Founded 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 other 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 attempted to take a more activist role 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.
Nevertheless, according to Jewish Voice, the ZOA's membership under Klein has been in "free fall." In a March 2014 report, the publication reported: "Although the ZOA's website dishonestly represents that it has more than 30,000 members, the ZOA's list of members includes fewer than 10,000 names. Of that group, the ZOA has e-mail addresses of only 1100, and approximately 25% of those e-mail addresses are no longer valid. Thus, at most, the ZOA has approximately 800 members. Such a pitifully small constituency is less than the critical mass necessary for an organization to have any relevance." By comparison, in 1947, the ZOA reportedly had nearly 250,000 members.
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 ZOA claims on its website that it is 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 activism, the ZOA also operates special programs devoted to legal cases and college campuses—aimed, among other things, at compelling the U.S. 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.
The ZOA's embrace of the political right was on 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."
In November 2014, the ZOA hosted a meeting between prominent Jewish American donors and potential Republican presidential nominee Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in New York City. The event also included numerous high-profile "pro-Israel" hawks and right-wingers, including Alan Dershowitz, Christians United for Israel chairman John Hagee, Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, among many others.
The event drew attention because of comments made by Sheldon Adelson after a private two-hour meeting he had with Cruz. According to the New York Observer, Adelson thought Cruz was "too right wing" and found him to be "a longshot to win the nomination." However, according to the Observer, Adelson called the newspaper after publication of the story "to dispute that characterization of his reaction to Mr. Cruz. Mr. Adelson made clear to the Observer that he was the only person in the room with Mr. Cruz and thus the only one in a position to know how he felt about the Senator."
2015 Netanyahu Speech Controversy
The ZOA stood out amongst "pro-Israel" advocacy organizations in its support for controversial plans to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the U.S. Congress in March 2015, which were made without any advance discussion with the White House. Despite widespread condemnation of the plans, ZOA president Mort Klein stated that his organization would publically condemn "any Democrats who don't show up for the speech."
The ZOA also lambasted other Jewish organizations for criticizing the speech, stating in a press release: "The ZOA has criticized Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for pressuring Israeli PM Netanyahu to cancel his critically important speech on Iran to a joint session of Congress. Jacobs said it was 'ill advised' for Netanyahu to speak. ADL's Foxman and J St. have also demanded Netanyahu cancel. The ZOA also criticized the American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC and others for their deafening silence on the issue. Moreover the Jewish Daily Forward reported that 'in private conversations, AIPAC has been trying to distance itself from the debate.'"
The group compared the failure of other Jewish groups to support Netanyahu's speech to the actions of Jews during the 1930s who refused to condemn the Nazi threat. "Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leader Abe Foxman's and Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) president Rick Jacobs' shameful condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for accepting the invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress about the Iranian nuclear threat to Jews and the United States is reminiscent of establishment Jewish leaders' condemnation of Peter Bergson and Ben Hecht for trying to speak to Congress in the 1930s-1940s about the Nazi threat to Europe's Jews," a ZOA press release stated.
Added Morton Klein: "We cannot afford to again act like the Jewish leaders of the 1930's-1940s who opposed life-saving efforts to save their European brothers and sisters from extermination. The ZOA begs fellow Jewish leaders to join with the ZOA in a unified effort to support Prime Minister Netanyahu's address before Congress, and to support ensuing efforts to impose sanctions and all other necessary steps to stop the existential threat to Israel, America, and the entire world posed by Iranian nuclear weapons."
The ZOA has staked out a hardline 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, the 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," the 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, the 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"—the 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."
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."
Tax Status and Morton Klein Controversy
The ZOA has a history controversies related to its tax status and leadership. For instance, during a brief period of time in the late 1940s, ZOA was forced 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.
More recently, after failing for three years to file Form 990 documents with the IRS, the ZOA lost its tax-exempt status in March 2012. As of late 2014, 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.
Despite these problems, 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 received a 38 percent raise even as ZOA lost its tax-exempt status and its revenues declined.
According to the Jewish Voice, Klein received a salary of $1,245,851 in 2008, which was more than half of ZOA's total received donations ($2.4 million) for that year. Jewish Voice also noted that 2008 was the first year ZOA failed to file a Form 990 with the IRS, meaning Klein's income for that year was not publically disclosed at that time.
In 2014, Klein faced the first challenge to his presidency of ZOA in the 20 years he has been at the helm. His challenger was Steven Goldberg, a Los Angeles-based lawyer and former ZOA board member who launched his bid because of what he claimed was ZOA's "steep decline" and "falling donations, dwindling membership and poor employee morale."
The election, which Klein won, drew enormous criticism. "[Klein] and his supporters on the ZOA Board had an iron grip on the machinery for the selection of the next president at the convention, and Goldberg never had a chance," noted a March 2014 Jewish Voice editorial. "The Board's failure to fulfill its fiduciary duties enabled the ZOA's disintegration. Perhaps one day the Attorney General of New York will investigate and hold the culpable parties responsible."
The Jewish Voice also reported that despite strong protestations, the election was held in Klein's hometown of Philadelphia. ZOA members who voted were "locals approved by Klein and his friends pursuant to an antiquated and byzantine set of rules that were interpreted in ways designed to ensure that Klein would retain his grip on power." Jewish Voice concluded: "The ZOA will go through the motions of an active organization, but Mort Klein's loss of credibility is irreversible. Now that the truth is out, it is impossible to take him seriously again."
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.