(JNS) In late April, more than 200 Jewish “student leaders” penned a letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations urging its leadership to censure Mort Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, concerning his behavior amid his organization’s opposition to Dianne Lob as the Jewish umbrella group’s next chair.
At the same time, questions are being raised over the political motivation of the letter’s signees, which includes dozens of links to left-wing and anti-Israel groups.
The letter, addressed to Conference of Presidents chairman Arthur Stark, CEO William Daroff and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, states that Klein should be reprimanded for “a pattern of racist and Islamophobic behavior.”
The letter says that Klein has “engaged in a bizarre and concerning display of both disparagement of HIAS and anti-refugee bigotry,” which it adds is part of “a long-standing pattern of both racism and the disparagement of other major American Jewish organizations.”
Last week, Klein and ZOA chairman Mark Levenson held a webinar focusing on their concerns regarding Lob. In it, Klein doubled down on his objections to her and alleged that, in reprisal, a number of member organizations have called for the ZOA’s ouster from the big-tent group.
Lob served as HIAS chair between 2016 and 2019.
Her nomination and ultimate appointment was met with significant objections from longtime Conference members and financial supporters uncomfortable with political positions by HIAS, which have specifically clashed with the Trump administration over U.S. immigration policies. At the same time, with the decline of Jewish refugees, some see HIAS as no longer integral or even attached to its Jewish origins, with HIAS now focusing on assisting refugees from Muslim and other countries.
‘Simple censure does not go far enough’
Klein told JNS he believes that the letter, which appeared to be student-led, was likely an organized effort by a political group in what has become known as “astroturfing,” or the practice of masking sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.
“I say that because most college students have never heard of the Conference of Presidents, ZOA or HIAS. The only way you can get people to sign something, is if its organized, and this was organized by J Street,” he claimed. “A large number of names are J Street student officials in college and affiliated officially with the group. Others are people who belong to SJP and other far-left Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.”
“This was organized by the far-left, anti-Israel radical people,” he said. “And since HIAS has signed letters with J Street, with JVP and other radical groups, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in touch with them to put this letter together. Students don’t automatically take a position on the Conference of Presidents that they never heard of.”
J Street did not respond to a JNS inquiry regarding their involvement.
A closer look at the social-media profiles of letter’s signees also reveals several dozen who follow or support the Jewish group IfNotNow, which is known for its opposition to Zionism and criticism of American Jewish organizations that support for Israel.
While IfNotNow did not directly respond to a JNS inquiry regarding their involvement in the letter, the organization told JNS they feel ZOA should be removed from the Conference.
“We support those in our generation who want Jewish institutions that claim to represent our community to hold racist leaders like Mort Klein accountable,” said the group.
“However, we believe a simple censure does not go far enough; we believe that the Conference of Presidents should strip Klein and the ZOA from their seat at the table. If the leaders of the Conference refuse to take this obvious step, we reiterate our call for progressive groups in the Conference of Presidents to stop giving it legitimacy and to leave.”
In the May 11 webinar, Klein stated that he has “not considered” leaving the conference, but said that if J Street was admitted, ZOA would “have to think very seriously whether we want to sit” with it.
Stark will remain in his position for another year until Lob takes over in 2021. She currently works as head of global business development for the investment management firm AllianceBernstein.