Established in Baltimore in 1897, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) is the oldest Zionist organization in the United States. Headed over the years by prominent American Jews like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the group played a pivotal role in reorienting the U.S. Jewish community away from the "assimilationist" approach of other early twentieth-century Jewish organizations and toward a more explicitly Zionist orientation.
Like many other political Zionist groups in the United States and Europe, the ZOA entered a period of decline after the state of Israel was formally recognized in 1948 and the ostensible mission of the organization was fulfilled. However, since the 1990s, the group has experienced a resurgence of sorts under the leadership of its controversial president Morton Klein, a former U.S. government economist who is also a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) national council. It claims to have over 30,000 members today.
Under Klein's leadership, the ZOA has "adopted a hard-line approach" on Palestine and Iran which, according to a columnist for the conservative Jerusalem Post, has "isolated and made [Klein] an anathema to most of the dovish liberal Jewish establishment." As summed up by the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, "ZOA is best known for expressing views on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are to the political right of much of the American Jewish establishment and, oftentimes, of both the Israeli and American governments."
The organization's combative attitude toward Palestinians and Arabs is readily discernible on its website, where ZOA bills itself as dedicated to educating the public "about the truth of the ongoing and relentless Arab war against Israel." It credits itself with playing "a key role in Congress regarding victims of terrorism, keeping Jerusalem unified under Israeli sovereignty, fighting Hamas and Fatah, and working on the imposition of sanctions on Syria and Saudi Arabia." Alongside its more general public outreach and political agitation, the ZOA also operates special programs devoted to legal cases and college campuses—aimed, among other things, at compelling the State Department to stamp "Jerusalem, Israel" on the passports of Americans born there, as well as banning "anti-Semitic" criticism of Israel from college campuses.
ZOA's definitive drift to the right was on full display during the organization's annual fundraising gala in November 2011, which was the first such ZOA event to feature an all-Republican cast of participants. Past galas have featured the likes of Rep. Eric Cantor and Moshe Ya'alon, a former Israeli general and Likud party leader. The 2011 event honored prominent right-wing Christian Zionists like Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Michele Bachmann and conservative media personality Glenn Beck—the latter of whom was presented with the first-ever Sheldon Adelson "Defender of Israel" by Adelson himself. Ros-Lehtinen, Bachmann, and Beck each delivered hawkish remarks chiding the Obama administration for what they considered its lackluster support of Israel, frequently invoking the specter of a nuclear Iran along the way. The event also featured remarks from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via a satellite connection, who named the "vilification" of Israel as "the greatest threat of all."
"From the 'Arabist' professors on college campuses invoked by one ZOA speaker, to the menace of a potentially nuclear Iran, the message of the evening was clear: no one can let up their guard for even a second against Israel's opponents," noted The Nation's Ben Adler. "The ZOA event confirmed that the extremist wing of pro-Israel activism has become virtually indistinguishable from the political right."
Indeed, ZOA has staked out hardline territory on virtually every question of U.S. policy in the Middle East. After Netanyahu called for an international "red line" on Iran in a September 2012 speech to the UN, for example, ZOA issued a statement applauding the Likud prime minister, calling the policy "the only thing that might induce the dangerous, theocratic, extremist and terror-supporting Iranian regime to stop in its tracks and back down." The ZOA called on the Obama administration to implement a new red line of its own, presumably in line with Netanyahu's. "Whatever the political, economic and security risks for the U.S. that might be entailed by a last-resort military strike upon Iranian nuclear facilities," concluded the statement, "these will be as nothing against the shadow of nuclear blackmail under which America will be obliged to live once Iran gets [nuclear] weapons."
The following month, ZOA called on the Obama administration to cut U.S. ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power in 2012 after winning Egypt's first openly democratic elections. "Despite a detailed history of jihadist extremism and abundant evidence of its ongoing orientation, the Muslim Brotherhood has been whitewashed in Washington as a moderate group and the Obama Administration chose to promote it as a peaceful, democratic alternative," ZOA said in a statement, which also accused the administration of "promoting and legitimizing the Brotherhood as a responsible, moderate party with whom the U.S. can do business."
In contrast, ZOA offered kind words for Obama's 2012 election opponent, Mitt Romney. After Mother Jones released a leaked video of the Republican candidate balking at the prospects for peace in the Middle East—accusing the Palestinians of being "committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel" and advocating a U.S. policy of "kicki[ng] the ball down the field and hop[ing] that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it"—ZOA released a statement praising the remarks, which were widely panned elsewhere. Wrote Klein, "Governor Romney's remarks indicate that, were he to be elected president, he might be willing to do what President Obama and his predecessors, Republican and Democratic, have not done—to act on the realities of the Palestinian situation and apply real, sustained pressure on the PA to change its ways."
At least one ZOA chapter head—Los Angeles ZOA president Paul Schnee—endorsed a controversial PR campaign, led by the acerbic anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, aimed at placing advertisements in public transit systems throughout various cities endorsing U.S. support for Israel and calling Arabs "savages." "I'm sure I speak for many members of the public," said Snee, "when I thank Ms. Geller for her efforts in courageously defying political correctness and speaking the truth about the nature of both Israel and America's religiously inspired enemies."
Prior to the Obama administration, the ZOA was a strident opponent of the unilateral Israeli decision, under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to disengage from the Gaza Strip. In 2009, the group called on Israelis who supported the initiative to apologize. "It is high time for all MKs, journalists and others, regardless of party affiliation, who supported the process of unilateral withdrawal to apologize to the Israeli electorate," wrote Klein in the statement. "They should explain that they now understand the disastrous consequences of unilateral concessions to an unreconstructed Palestinian terror regime. They should acknowledge and apologize for the fact that implementing the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria deeply harmed the lives of the 10,000 Jewish men, women and children who were forcibly uprooted from their homes, synagogues, schools and businesses in Gaza for no gain at all and that, as a result, peace is further away than ever."
After failing for three years to file Form 990 documents with the IRS, ZOA lost its tax-exempt status in March 2012. As of late 2012, it had yet to reestablish it, apparently having scrubbed all references to the group's non-profit status from its website and declining to post a public list of board members. In October 2012, ZOA announced that it had canceled its annual fundraising gala because of its loss of tax status.
In October 2012, the Forward reported that Morton Klein was among the most highly compensated top executives among Jewish advocacy groups. "Of the 19 Jewish nonprofits that pay their top executives over $400,000," wrote Josh Nathan-Kazis, "the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization America are the only two that have total expenditures of less than $10 million a year." Nathan-Kazis noted that Sheldon Adelson has been a major funder of both groups.
The Forward also reported that Klein had received a 38 percent raise even as ZOA lost its tax-exempt status and its revenues declined.
In the late 1940s, ZOA was ordered to register as a foreign agent in the United States for "endeavoring to transmit to Israel certain up-to-date information regarding American industry," according to FBI documents. The requirement was later dropped.
In 2007, the last year for which it filed a 990, the ZOA reported approximately $4.5 million in revenue. By 2011, according to the Forward, ZOA's revenue had fallen $1.4 million below the 2011 figure, suggesting broad-based fundraising difficulties.
A review of 2009 and 2010 990s filed by other organizations, however, suggests that ZOA has maintained its core neoconservative donors. The Sheldon Adelson Foundation contributed $500,000 between the two years, alongside $200,000 from the Irving Moskowitz Foundation and at least $115,000 from the Newton and Rochelle Becker Foundation. Smaller amounts came from other groups, including $12,000 from the Abstraction Fund, $10,000 from the James and Merryl Tisch Foundation, $6,250 from the Pittsburgh Terminal Corporation Foundation, and $5,600 from the Traditional Fund, alongside a host of smaller foundation supporters.