The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent named him one of the top dozen “Jewish activists of the century.” The New York Times called him “a relatively rare voice from the outset in the American Jewish community against the Oslo peace accords.” The Wall Street Journal praised him as “wise, brave, and unflinchingly honest.”
From 1993 to the present, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), has been one of the most powerful American Jewish voices opposing the Arab-Israeli peace process, which he sees as a one-sided endeavor.
An international lecturer who has appeared on dozens of major TV and radio stations, Klein is credited by many for reviving the ZOA – the oldest American pro-Israel organization – which had been slowly sinking into oblivion in the decades before he became president.
The Jewish Press recently interviewed Klein.
The Jewish Press: What do you think of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech last week?
Klein: Look, there were many aspects that were very powerful and important, but I think he made a very serious mistake. For years now, Netanyahu, as the leader of the right in Israel, has made it clear that a Palestinian state is a terrible danger to Israel. In fact, in a speech in 2002, he said that the “biggest mistake that can be made is to promise the greatest prize for Palestinian terrorism: the establishment of their own independent state.”
He said once you give them a state, they’ll demand to have military alliances and to bring in weapons and there will be no way to stop it. As I said to a top Bibi official when I was in Israel last month: They bring in 100 missiles, you’re going to go to war? They bring in 100 tanks, you’re going to go to war? Who’s going to support you? So this is unenforceable.
What would you have liked Netanyahu to have said?
When I was with Bibi in Israel last month and when I spoke to this top Bibi official, I said what Netanyahu should do is say the following: Look, we’re willing to sit down and talk about major Israeli concessions, but only after you fulfill the obligations you’ve agreed to in writing over the years for one year. Incitement to hatred and violence in the schools, media and speeches must stop. Israel must be put on every PA map, atlas and PA stationary. Palestinian schools, streets, and sports teams named in honor of suicide bombers have to be changed.
He should have also called for a cancellation of the Fatah constitution, which still calls for Israel’s destruction and terrorism, and demanded that the PA arrest the hundreds of terrorists on Israel’s list; outlaw terrorist groups; and make regular, numerous speeches in Arabic preaching peace with Israel and denouncing the immorality of terrorists murdering Israelis.
What do you think lies ahead for Israel in the next few months?
I’m afraid that Bibi making this unilateral concession will only increase the intransigence of the Palestinian Arabs and increase their extremism because now they will believe even more so that they don’t have to do anything. They can sit back and let America pressure Israel, and they’ll get more from Bibi .
Obama’s going to ignore Netanyahu’s conditions and is going to attempt to pressure Israel to drop them because Obama sees that Netanyahu is someone who will cave in to pressure. That’s the message sent by this speech.
Can you relate some of your personal background?
I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. I was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. I lost most of my family to Hitler.
My father was an Orthodox rabbi and an ardent Zionist, although he got his semicha – you won’t believe it – from Rabbi Teitelbaum. My father was a Satmar chassid. In Europe he had a long beard and black hat and was a rosh yeshiva in his early 20s. But he disagreed with the Satmars on Israel. My father loved Israel, so obviously this was transmitted to me.
I ended up studying math and statistics. I was a high school math teacher for two years. Then I became a health economist for many years in the federal government, and I was also a biostatistician, working with Linus Pauling, the great two-time Nobel Prize-winning chemist.
How did you wind up at the ZOA?
Well, in the late 80s, early 90s, my wife started complaining that I’m not doing anything for our people – that I’m just working, making a living, and figuring out what movies and restaurants to attend. So I started reading up about Israel.
After I became somewhat knowledgeable, I launched campaigns against Baedeker’s travel guide, the biggest and oldest travel book company in the world. Their travel guide to Israel was filled with lies against Israel. They eventually hired me to rewrite the guide.
I also launched campaigns against D.C. Heath, the major textbook company in America, and got them to rewrite one of their textbooks in which every paragraph about Israel had at least one lie. So I became known a little bit because it was written up in all the Jewish papers.
Anyhow, bottom line is, ZOA came to me and said, “My God, you’re a real activist, we’d like you to run for president.” I said, “I don’t want to be president, I don’t know how to be president, it’s not my thing.” They said to me, “Don’t worry, you’re running against an incumbent, you can’t win. But if you run, maybe it will make [the incumbent] more of an activist; he’ll see that’s he’s got competition.” So I said, “Well, if you promise I won’t win, I’ll run.”
Well anyhow, I won. I demanded a recount. [Laughs]
You’ve been credited with reviving the ZOA. Can you comment?
When I became president, we were on the verge of bankruptcy. What saved us in the first six months was a major gift from [Florida philanthropist] Irving Moskowitz. Without that I couldn’t have survived a month.
How about ZOA’s political activities before and after your arrival?
Well, we didn’t have a campus program, we didn’t have full-time lobbyists on the Hill and an office in Washington, we didn’t have a Law and Justice Center suing people for what’s good for the Jews, we didn’t have a president speaking every week somewhere in the country and on radio and TV. We’ve become very visible and very active.
You’ve also become a more right wing organization
I respectfully disagree. What’s right wing is if you say we’re not going to give land away even if we get peace. That’s right wing – legitimate, but right wing. We don’t do that.
Our positions are identical to the positions of the Labor Party when Rabin ran for prime minister in ’92 – identical. He said: no talking to the PLO, no state, no discussion of Jerusalem. We’re not right wing. Everybody else is just very far left.