The Zionist Organization of America may be selling its cultural center in Tel Aviv, in a move that could prove controversial for the hawkish pro-Israel organization.
The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported earlier this month that the center, called the ZOA House and run by the organization since the 1950s, may be sold to the Kaldash Company, a property trade group. The sale would come at a time when Israel’s economy has been severely strapped, due in large part to the ongoing intifada.
Morton Klein, the organization’s national president, would not confirm the Ma’ariv report, citing a policy of not discussing internal ZOA matters publicly. He did, however, say that when he became the organization’s president in 1993, he inherited a “huge” debt burden, and that discussions about the fate of the center have been ongoing for 11 years. According to Klein, several options have been proposed, all of which received unanimous approval from members of the organization’s board and the executive committee.
The center, located on the corner of Ibn Gvirol and Kaplan streets in one of Tel Aviv’s most fashionable neighborhoods, houses three auditoriums for theater performances, a movie theater, an art gallery, a language study center — which offers classes in English, Spanish, Japanese and French — a journalism and communication school and a restaurant.
Criticizing the possibility of sale was New Jerseyan Robin Berger, who circulated an e-mail this week after learning about it from friends in Tel Aviv. “The ZOA claims to be a strong supporter of Israel but in negotiating the sale with Kaldash Co. there is no stipulation that the ZOA House in Tel Aviv should remain as it is with the employees still keeping their jobs,” she wrote.
An exasperated Klein shot back at the charge. “It’s 14 employees,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a huge conglomerate.”
Klein also cited the building’s landmark status, which he said ensures its future as a cultural hub. “It will always be a cultural center,” he said. “It will not become a Rite-Aid, no matter what happens.”
Klein, whose organization distributes daily faxes and e-mails to news organizations criticizing the ZOA’s political adversaries, said that others who contacted reporters might not have the purest of motivations.
“I’m the national president and I haven’t gotten a single phone call, e-mail or fax saying anything about any concern,” Klein said. “If they really cared about it, why didn’t they get in touch with me?”
According to Berger, however, she did contact the ZOA office in New York and was told that the center was indeed being sold. Klein said this was impossible.
“I don’t believe her because no one in this office answers such questions,” he said, before further attacking Berger, whom he said he had never heard of before this week.
“Who is this woman? This woman is nobody!” said Klein. “She’s some unknown person.”
Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, who lives six blocks from the cultural center and frequently attends shows or films there, emphasized that he had no beef with the ZOA in particular, but was nevertheless concerned about the reports.
“All these people talk about how they love Israel and they raise money based on their support for Israel and what they actually do for people [here] is much more limited,” he said.
Berger echoed his sentiments. “Maybe they could cut back on some of their U.S. programs,” she suggested.
Klein, for his part, emphasized repeatedly that no decision had been made, and said that he and others were still hoping for the best.
“We’re trying desperately to see if we can save this building,” he said. “It’s hard, but we’re trying.”