Earlier this year an anonymous person or persons sent out a set of documents about Morton Klein, the longtime president of the Zionist Organization of America, privately by email and then publicly on Twitter. The ZOA was founded in 1897, and it achieved a peak membership of over 200,000 American Jews under the leadership of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In 1993, Klein, a biostatistician and the child of Holocaust survivors—who is known among both his friends and foes for his combative personality—took over leadership of the organization. From the beginning, he was known to be at both the giving and receiving ends of a series of sharp attacks, exchanged with mainstream Jewish groups as well as his own right-wing political camp.
But antagonism between Klein and the rest of the Jewish institutional world has been especially high in recent months, as tensions within the right-wing Jewish world emerged over a 2018 trip by Klein to Qatar and a fight with the Anti-Defamation League led to a rare rebuke of the ZOA by a prominent Jewish umbrella group. These have kicked a hornet’s nest of accusations of wrongdoing against Klein—from former ZOA staffers, once-close associates, political rivals, and an assortment of other sources. They span claims of financial impropriety, verbal abuse and prank telephone calls, to allegations of sexual harassment and domestic violence. Last year, former ZOA Executive Director David Drimer filed a lawsuit against the organization alleging that Klein received off-record payments from donors during his first five years as president, and that, after making a whistleblower complaint to the New York State Attorney General’s office, Drimer “suffered intimidation, harassment, discrimination and other retaliation.”
On Jan. 7, 2019, the Jewish Week reported that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations issued its first-ever “written warning” to a member group, citing eight examples of ZOA staff denouncing other members of the conference including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Anti-Defamation League. The rebuke came in a confidential five-page report, “issued after many months of laborious and often contentious deliberations,” according to Jewish Week.
From Klein’s perspective, the motives of his critics could not be any clearer: envy and politics. The 71-year-old stalwart has never had more stature, influence, and access. Since his surprising 1993 election as head of the country’s oldest pro-Israel group, Klein battled constantly with political adversaries and rival Jewish organizations, earning enemies and admirers for his confrontational style and unwavering stances. During the Obama years, opponents could dismiss Klein as a polarizing activist who was too right-wing and too impolitic to ever be influential.
With the election of Donald Trump, Klein’s fortunes turned. The ZOA fostered close contacts with Trump’s circle at a relatively early point in the 2016 presidential campaign and then became the first Jewish organization to be granted a publicly announced meeting with a senior Trump administration official, leaving its more propriety-seeking rivals out in the cold. In a city where closeness to power is the most sought-after form of currency, Mort Klein was suddenly rich—and the establishment rivals who had sneered at him for 25 years were suddenly poor.
The ZOA receives a reliable $1 million a year from Republican kingmaker Sheldon Adelson, often accounting for between 1/5th and 1/6th of the group’s annual income. In February, leading Republicans Rand Paul and Tom Cotton tweeted photos with Klein in their Washington offices. Arthur Schwartz, recently described as a key pro-Trump Republican operative and messaging specialist, is a ZOA adviser and confidante. Former White House counselor Steve Bannon spoke at the ZOA’s 2017 gala dinner; in 2018, the headliner was Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton. In the wake of the conference’s“written warning” to the ZOA, Rand Paul tweeted in the organization’s defense, fretting that “some are being unfairly critical of Mort Klein,” who the senator lauded for his “character, civility, and effectiveness in defending Israel.”
There are plenty of pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. with specific roles within a larger ecosystem—AIPAC lobbies Congress; the Israeli-American Council organizes the country’s Israeli immigrants, Christians United for Israel secures support in evangelical communities. But the ZOA grew out of a time when Zionism was something more than just a political ideology.
Founded in 1897, the ZOA was crucial to building American public support for the creation of the State of Israel. The group was led by a series of figures like Brandeis, Rabbi Stephen Wise, and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, who were household names among ordinary American Jews and exhibited the moral rectitude that many Jewish immigrants hoped that their children would embody in their journey toward becoming Americans. As a result, the ZOA helped build a modern Jewish idea of nationhood from the ground up, without any reference to an existing state or any obvious idea of where the larger project would eventually lead. Zionism didn’t narrowly denote a set of political priorities, but a vision of Jewish belonging at a time when nearly every aspect of Jewish life was undergoing rapid, traumatic change. The ZOA was a builder of American Jewish community and identity during a period of crisis and danger.
But in the course of Klein’s ascent, the ZOA transformed from an august membership organization into a blunt political engine best known for generating headlines and scandals. Under his leadership, conflict became a defining part of the ZOA’s identity and a point of attraction for donors and activists who saw more mainstream groups like AIPAC as access-obsessed sell-outs.
Conditions have greatly improved over the past century, but it’s hard to deny that the American Jewish community has recently entered a new era of deepening political and social confusion. Today, a serious grassroots national pro-Israel group could be a much-needed source of communal guidance and cohesion, as well as an effective counter to the creeping normalization of BDS and anti-Zionist political ideologies. But the ZOA is not filling that role. A once-thick grassroots institution has devolved into an operation that is coarser and narrower than what it had been. It is now a one-man messaging shop, built around the unpredictable and famously volatile personality of a single activist.
The latest available IRS Form 990 for the ZOA lists 41 “directors.” According to Debra Benjamin, a lawyer who served as head of compliance for the ZOA until early this year, the board meets three times a year and new members can only be elected with a majority of votes from existing members. Tablet reached out to 40 of 41 board members for whom we could track down an email address to ask about Klein’s leadership of the ZOA and the board’s role in the organization’s governance. Five of the emails bounced back. The only person who responded was Cliff Rieders, a Pennsylvania lawyer and staunch Klein supporter who in previous correspondence with Tablet represented himself as ZOA’s legal counsel. “He is truly a remarkable leader, honest and fair. He is frequently attacked simply for being straightforward and committed. … I wish that all of my clients were as responsive and sincere as Morton is.” Reached by phone, current board Chairman Mark Levenson declined to speak with Tablet about Klein, the organization, or his role in its governance.
At the end of January, Tablet contacted Klein and members of the ZOA board with questions pertaining to Klein’s life and governance of the ZOA. Over the course of several weeks, Klein made and canceled various phone and in-person meetings, and asked for several delays in publication. Tablet eventually sent Klein questions in writing. Shortly thereafter, Tablet was contacted by the Tampa, Florida-based law firm of Bajo, Cuva, Cohen, and Turkel, threatening the magazine with legal action. The firm is best known for representing the former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan in his successful 2016 lawsuit against the website Gawker. Through his lawyer, Klein eventually provided limited answers to a minority of the queries.
“The ZOA is squatting on a piece of the ideological spectrum that could be put to good use,” said a Republican activist who has worked with many leading pro-Israel groups and donors and advised Republican presidential, Senate, and House campaigns on Israel issues. “On the far left, J Street has built a meaningful membership by paying attention beyond DC—building local chapters, college campus groups, and so on. Tragically, nobody is doing this on the responsible right. ZOA should have been—and not only because it historically had this foundation.”
The ZOA traces its origins to an embryonic period of the modern Zionist movement, when American Jews were overwhelmingly non- or anti-Zionist. The early ZOA was the U.S. chapter of the World Zionist Organization, the group founded by Theodor Herzl. Chaim Weizmann attended the 1921 ZOA convention in Cleveland; during the proceedings, a schism erupted between the pragmatic and ideological wings of the American Zionist movement that would prove to be enduring and historically significant. The ZOA solidified out of an early 20th-century federation of Zionist groups that included Young Judaea and Hadassah and it later became an original member of the Conference of Presidents. Even if the ZOA’s membership and prominence plunged after 1948, it still represented the winning side in the 20th century’s defining question of Jewish communal life.
By 1993, with Israel a regional power on the brink of a risky peace process with Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinians, one could reasonably ask: What position could a fading 95-year-old group like the ZOA fill to keep it relevant? The pugnacious and ever-confident Mort Klein presented a one-man answer.
Before his election as ZOA president, Klein was unknown on the organization’s national level but had been active in Philadelphia-area pro-Israel affairs. Klein was the son of Holocaust survivors, and was himself born in a displaced persons camp in Germany shortly after World War II. After a hardscrabble childhood in south Philadelphia, he found success as a health statistician, lecturing in universities and publishing in academic journals about the benefits of vitamin C and the work of Linus Pauling before moving into activism in the early ’90s. He began working as a volunteer with the pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA, and helped to argue for Jews to support Republican Arlen Specter’s tightly fought 1992 Senate campaign against Lynn Yeakel.
Klein was already a boundary-pusher in his early days as an activist. Two eyewitnesses told Tablet that Klein was involved in a disruption of a talk that Americans for Peace Now Washington director Gail Pressberg gave at the Philadelphia-area synagogue Rodeph Shalom in the spring of 1991. The sources say Klein brought a small tape recorder and attempted to play recordings of Pressberg allegedly contradicting statements she had made during her speech. The disruption from Klein and a group of roughly 10 others was rowdy enough that police eventually ejected a few people from the event, although no one was arrested.
In a letter published in the May 3, 1991, issue of the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia, an attendee wrote that as Pressberg began her presentation, “15 to 20 individuals disrupted the program. Their disruption persisted even after Cheltenham Township police were summoned into the sanctuary … to remove the loudest among them.” Klein, who is not named in the letter, wrote a response published in the May 24 issue of the paper. Klein acknowledged that he was at the event. Despite the “rude disruption of this speech,” Klein wrote, “one must understand that a significant factor causing this disruption was Pressberg’s disturbing background.” In 1993, as president of the Philadelphia chapter of ZOA, Klein led the nearly successful campaign to block Americans for Peace Now’s membership bid at the Conference of Presidents.
“I used to say that Mort went from proselytizing for vitamin C to proselytizing for vitamin Z,” said Ami Eden, CEO and executive editor of 70 Faces Media, the parent organization of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, who wrote a front-page profile titled the “Zion King” for the Philadelphia City Paper in May 1996.
At the ZOA convention in late 1993, Klein had organized supporters of his presidential bid from Philadelphia and New York who believed he would oppose the Oslo Accords and any subsequent peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. David Black, a ZOA activist and staffer throughout the 1980s and early ’90s who chaired that 1993 convention, said Klein “brought a full contingent from Philadelphia” to vote for him. “He played the politics well,” Black said. “It was an upset.”
That upset soon led to a restructuring of the organization. There’s general agreement the ZOA was in decline when Klein took over, but it was still structured like the national-scale organization it had been since its founding in 1897. According to Black, well into the 1980s the ZOA had 20-30 local chapters around the country. “It was an organization of substance,” Black said, “and there was a democratic root to it in terms of the way each of the chapters represented themselves on the national scene.” Much of the fundraising went to local chapters rather than the national office.
Under Klein, certain local chapters quickly emerged as hotbeds of opposition to his leadership. The closely allied Baltimore and Pittsburgh chapters split with the ZOA early in Klein’s presidency, while a once-active Dallas chapter gradually atrophied. In the early 1990s, lawyer Evan Krame was president of the ZOA’s Washington chapter, which was named after Louis Brandeis, had a part-time staff, and drew around 150 people to its annual fundraising dinner. That all ended within a few months of Klein’s presidency. “When Mort took over nationally, that was the death knell for our chapter,” Krame recalled. He estimates that over three-quarters of members quit the chapter within the first few months of Klein’s tenure. “Many of us didn’t see ZOA as a strongly political group but rather a general Zionist support group of Israel, and Mort was taking things in a right-wing direction,” Krame explained. Krame said that Klein made no effort to reassure activists in Washington or to keep the chapter’s members from leaving the organization. “I don’t think there was ever a meeting to say we’re disbanding,” recalled Krame. “Everyone stopped going and everyone stopped giving and that was it. It just withered.” The ZOA website currently does not list a Washington chapter.
Over time, the local chapters, some of which had once boasted their own executive directors, became little more than single-person shops, according to former ZOA activists. Masada, a youth organization that traced its connection with the ZOA to the early 1930s, seceded in 1996 because of “funding shortfalls” from the group, according to the Forward. In the 1990s the ZOA’s total active membership languished at around 4,000, with the number of “paid up, active members” dropping from 7,178 to 3,817 between 1995 and 1999, according to internal documents Tablet has viewed.
“He’s got the benefit of the name, but he basically dismantled everything we stood for, every project we did,” said Jim Schiller, the former ZOA president whom Klein defeated in 1993. “I was a centrist, ZOA was centrist, and the middle doesn’t get a lot of support,” Schiller, who is a Baltimore-area-based accountant, reflected. “But whether you’re on the left or on the right, the extremes are always so motivated.”
Klein declined to comment to Tablet on the dissolution of the ZOA’s local chapters.
Other changes are traced to his ascent as well. When Klein was elected, the ZOA had two boards: a national board consisting of past presidents and other former senior officials and an executive board overseeing the president. Klein began phasing out the national board early in his tenure. Before Klein, the ZOA presidency changed frequently, and the president had never drawn a salary from the organization in keeping with standard practices among nonprofit groups. But by the end of the 1990s, Klein had altered the ZOA constitution so that the responsibilities of the president and executive director were effectively flipped. From then on, formal power in the organization and a hefty percentage of the financial compensation went to Klein’s job title.
Presidential term limits were eliminated in 2002; former National Vice Chairman Steve Goldberg told Tablet that a 2014 constitutional change meant that the board now elects the group’s president. Drimer’s ongoing lawsuit claims that Klein has packed the board by personally selecting most of the current members.
Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and a scholar of American Jewish life, says that under Klein, the ZOA became smaller, more flexible, and more extreme, a combination that set it apart from larger, more staid communal organizations. “Big institutions are sometimes powerless in the face of challenges or attacks from those kinds of voices [like Klein’s] because they’re unconstrained by committees or governance or the need to run things up the line.” The Klein-era ZOA carved out a powerful place in the American Jewish scene precisely because of its hardline positions and lack of restraint. “There are missing voices in the American Jewish community that represent Zionism without the polarized positions that the ZOA represents. Those voices do not speak with the same volume or with the same kind of adamance about their position,” said Kurtzer. “The ZOA was able to step into that vacuum—and wound up shaping the discourse.”
Klein’s political stridency can’t be so easily separated from his personal temperament. Early in his tenure, the ZOA president showed signs of the unpredictable behavior that would come to characterize his leadership.
Tablet obtained a Nov. 7, 1994, letter addressed to Klein from Laura Stein, the daughter and professional partner of Sandra Stein, then a Washington-based lobbyist for the ZOA. The letter described an “unusual phone call” from two days earlier in which Klein made a strange request for seemingly innocuous photographs of himself taken during a trip to Israel some months earlier. The letter continues:
“Unfortunately, I have been receiving a great number of prank phone calls to my personal number at home in Philadelphia. In addition, my family and I have also received calls on all of the other lines where we have residences and businesses, including an unlisted number in Los Angeles. The caller or callers hung up without the courage or courtesy of leaving a message. In fact, it has gotten so intense that I have had to involve phone company security. Therefore, due to the problem that I have described on behalf of my family and myself, we would appreciate you not calling us.”
When Tablet reached Stein, she did not want to discuss the letter, but said, “I’m sure if you’re looking at something with my name and address on it then at some point it happened.” Stein said she still holds Klein and his work at the ZOA in high regard.
In the mid-2000s, Jacques Torczyner, a former ZOA president who was then in his early 90s, interceded with Klein on behalf of Lester Carvallo, the organization’s security guard for over 20 years who was owed $63,000 in pension money that Klein refused to pay out despite public and private objections from a number of former ZOA officers and activists, including Black. Klein told Tablet that the board determined the money was not owed to Carvallo. Multiple sources told Tablet that Torczyner, who died in 2013 at the age of 98, received several angry and harassing calls from Klein demanding he drop the issue, at least two of which came during early hours of the morning. Similarly, a 2013 lawsuit that a former senior employee named Orit Arfa filed against Klein claimed that the year before, the ZOA leader “began calling her on her cell phone at all hours of the day and night to berate her” and that the calls “became increasingly abusive” and “harassing.”
In 2004, the ZOA cut off a $200 monthly stipend to Rebecca Ilutovich, the elderly widow of long-serving ZOA Executive Director Leon Ilutovich. Ilutovich, a survivor of both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, believed she had been promised the stipend for the rest of her life, based on a 1997 letter informing her of the payments that did not indicate an end date on the arrangement. According to the Forward, Klein repeatedly called Ilutovich at her home in Israel, angrily demanding that she not dispute or otherwise comment about the decision—although, according to the article, in one call Klein eventually offered to restore $150 in monthly payments. When the Forward reported on her situation in 2006, Ilutovich was an 89-year-old in ill health who, two years after her ZOA payments had ended, was struggling to make ends meet. Klein told the newspaper the stipend would be restored. Klein refused comment to Tablet when asked if he had in fact done so.
In 2004, the year llutovich’s stipend was discontinued, Klein made $212,000 as ZOA president, according to the Forward. By 2007, his compensation was up to $315,385, according to disclosures available on the New York state Attorney General’s charities tracking website. According to Drimer’s ongoing lawsuit—the judge in the case denied a ZOA motion to dismiss on Feb. 27—the alleged kickbacks to Klein would have skewed a deferred compensation package, paid out in 2008 and 2009, in a way that potentially constituted an “excess benefits transaction” in violation of both federal and New York state law. Klein made over $600,000 both years. (Klein would not comment to Tablet on any aspect of Drimer’s lawsuit or its various allegations).
By then, the organization had sold the ZOA House cultural center in Tel Aviv, whose auditorium was named after Torczyner. The building fetched a reported $7 million in 2003. The ZOA’s property on 34th Street in Manhattan was sold in 2016 for $38 million, while ownership of the ZOA-built and owned Kfar Silver agricultural high school in Ashkelon was transferred to a Jewish educational NGO around the same time. The ZOA took in $5.6 million in income that year. In 2017, the latest year for which filings are available, Klein made $462,462.
As the decade progressed, the ZOA developed a more cavalier approach to its financial affairs. In 2012, the group lost its tax-exempt status retroactive to May 2011 after failing to file 990s the previous three years (oddly, this period of nonfiling came after the Forward published a series of articles in 2006 drawing attention to the ZOA’s internal management and Klein’s treatment of his employees). David Drimer’s lawsuit alleges that Klein hid the loss of nonprofit status from both his board and employees, while the 2013 Arfa lawsuit, settled for a reported $300,000, claims Klein instructed her to lie about the group’s tax status to potential donors. Klein declined to comment on the case.
The ZOA regained its tax exemption in May 2013, after filing its 990s for the missing years. According to these 990s, Klein was paid $613,462, $635,000, and $385,000 in 2008, 2009, and 2010 respectively. When the salary bump was first reported by the Forward in 2012, Drimer, then still working for the ZOA, claimed it as compensation for Klein having not received any pay during his first six years as president. But in his lawsuit, Drimer now alleges that Klein was being paid off-books during those years and “received numerous periodic and substantial secret cash ‘gifts’ from some members of the board of directors and other donors.”
As the lawsuits from Drimer and Arfa attest, many of the most severe allegations against Klein originate from people who had once worked closely with him.
Arfa, who now lives in Germany, could not be reached for comment. But numerous former employees and observers noted that Arfa’s complaint also includes a section titled, “Second cause of action: Gender discrimination.” Paragraph 54 of the lawsuit reads as follows:
“Doris Montrose was a former Executive Director of the ZOA Western Region. KLEIN intentionally told a ZOA donor who was known to sexually harass women, including asking them for their bra sizes and other inappropriate comments, that Ms. Montrose was almost 20 years younger than she was. As a result, the donor conditioned a $10,000 donation to ZOA on Ms. Montrose picking up the check personally. When Montrose heard of this, she refused to go, but KLEIN berated her and verbally abused her for refusing, causing Ms. Montrose to resign.”
When reached for comment, Montrose, who says she left the ZOA after only five weeks of employment in 2008, explained she was unaware her story had ended up in the lawsuit. She confirmed the account and had one detail to add to the description of the incident: During the phone conversation in which Klein asked her to pick up the check by herself, “I told him, and you can quote me, ‘fuck off.’” She told Tablet that the phone call marked the end of her time at the organization. Klein declined to comment on Montrose or on the Arfa suit’s claims relating to her.
The final sentence of the “Gender discrimination” section in Arfa’s suit ends on an unsettling note: “KLEIN then sent Julie Sager, the female National Director of Campus Programs, to pick up the check.”
Sager, who first started working for the ZOA in New York in 2002 and later worked for the group’s West Coast office, was fired the day she returned from maternity leave in 2009. She eventually sued Klein and the ZOA over alleged discrimination in a lawsuit that was dismissed after a bench trial in 2012.
Two sources independently described Klein’s treatment of Sager as “torture,” in which he would routinely explode at her in the office, exacting a clear emotional toll on his employee. Sager’s lawsuit characterizes Klein’s conduct towards her as “extreme and outrageous … done for the purpose of causing the plaintiff to suffer humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional distress,” and “outside the scope of the normal employment relationship.” A male former ZOA staffer told Tablet that Klein has a habit of criticizing his female subordinates’ appearances. “He’ll tell you you’re too fat, he’ll tell you you don’t like the way you dress, he’ll tell you your breasts are exposed or that you’re showing too much leg.”
Klein denied ever mistreating Sager. “The Julie Sager case was the claim I fired her because she became pregnant with her fifth child,” he said, in a written statement to Tablet. “This was completely false. In fact it wasn’t really my idea to fire her. My Vice Chair insisted I fire her for various reasons. Sager then sued me. I refused to settle. We went to an 11 day trial in LA where Sager worked for us and we won.” When reached for comment, Sager declined to speak to Tablet for this article.
In 2006, the Forward reported that Klein “blew up” at graphic designer Mindy Weinberg when she informed him she was pregnant and asked about the ZOA’s maternity policy. Weinberg later successfully appealed to the New York State Department of Labor for unemployment benefits when, not long after the conversation, Klein fired her for alleged insubordination—a circumstance which would have made her ineligible for such benefits. Klein declined to comment on Weinberg or her employment at the ZOA.
Two former staffers told Tablet that, in the early 2000s, Klein gleefully recalled that during a business trip he publicly screamed at a briefly tenured ZOA executive director named Milton Sussman to the point that Sussman was rolling around on a sidewalk in the grips of an apparent panic attack. Sussman was one of a string of executive directors who lasted for only a short time at the ZOA—in his case, between the fall of 2001 and February of 2002. A third source confirmed the incident, but told Tablet that it occurred in a hotel lobby, not outdoors. Sussman could not be reached for comment. Klein would not comment on Sussman or his time at the ZOA.
Allyson Taylor left her job as an associate director of the American Jewish Congress’ Los Angeles office in 2009 when negotiations for a position as the ZOA’s West Coast executive director had reached an advanced stage. According to a 2014 letter by Taylor posted on SaveTheZOA, a website maintained by Steve Goldberg, a Los Angeles lawyer and former ZOA national vice chairman who unsuccessfully challenged Klein for the presidency of the organization that year, Taylor had been approached about the job by an unnammed “large donor” to the ZOA in the Los Angeles area. According to Taylor, Klein initially offered her $70,000 a year in salary. In the second interview for the job, Klein “complimented me on my attire, and how I looked, and I was not fazed by this,” she wrote. “However, later in additional meetings he told me that due to budgetary restraints, the salary had been decreased to 40,000.00 and that on some occasions, we may have to share a hotel room. I was stunned, but due to my relationship to the donor, and his relationship to the Jewish community I chose to keep this to myself, and knew that I would refuse the job.” Taylor told Klein the reduced salary was inadequate: “I did not address how uncomfortable I felt with his stating the room-sharing, as he and I are both married.”
Taylor said reprisals began not long after she turned down the job. “I soon got a phone call that uninvited me to a Bar Mitzvah the donor was giving, and started to become persona non grata in the inner circles where Mort was involved,” she wrote. “I told a few people who are very established in the community about the conundrum I faced, and was told not to speak out. However, my reputation was damaged and I was unable to get back into the Jewish activist community. I was enraged, and told the donor about the incident, and instead of support[ing] me, I was removed from mailing lists and not invited to many of the community events that I was so much a part of.”
Klein vehemently denied the letter’s assertions. “Everything Taylor ridiculously claimed is an absolute lie! And I’ve never cheated on my wife. This is ludicrous and absurd,” Klein wrote, in a statement to Tablet. “If I wanted to sleep with her why would I say this at an interview which surely would surely cause her not to accept the job. And I’ve never traveled with a female employee ever. But she did accept the job (because I never made this insane demand) and told me she was in the middle of a project and could I hold the job open for two months. I said yes. The very first day before she was to begin, she called and said she couldn’t handle the responsibility of an executive director but needs to work under a director. I was horrified because the other candidates were now gone. I told our mutual LA friends of what she did to me. They were so angry at her because they love ZOA’s work and like me, that they became cold toward her and one disinvited her to her son’s bar mitzvah. She became distraught I’m told and then falsely told them she didn’t take the job because of ‘sexual harassment’ during the interview with no specifics. She thought this would legitimize her not taking the job and stop them from being angry at her.
“Then she took a job with Stand With Us,” Klein continued. “Roz Rothstein called me and asked if I could work with Taylor now at StandWithUs since Roz heard about these allegations. I said only if Taylor apologized to me in writing. Taylor then called me and said there was simply a misunderstanding and sent me an apology in writing which unfortunately I no longer have.”
When reached for comment, Rothstein, the co-founder and CEO of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, did not remember it that way. “No, I did not call him to ask if he would work with Allyson Taylor as a representative of StandWithUs. I don’t recall anything like that,” she told Tablet. “I would never have asked anyone for permission for someone else to work with StandWithUs.” Rothstein said she does remember that Taylor sent a letter to Klein, but that “it was not an apology. Allyson was trying to extend an olive branch because she was going to work in the greater Jewish community. But Allyson always said that the letter did not negate what happened, for her.”
When reached for comment, Taylor confirmed her authorship of the 2014 letter published on SaveTheZOA and stood by its contents. She said that she remembered dictating a note to Rothstein that would be sent to Klein, but added, “There was no apology.” Taylor also noted she agrees with many of the ZOA’s positions on Israel and Jewish issues, but that her brief contact with Klein had a lasting negative impact on her. “The backlash happened the minute I turned down Mort’s job,” said Taylor, who believed Klein made her radioactive with Jewish donors and organizations in L.A. after the incident. “He’s a brilliant man,” she told Tablet, “but a lot of brilliant men are sick.”
Another set of accusations against Klein are almost 32 years old, and are contained in a petition submitted under Pennsylvania’s Protection from Abuse Act. In the petition, which was stamped “filed” by the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, prothonotary on April 23, 1987, Klein’s wife Rebecca, to whom he is still married, alleges that “for approximately one year prior to this petition your Petitioner and her daughter have been physically and emotionally abused and said abuse continues to present.” The petition cites an alleged incident from the week leading up to April 23 that is claimed to have resulted in multiple visits to a specific Philadelphia-area emergency room. It names a doctor who treated Klein, and whose existence and employment at the hospital Tablet has confirmed.
When reached for comment, both Kleins said that the narrative in the petition was entirely fabricated by Rebecca Klein’s lawyer, who is now dead. In separate interviews, both said they were in a rough patch in their relationship due to religious differences. “I have never touched my wife in anger,” Mort Klein told Tablet.
“A friend of mine recommended a lawyer who said the only way to get him out of the house was to write something like that,” Rebecca Klein told Tablet. “I foolishly signed it, and then I changed my mind immediately. I’m horrified that it happened, and I’m embarrassed because I’m caught in a lie and it’s coming back to haunt me.”
A professional researcher investigating Klein on behalf of a client involved in U.S. Jewish communal and Israel-related affairs accessed the case files at the Montgomery County courthouse in 1995. Today, there is no record of the case or the case number in publicly searchable files.
Tablet was sent 11 pages of documents related to the petition by an anonymous email account on Jan. 11. The next day, a Twitter account with a name similar to the email address used to contact Tablet tweeted the exact same documents. Images of the three-decade-old documents came in the replies to a Jan. 10 tweet from ZOA adviser Arthur Schwartz referring to “allegations [ADL President Jonathan Greenblatt] physically abused a woman.” That tweet was posted three days after news broke that the Conference of Presidents had rebuked the ZOA for its statements about other groups, including the ADL.
When reached for comment, Schwartz repeatedly stressed to Tablet that he does not sit on the board of the ZOA or receive any monetary compensation for his role as an advisor to the organization. He further clarified that his tweet about Greenblatt was referring to a 2016 incident in a conference room and hallway at the United Nations’ Manhattan headquarters in which Greenblatt allegedly laid hands on ZOA lawyer Liz Berney: “He grabbed her and dragged her out of a room, and shook his fist in Mort’s face telling him that he’s next,” claimed Schwartz, who then clarified that he was not present during the alleged attack (and then later said that the alleged fist-shaking happened later, when Klein demanded Greenblatt apologize).
“ZOA has a long history of making outrageous claims against Jewish organizations they disagree with, including for many years, the ADL,” an ADL spokesperson wrote to Tablet on Feb. 4. “When ZOA leveled these charges privately to the ADL more than two years ago, we—despite their provenance—took them seriously, looked into the matter, and determined that no inappropriate conduct took place.”
The email to Tablet containing the documents from the 1987 court case explicitly mentioned Schwartz and his tweet. “Morton Klein – after his tirades this week against leading Jewish figures – he has to be called out for his double standards,” the email from the anonymous tipster read. “What happens when Morton Klein’s personal public relations rep. gets it wrong?” the source wrote, linking to Schwartz’s tweet.
The email address used to send the documents to Tablet and the Twitter account that publicized them online have names that are similar to each other and resemble the name of Steve Goldberg’s website, SaveTheZOA. Klein believes Goldberg is the one spreading around the documents, telling Tablet, “The guy who ran against me for president, Steve Goldberg, somehow got ahold of this, I don’t know how, and has been sending it around to try and hurt me. He’s never forgiven me for losing the election to me.” Goldberg denied to Tablet that he has ever seen or possessed the documents at any point.
For an organization whose leader has faced multiple accusations of misconduct, the ZOA’s hurling of allegations at the ADL’s Greenblatt may have seemed hypocritical. But it is this confrontational ethos and willingness to antagonize the rest of the American Jewish community that has distinguished the ZOA from other organizations. Arthur Schwartz might be a conduit to some of the most powerful political leaders in the country—in the weeks before the Daily Beast published a recent story about Schwartz, “nearly a dozen well-connected figures in Trumpworld, including current and former administration officials and members of Congress, called…to heap praise” on him. But it appears to be Schwartz’s attack on a rival group’s leader that led to the reappearance of documents that have loomed over Klein for decades.
So far, the ZOA’s transformation from a legacy Zionist group to an all-too-21st-century one-man outfit has worked to Klein’s advantage. Provocation and impunity have reached a volatile point of symbiosis as Klein has prevailed through decades of lawsuits, recriminations, controversy, and intracommunal ill will. But if the ZOA’s president has brought his group to unfamiliar heights, he has also stripped it of its national activist base and made it uniquely reliant on his own personal fortunes.
“It’s embarrassing for the pro-Israel cause, and especially terrible given the challenges we face from the left,” said the Republican consultant active in pro-Israel circles. “Why would smart and talented people devote themselves to making a career in this world when this is the behavior that is rewarded? It’s ridiculous that donors continue to fund this charade. It makes all of us look unserious.”
In fact, in the minds of many observers, the ZOA is seen less as an effective advocate for Israel than as a route to Sheldon Adelson’s money. As one source close to the ZOA explained, “When you see Republicans making strong pro-Israel statements, they’re attracting Sheldon’s attention. When you want that rhetoric, you go to Mort.”
Yet the potential constituency for a national pro-Israel group goes well beyond one influential billionaire. There are signs that pro-Israel Jews – particularly Jews who consider themselves in the center or on the left – crave some kind of guidance and organization that they aren’t getting from established organizations. For instance, Zioness, a grassroots pro-Israel organization that isn’t well-funded or associated with any institutional groups, boasted 14 chapters within five months of its founding in 2017, and is now looking to hire an employee to develop its local branches. “Our movement grew rapidly and totally organically,” Amanda Berman, executive director of the group, told Tablet in a recent interview. “We’ve been hearing the same thing from so many members of our community: ‘Thank you for rebuilding my political home.’”
At best, Klein’s self-promoting style comes across as eccentricity—although many in the Jewish and pro-Israel world wonder how much damage his leadership of the ZOA might actually be doing. “ZOA has a lot of terrible ideas and a lot of representatives willing to push them, and on the other side Democrats have a lot terrible ideas that are totally different and they control the House. So nothing can ever get done,” said one senior Republican staffer in Congress. “It’s not an effective organization—and the pro-Israel camp could really use one right now.”
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.