WASHINGTON — Amid a controversy about alleged payments to the Zionist Organization of America in return for public support of Qatar, the group’s president, Mort Klein, found himself in the familiar position of calling somebody else a liar.
This time, the target of Klein’s vitriol was Joel Mowbray, a national security consultant who told Mother Jones about a ZOA gala where Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, a former Qatari diplomat, was in attendance. Mowbray said that when he asked Klein about Al-Rumaihi, Klein acknowledged being paid $100,000 by Joseph Allaham, a former kosher restaurant owner who has been working to cultivate support for Qatar within the American Jewish community.
According to Haaretz, Allaham declared in filings to register as a foreign agent that the payment was from a Qatari fund and intended to get the ZOA to side with Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia. Since then, Klein has backtracked a bit, saying that he thought it was Allaham’s own money and would return it if he found out it came from Qatar, one of the prime benefactors of the terrorist group Hamas. At first, however, Klein told Mother Jones that Mowbray’s account was a “complete and total lie.”
Even from his political allies, Klein’s taking heat. Last week, he told Gregg Roman, director of the right-wing Middle East Forum, that he had returned the $100,000. That didn’t stop Roman from admonishing him in an article in the Forward.
“Klein still won’t come clean about what he knew and when, so how can we know what deals or unspoken understandings were reached between himself and the Qatari agents?” Roman wrote. “If American Zionists are not willing to air their dirty laundry in public, especially when one of their most ardent, stalwart leaders engages in behavior with more questions than answers, how can we honestly demand transparency from our detractors and enemies?”
The incident raises questions about finances and influence-peddling at the ZOA. But Klein’s response — in particular his initial denial — is also the latest illustration of the kind of combative defiance that has come to characterize his time at the helm of the ZOA. As the organization has grown its profile with allies and associates being picked for high positions in the Trump administration, Klein has maintained his scorched-earth strategy for anyone he deems as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.
Even when condemnation recently moved Klein, 70, to apologize — after he tweeted that the actress Natalie Portman’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and her declining of an award funded in part by the Israeli government “gives credibility and legitimacy to the ludicrous, false, nonsensical belief that beautiful women aren’t too bright” — he did so in a typically bellicose manner.
“I now realize that my comment could be construed as offensive and I sincerely apologize for it,” Klein said in a written statement. “I do not retract my criticism of Ms. Portman’s decision not to go to Israel and accept the award, but I should have focused solely on her decision, without any reference to gender or appearance.”
It wasn’t the only time his Twitter presence has drawn blowback, and more often than not, Klein doubles down rather than apologizing.
In May, Klein tweeted in defense of Roseanne Barr, who called liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros a “nazi who turned in his fellow Jews” on her account. Soros, who is Jewish, was 14 and living in Nazi-controlled Hungary when his father secured papers giving his family new Christian identities in 1944. He survived by living with a Hungarian official whose job it was to take inventory of Jewish homes. Soros is not a Nazi or a Nazi-sympathizer, he’s donated to liberal Jewish groups like J Street and invested in Israel’s thriving technology sector, yet Klein has attacked Soros for his public disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
“All people have asked of Soros does he regret helping Nazis locate Jews when he was 14-he said he has no regrets,” Klein tweeted. “Why would he not regret this. Why did say 1944 was happiest year of his life. Why does he say he’s anti Zionist [sic].”
The tweet drew a number of responses criticizing Klein.
“In the ’80s, when I was in Israel, it was just unimaginable that you’d attack someone over their Holocaust survivor experience,” said Ron Kampeas, the Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I met Holocaust survivors who were really heroes and they still felt guilt. So you didn’t go there, you never questioned that experience. Mort has been out front with that, I can’t imagine any organization leader doing that 20 or 30 years ago, it would’ve been completely unthinkable.”
Klein, though, didn’t back off his statements in an interview with the Washington Jewish Week.
“I think he’s a pathetic and weak man who is frightened to identify as a Jew,” Klein said. “He’s never married a Jew. He spends huge amounts of money fighting the Jewish state; he’s an anti-Zionist. I find him to be a frightened, pathetic Jew who feels more secure saying to the anti-Semites and Jew-haters of the world, ‘Don’t hate me, I’m really with you.’”
Soros’ second ex-wife is Jewish.
Klein’s tactics have been divisive in the world of American Zionist advocacy organizations. He was elected president in 1993 and says that, at the time, he didn’t even want the position. Quickly, though, his far-right positions alienated some in the group. In 1994, the ZOA-Baltimore District broke away to form the independent Baltimore Zionist District, focusing more on growing the connection between American Jews and Israel and broad support for the Jewish state rather than the day-to-day political disputes the ZOA has engaged in since.
“The guy is a very strong personality,” said Jay Bernstein, a board member of the Baltimore Zionist District. “On the one hand, he’s a tremendous advocate for Israel. On the other hand, there are definitely times where it can rub people the wrong way or lead to excesses.”
Klein’s group is known as a prolific producer of press releases, commenting on everything from American immigration policy to Portman. Last year the ZOA became one of the only major Jewish groups that supported President Donald Trump’s ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.
On its website, the ZOA claims to represent 25,000 members nationwide, but the organization has been accused of inflating the numbers.
“I get the sense that the ZOA has influence that exceeds its actual membership, because they do a very good job of being out there and responding to events and responding very loudly,” Bernstein said.
Even some Zionist organizations that are largely in line with the ZOA’s hardline politics have become alienated from it. The Endowment for Middle East Truth was founded by Sarah Stern in 2002 after she left the ZOA. According to an EMET employee, the two groups — despite their similar positions on Israeli and American politics — don’t have a working relationship because of Klein’s temperament.
And that’s to say nothing of Jewish groups that don’t share Klein’s politics. In April, it came out that the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society were all lodging separate complaints with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations accusing the ZOA of defaming them.
“He’s very ruthless in trying to crush challenges to him from the outside and the inside,” Kampeas said. “Certainly his leadership within the Jewish community has been characterized by a willingness to street fight and publicly have it out with other Jewish organizations in a way that the establishment isn’t comfortable with, and they’re finally beginning to push back.”
At the same time, Klein and his supporters argue that his politics and relationships have given the group increased influence with the Trump administration. Klein is friends with Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, and John Bolton, the current national security adviser.
“ZOA determines what positions we take based on the facts and the interpretation of facts as we see them,” Klein said. “Not what will gain us the most friends among other organizations. Not even based on what will gain us most supporters amongst Jews.”
By all accounts, Klein has the full backing of the ZOA’s board. According to Los Angeles lawyer Steven Goldberg, who launched a very public bid to replace him as president in 2014, there hasn’t been a challenge to his power within the organization since.
When asked how long he plans to stay atop the ZOA, Klein said he hasn’t decided.
“We’ll see what happens, but now with Trump in power, I have maybe the ability to achieve more for us and Israel,” Klein said. “But I wouldn’t mind laying on the beach for a long time either.” PJC
Jared Foretek writes for the Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.