alongside a photograph of the woman, and that after she declined, he sought to block her scheduled raise.

“I have my reasons,” Klein allegedly said after Rosen questioned that decision.

The Zionist Organization of America, which claims 25,000 members down from a peak of 165,000 in 1950, has come to embody a pugilistic version of conservative American advocacy for Israel in recent years. Klein, who took the helm in 1994, has alienated many mainstream Jewish leaders with his rhetoric, which many find offensive. But his organization retains its position in various communal bodies including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

ZOA has also been buoyed by support from donors like Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who died last year, and Klein was seen as having direct access to the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, presents an award to then-American ambassador to Israel David Friedman in 2017. Photo by Zionist Organization of America

Trump addressed the organization Sunday at an event where he was presented with its Theodor Herzl Gold Medallion award. The ZOA has hosted other prominent Republicans, including Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

It had a $5.3 million budget in 2020, according to tax documents.

Progressive opponents of the ZOA have repeatedly sought to censure the organization, including calling on other members of the Conference of Presidents to condemn Klein and unsuccessfully pushing for the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council to remove the ZOA.

Rosen alleged in the lawsuit that Klein mismanaged the ZOA, “created a toxic office environment” and bullied its staff. 

David Schoen, the ZOA’s board chair and one of Trump’s lawyers during his second impeachment trial, said in a statement that Rosen had requested that his whistleblower complaints be investigated by an outside attorney. Schoen said that the organization hired the attorney recommended by Rosen, who thoroughly examined them and issued a detailed report. He said that Rosen was fired as a result of the outside counsel’s findings.

“We will vigorously defend against Mr. Rosen’s claims in court,” said Schoen, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. “Suffice it to say now that the ZOA responded in an appropriate manner as soon as Mr. Rosen made his claims.”

Alexander Sakin, Rosen’s attorney, said Rosen was fired in retaliation for his complaints against Klein.

Explosive allegations

The Zionist Organization of America hired Rosen in 2017, shortly before firing its then-executive director David Drimer days after Drimer filed a complaint alleging misconduct at the organization with the New York state attorney general. That followed a decision by the Internal Revenue Service to revoke ZOA’s tax-exempt status in 2012 after it failed to file tax returns for three years.

Rosen, 62, was quickly promoted to executive vice president, which the lawsuit said made him Klein’s “right-hand man.” He had previously worked for nearly 10 years as an executive at the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey office.

Rosen said that he successfully pushed for an outside investigation into human resources violations at the organization in 2020, and a “strategic review process” the following year. Both resulted in reports that cited problems with Klein’s management, the lawsuit stated, but were dismissed by the board.

Rosen described a series of alleged offensive actions by Klein in the lawsuit, including declining to hire a woman to be director of marketing because she would “distract the staff as she was too physically attractive.” Klein allegedly then told another woman who was ultimately hired for the position that he had declined to hire the other candidate because she was “too beautiful.”

David Schoen, chair of the Zionist Organization of America, was named as a defendant in John Rosen’s lawsuit alleging that Mort Klein created a “toxic” environment at the organization. Photo by Getty Images

 

 

 

 

Klein allegedly said that he had previously been accused of sexual harassment but that the claim was not credible because the woman in question was “too ugly,” “very overweight” and “wearing too much makeup.”

After the director of marketing complained to Rosen and another male employee about Klein’s inappropriate comments, Klein allegedly said he wanted both the woman and the male employee she spoke “gone” and that he didn’t want to see the woman’s “ugly fat face.” He also objected to giving her a raise, according to the lawsuit, calling her “stupid” and “ugly.”

In the lawsuit, Rosen painted a picture of a workplace in which Klein’s bellicose social media presence carried over into the workplace. He also alleges that Klein:

  • told Rosen shortly after he was hired that it was “embarrassing” for the organization to continue employing “80-year-old secretaries” 
  • questioned a Black job candidate about whether she supported Black Lives Matter 
  • mocked a cancer-stricken worker for missing work 
  • told the female marketing director she could “go to hell” after he declined a request for extended maternity leave
  • insisted on interviewing a Muslim job candidate over concerns about her religion

“Even though it was highly unusual for him to interview someone applying for a low-level administrative job in the Finance Department, he was triggered that ZOA was considering hiring a Muslim, citing ‘security concerns’ and his worry that she was an ‘extremist,’” the lawsuit stated.

Klein declined to address any of the specific allegations, and instead referred to the statement from Schoen.

Klein also allegedly made frequent complaints about employment laws and mandatory anti-discrimination trainings. “Unlike what we would usually do, I would like to offer the job to a white male,” Klein allegedly told Rosen when discussing a job opening, before calling the comment a joke.

“Klein was unwilling to abide by the law to the extent it deemed such law inconvenient,” the lawsuit stated.

According to the lawsuit, Klein has yelled “at almost every staff member,” including an alleged incident in which he so aggressively berated one senior staff member that Klein’s wife — who overheard his words — began sobbing.

Rosen said that after two external reports on problems with Klein’s behavior failed to sway the board, he filed a 229-page “whistleblower complaint” to Schoen in February.

After sending that report, Rosen said he was systematically frozen out of the organization’s operations before being fired in August.

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