Our World: The ZOA’s leadership challenge

The Zionist Organization of America is not the biggest American Jewish organization, but it is the most important.

American, Israeli flags. (photo credit: REUTERS)
American, Israeli flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Zionist Organization of America is not the biggest American Jewish organization. It is not the most powerful American Jewish organization.
And it is not the most high-profile American Jewish organization. But it is the most important American Jewish organization.
Under the leadership of its president Morton Klein, the ZOA emerged over the past two decades as the only Jewish organization in the US that refuses to budge on its principles no matter how much pressure is applied.
Those principles of strong, unapologetic support for the Jewish state and the rights of the Jewish people to the land of Israel used to form the common denominator shared by most mainstream American Jewish organizations. But beginning in the 1980s, more and more US Jewish groups began abandoning this consensus position as liberal opinion shifted further and further away from Israel.
Today the American Jewish community is in a state of unprecedented crisis. And the need for a strong, vibrant, accessible and responsive ZOA is arguably greater than at any time in the past.
As last October’s Pew Survey of American Jews made clear, the American Jewish community is adrift. For most American Jews, being Jewish has come to mean being a liberal. This conviction is having a corrosive impact on major Jewish groups whose membership reflects the general sense of the community.
As Alexander Joffe explained in a recent article in The Times of Israel, the community’s equation of leftism with Judaism has made it impossible for Jewish organizations to withstand subversion by anti-Israel, and at times anti-Semitic forces.
As Joffe put it, these forces “take advantage of what has become a defining characteristic of the American Jewish community, an obsession with fairness and balance, an eagerness to listen to and internalize the narratives of others, to be ‘other directed,’ guided by external trends and standards.”
“Sometimes,” he explains, “this is justified as a Jewish value, akin to the ever-malleable concept of ‘tikkun olam,’ and sometimes as an American value.”
The result of this Jewish organizational determination to open Jewish doors to the communities’ foes is witnessed today among other things by the push on the part of some student Hillel groups to reject the ban on anti-Zionist and pro-BDS speakers, and the penchant of Jewish institutions like the 92nd Street Y, Ramaz Jewish Day School and New York’s Jewish Museum to invite virulently anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic speakers to address their Jewish members.
In Joffe’s words, today, “There is no institution, no space, no conversation that is immune from anti-Zionism.”
On the other hand, as he notes, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel groups feel no reciprocal need to invite speakers who support Jewish rights, power and the Jewish state.
The American Jewish community’s pathological desire to embrace its worst enemies is bad enough. But it is far from the only challenge that the Jewish organizational world faces. There is also the partisan political challenge.
Led by President Barack Obama, the American Left has exploited the Jews’ desire to remain in the leftist camp to dramatically weaken the power of American Jewish organizations to advance Jewish interests.
Take AIPAC, for instance. As Richard Baehr pointed out this week in Yisrael Hayom, Obama has used AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship to scuttle its goal of passing sanctions against Iran.
Baehr explained that over the past five years, Obama has shown his fellow Democrats that AIPAC’s campaign funding is far less important than funding from radical leftist groups like the public sector unions, teachers’ unions and environmental groups.
Obama’s actions have led the party away from Israel.
Since most of AIPAC’s members are committed Democrats, by decreasing their party’s support for Israel, Obama has forced AIPAC to choose between keeping its Democratic members and abandoning its agenda, or remaining faithful to its agenda and risk alienating its members by opening itself to criticism that it is becoming a mouthpiece of the Republican Party.
With 56 percent of American Jews claiming that pursuing justice and equality is essential to their Judaism and only 43% of American Jews saying that supporting Israel is essential to their Judaism, it is clear that over time, the challenge that AIPAC faces will only grow more acute, until the organization either becomes something else, or ceases to exist.
And this brings us back to the ZOA.
Like AIPAC, the ZOA is in crisis today. But the ZOA’s crisis isn’t about its direction. It is about its leadership.
Next Sunday the ZOA will hold its annual convention in Philadelphia and for the first time since Klein was first elected the group’s president, he is facing a challenge in his reelection bid. Steven Goldberg, a national vice president, is challenging Klein’s leadership.
As Goldberg points out, over the past several years, 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 non-profit status.
To be sure, these are not insignificant issues. And certainly, Klein owes the ZOA’s members and supporters an explanation for his actions.
But right now, the most important thing for the ZOA and for the American Jewish community as a whole is for Klein to be reelected. He needs to be reelected not because he is the only one who can do what the ZOA has been doing in recent years. He needs to be reelected 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.
As more and more American Jewish organizations suffer from communal disengagement and political isolation, those Jews who remain committed will be seeking to affiliate with organizations with a clear message capable of inspiring them and their children.
The ZOA must be that organization.
But for that to happen, the ZOA needs to change its organizational focus and its organizational model.
Today the ZOA is very much a twentieth century, topdown organization. Over the next four years, it has to become a grass-roots, decentralized organization. The role of the national offices must change from leadership to guidance as the focus shifts to regional offices and local branches.
The ZOA needs to build a strong and always growing presence on the Internet. It needs to use social networking tools and viral videos to extend its reach to committed young American Jews who want to be part of a proud, inspiring Jewish community. And it needs to use its local branches to provide the educational, advocacy and social outlets for American Jews of all ages.
Mort Klein has led the ZOA unscathed through the 20 years of Israel’s attempt to escape reality through the phony peace process. Over the next four years his primary goal must be to recreate the ZOA organizationally so that the same principles and values can guide his successors as they follow his example of unapologetic, proud Zionism and Judaism as they lead the American Jewish community in the coming generation.
The author’s new book The Israeli Solution: A One- State Plan for Peace in the Middle East will be released on March 4.