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Into the Fray: The Zionist Organization of America – A personal postscript
ZOA’s current condition reflects the accumulative result of the incumbent president’s best efforts over the past 20 years. His reelection is unlikely to induce the change that even his proponents admit is needed.
 …the ZOA is in crisis today… the ZOA’s crisis isn’t about its direction. It is about its leadership...right now, the most important thing for the ZOA and the American Jewish community as a whole is for Klein to be reelected.

– Caroline B. Glick, “The ZOA’s leadership challenge,” The Jerusalem Post, March 3

This is not the topic I was hoping to deal with in this week’s column.

I had intended to devote it to a critical analysis of the (borderline anti-Semitic) interview Barack Obama gave to Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg on March 2.

I even had a title for it: “The bitter fruits of Bibi’s Bar-Ilan blunder.” In it I planned to show how the causal chain of events that led to the predicament in which Israel finds itself with the US administration can be traced back – link by unfortunate link – to Binyamin Netanyahu’s regrettable June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, when, reneging on his electoral commitments, he endorsed Israeli acceptance of Palestinian statehood.

Or perhaps, given breaking news on the spectacularly successful IDF marine interception of the Iranian rockets bound for Gaza, I would have composed a piece pointing out that — for all our unmitigated admiration for the astounding feat – the only reason such risk-fraught operations are necessary is that Israel abandoned Gaza in 2005.

But the fallout from last week’s column on the upcoming Zionist Organization of America elections in Philadelphia on March 9-10 dictates otherwise.

Compelled to respond

As readers will recall, last week I suggested that after Mort Klein’s 20-year stint as president of ZOA, it might be time for a change in leadership – particularly in light of the less-than-spectacular growth of the organization in recent years, and of what appear to be serious lapses in management and misallocation of resources.

As my column was scrupulously researched, and drew on (publicly available) data submitted by ZOA on its financial activity, and data from sources that can euphemistically be designated “well-informed,” I assumed – or at least hoped – that any debate it might generate would be on the significance of the analysis, rather than on the authenticity of the data or the integrity of the messenger.

This turned out not to be the case, and I find myself compelled to respond to what is difficult not to interpret as a concerted effort to mislead the public.

I do so with no relish, since I am more than loath to engage in a public altercation with essentially like-minded Israel advocates. But the alternative is to let these grave distortions and deceptions go unchallenged.

My reluctance, and sense of discomfort, are heightened by the fact that this puts me in direct conflict – or at least disagreement – with my Jerusalem Post colleague Caroline Glick, who in her column earlier this week (see above) chose to endorse Klein’s reelection for yet another term as ZOA president, rather than the challenger, Los Angeles attorney Steve Goldberg.

Totally agree, therefore totally disagree

Glick states that ZOA “is not the biggest American Jewish organization. It is not the most powerful American Jewish organization...But it is the most important American Jewish organization.”

I agree wholeheartedly – which is precisely why this debate and the outcomes it precipitates are so vital.

Let me be clear. I have huge respect for Glick, for her intellect, courage, eloquence and incisive analytical abilities. I rarely disagree with her astute assessments of Israel’s strategic challenges, although on some issues, I have serious reservations as to her operational prescriptions – particularly on the Palestinian question. With regard to the column in question, however, I have little option but to take strenuous issue with her. It was a regrettable piece which should never have been written. I fear that its almost self-contradictory arguments did herself, and her strongly held beliefs, a grave disservice.

Allow me to illustrate.

Puzzling and paradoxical

Glick clearly recognizes that ZOA needs to undergo far-reaching change: “…the ZOA needs to change its organizational focus and its organizational model. Today the ZOA is very much a 20th-century, top-down organization.”

She goes on to prescribe the nature of the required change: “[ZOA] has to become a grassroots, decentralized organization. The role of the national offices must change from leadership to guidance as the focus shifts to regional offices and local branches.”

But then, paradoxically, Glick suggests that the best way to effect such changes are, well… not to.

For the best way to ensure that they are unlikely to occur is to reelect the very person who for years has refrained from introducing them, and has made ZOA the epitome of a top-down, highly centralized organization – whose entire existence is allegedly dependent on extending the incumbency of the current president from more than two decades to almost quarter of a century.

In stipulating the measures she deems necessary for ZOA’s future, Glick seems to echo precisely the changes Klein’s challenger, Goldberg, has called for, precisely the kind which her preferred candidate has steadfastly avoided.

Why she would expect such behavioral metamorphosis on the part of Klein is puzzling, to say the least.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Glick concedes that after 20 years with Klein at the helm, “…the ZOA is in crisis today.” She is specific as to the nature of the crisis: “…the ZOA’s crisis isn’t about its [ideological] direction. It is about its leadership.” Almost inexplicably, however, her prescribed remedy is to reelect the self-same leadership that has precipitated the “crisis of leadership” she diagnoses.

It seems that I am not the only one who has picked up on what can only be charitably described as Glick’s faulty reasoning. Two perceptive Facebook responses by Post readers make the point with succinct clarity:

Commencing with a quote from Glick’s article, Mark Gold writes: “‘… most important thing for the ZOA is for Klein to be that the organization can undertake a radical transformation.’ Without disparaging his record, someone who has been there 20 years all of a sudden now is going to undertake a radical transformation”? I don’t think so!”

Similarly, Fred Moncharsh asks: “… what makes you think Mort is capable of making this transformation? If he did not understand the need to do it during the past 20 years, maybe he just isn’t capable of accomplishing what is necessary.... Could you explain why not put Goldberg in charge?”

Damning with faint praise

Moncharsh’s question regarding Goldberg is highly pertinent. 

Glick seems aware of the increasingly numerous and onerous question marks hovering over Klein’s recent years in office: “Klein has made financial decisions that seem improper on their face. They involve among other things Klein’s personal salary which appears unreasonably generous, and his less than transparent behavior following a temporary suspension of the ZOA’s nonprofit status… these are not insignificant issues.”

She adds: “… certainly, Klein owes the ZOA’s members and supporters an explanation for his actions.”

Yet apparently prior to being provided an adequate explanation she calls for his reelection – sort of.

Damning Klein with decidedly faint praise, she declares: “He needs to be reelected not because he is the only one who can do what the ZOA has been doing in recent years...[but ]because he is far better suited than Goldberg to maintain the ZOA’s current level of funding so that the organization can undertake a radical transformation over the next four years.”

Again, it is hard to understand the rationale for this assertion – for several reasons.

Incongruous endorsement

First, it is difficult to know on what grounds Glick dismisses Goldberg’s fund-raising capacity. I certainly have no idea what his abilities are in this field, but in a remarkably short time and against all odds, he seems to have mounted a surprisingly effective campaign.

Second, since Glick acknowledged there is a leadership crisis in the ZOA, it seems incongruous to endorse reelection of someone who must bear much responsibility for that crisis; who has failed to initiate any real measures toward the “radical transformation” she (correctly) identifies as necessary; and who, in the past decade, has demonstrated only mediocre capacity for fund-raising.

As I was at pains to underscore last week, I have great admiration for the way Klein salvaged the ZOA from impending ruin when he took over in 1993. However, for an extended period now, the funding he has raised has hardly been impressive.

Analysis of the 990 forms submitted by ZOA to the IRS show that in the 12 years from 2001-2012, total contributions amounted to $29 million – an annual average of $2.4m. – a quarter to a third of what the much younger pro-Israel StandWithUs raises. Even if rumors of a record $5m. raised in 2013 are true, the annual average since 2001 remains a not overly impressive sum – $2.6m. – especially for “the most important American Jewish organization.”

Personality cult or pro-Israel organization?

Surely if other organizations manage to achieve far higher levels of funding sans Klein, why would Glick feel it implausible that a restructured ZOA with a fresh democratically elected leader would not be able “to maintain the ZOA’s current level of funding.”

One might well be excused for believing that if Klein is as committed as claimed to ZOA goals and ideals, he might, despite losing, harness his considerable talents to help ensure that the organization continues to enlist sufficient funds to pursue them effectively.

Unless, of course, one suspects that he has made the ZOA more a personality cult than a Zionist advocacy organization.

But if that were true, surely it would be the most powerful argument for his replacement.

Membership mumbo-jumbo

In the dispute over Klein’s success in leading ZOA, the size of its membership has been hotly debated. In my previous column, I wrote, “According to informed sources, there are little more than 10,000 members formally registered and an email list of barely 1,000, with 20 percent of the addresses in it, apparently inoperative.”

In an irate email to the Post, Michael Goldblatt , chairman of ZOA’s Board of Directors, and David Drimer, national executive director, accuse me of “poor journalism” and “unconscionable laziness in research and reporting.” According to them, without access to internal documents and databases, I “could not have the slightest clue how to determine that figure.”

Actually it seems it is they that don’t. They allege that “the number of ‘active members’ is approximately 20,000 and it is growing.

Updated to the time of writing this column, however, ZOA’s website claims a “national membership of over 30,000.” So are Goldblatt and Drimer suggesting that membership has grown from 30,000 to… 20,000? Really? Or is this merely another sign that ZOA leadership doesn’t have a clue or is trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

Mumbo-jumbo (cont.)

I am not the first to question the size of ZOA membership. In May 2006, The Forward wrote, “Internal documents acquired… indicate that ZOA has 11,700 dues-paying members…”

It continued: “When asked about the apparent discrepancy, Klein said that under the ZOA bylaws, membership tallies include all people in the households of dues-paying members.” Really? Is ZOA president confessing to inflating membership numbers with infants, minors, rebellious teenagers and indifferent spouses?

It seems, however, that the Forward was overly generous. ZOA-generated documents in my possession, comprising its 2014 member database (just over 240 fine-print pages – triple checked) clearly indicate that the membership is under 10,000.

But anyone can estimate the size of ZOA membership by dividing the total revenue from membership dues, appearing on the 990 forms submitted to the IRS, by the published cost of membership (the most recent figures appear on the 2007 form). Even under the most generous assumptions, the figure is well below 10,000.

Wilting laurels

The condition of the ZOA – paltry membership, limited political clout, misallocation of resources, exorbitant compensation – reflects the accumulative result of the incumbent president’s best efforts over the past 20 years. His reelection is unlikely to induce the change that even his proponents admit is needed.

Perhaps it is time for Mort Klein to retire gracefully from the ZOA leadership, taking with him his well-deserved, but rapidly wilting laurels – and his ample nest egg.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
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