By Hannah Grossman
Morton Klein, the president of Zionist Organization of America, just celebrated 25 years of leadership at the ZOA. I interviewed him on November 9, shortly after the annual ZOA gala, and we discussed the failures of the peace process and Jewish leadership. This is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.
Hannah Grossman: As the son of Holocaust survivors, how does the rise in antisemitism affect you personally?
Morton Klein: As a child of Holocaust survivors who lost most of my family to the most venal antisemitism the world’s ever seen, I am frightened. I’ve become frightened as a Jew in America [and that] makes me double down and work twice as hard to try and fight for the Jewish people and for Israel.
HG: You have been fighting for Israel at ZOA for 25 years now. How do you look back on your leadership over the years?
MK: Well, I am, in one sense, pleased, in another sense, disappointed. I’m pleased that we were the only significant Jewish organization to publicly oppose the Oslo Accords, predicting it would lead to disaster. We were the only ones, literally the only ones, to have opposed the Gaza withdrawal, predicting this would lead to Hamas taking over and to Hamas rockets. That’s exactly what happened. I’m proud that ZOA took the correct positions on these issues, and warned the Jewish world about it.
My disappointment, which is really deeply painful to me, is that even today, 25 years later, virtually every Jewish organization still supports a Palestinian state, still refuses to explicitly support the right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria, as ZOA does, and still believes that we should negotiate with Abbas and get a peace agreement. But a peace agreement with Abbas is absolutely 100% impossible. It’s disappointing to me that Jewish groups still don’t realize that the Palestinian Authority refuses to accept a Jewish state, period. It’s really a religious war. It is not a war about land; this is about refusal to accept a non-Muslim entity to have sovereignty over any part of land they consider theirs.
HG: You have said that “creating a Palestinian state under the prevailing conditions would actually be harmful to the cause of peace.” Can you expand on why you think that is?
MK: After 25 years of major concessions it only has made things worse. [At ZOA] we’re opposed to any possibility of giving a state to this regime until they fulfill their obligations under the Oslo Accords that are now 25 years old. They’ve fulfilled none of it! Until they end the incitement, outlaw terrorist groups, arrest terrorists, promote real peace with the Jewish state, there’s no point in discussing any further concessions. It would only make things worse for Israel, not better.
HG: You have said at the ZOA gala that you were shocked that Jewish groups could call Donald Trump antisemitic when he’s been the most pro-Israel president that we’ve ever had.
MK: If I were president of the United States, I couldn’t do more than Donald Trump has done for Israel. He’s cut aid to the Palestinians. He’s cut aid to the antisemitic United Nations Human Rights Council. He’s cut aid to UNRWA, all the antisemitic, anti-Israel groups. He threw the PLO out of Washington. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem. And he has an Orthodox Jewish daughter and son-in-law, and Orthodox Jewish grandchildren. If I were president of the United States, I couldn’t do better. Everything he’s done makes it clear that he’s enormously supportive of the Jewish state and understands they’re in a very dangerous and difficult situation.
HG: J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami identifies as a left-wing Zionist and Alan Dershowitz is also a person on the left and a Zionist, not to draw a parallel, I actually was wondering how you distinguish them.
MK: Well I’ll tell you how I distinguish it. I invited Dershowitz to introduce me at my 25th anniversary [at the ZOA gala]. I invited a very liberal, left-wing Zionist to introduce me as opposed to a person whose views are similar to mine to show that even liberal Zionists are people we should understand love Israel.
The difference between Dershowitz and Ben-Ami is Dershowitz, whom I know very well, sincerely loves Israel and wants what’s best for Israel. I think his promotion of a Palestinian state is a horrific mistake. His criticizing Jews living in Judea and Samaria is a horrific mistake. But he’s making that mistake out of love, and out of his own belief that this is what’s best [for Israel]. Jeremy Ben-Ami is someone who’s extremely hostile to Israel, who’s anti-Israel. He accepts millions of dollars from George Soros who publicly says he’s an anti-Zionist. Those are his words, not mine. He accepts large amounts of money from anti-Israel Arabs. Accepts it! Why would anti-Israel Arabs and George Soros give money to Ben-Ami if he was really pro-Israel? So the difference is, [Ben-Ami] is not pro-Israel. He’s invited numerous leaders of the BDS movement to speak at his conference [and] numerous people who are hostile to Israel to speak at his conference. He supports members of Congress, the Senate and the House, who are hostile to Israel and very critical of Israel. So I believe that Jeremy Ben-Ami is not pro-Israel. It’s not that he thinks this is the best way to move forward that’s good for Israel, unlike Dershowitz who does believe that. That’s the clear distinction.
HG: I’d like to segue into the midterm elections. The left seems to have moved more hostile to Israel as time goes on.
MK: We now have many hostile people in politics, unfortunately, most of them, almost all of them are on the Democratic side. We need more Jewish leaders and media people condemning them for their despicable positions. Their antisemitic despicable positions, and anti-American positions. That hasn’t happened.
HG: What do you say to those who distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism?
MK: When you hate Israel, and really don’t even support Israel’s right to exist, you’re an antisemite. In fact, I say, if you’re against Italy’s right to exist, I assure you, you hate Italians. To be against France’s right to exist, I assure you, you hate French people. So it’s simple: if you’re against Israel’s right to exist, you hate Jews.
To criticize policies of France or Italy or the United States or Israel is legitimate. But when you start going beyond the pale, like Students for Justice in Palestine does and call Israel a Nazi state, an apartheid state, making statements like “Kill all the Jews,” “The Zionists are scum,” “We want to slash the throats of Jews,” “the world will be so much better off without Jews,” “Let’s go stuff them in ovens.” That’s not legitimate criticism of policies you disagree with. That is outright promotion of hatred and violence and murder. That’s a terroristic threat against our people, that’s not legitimate criticism that everyone has a right to.
HG: Why do you think that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan isn’t being brought down by his hatred and bigotry?
MK: When I talk to Jewish leaders, they’re afraid to go too strongly, that they’ll be called racists. It’s ridiculous … I’m not interested in the color, I’m interested in the policy.
So that’s the biggest problem of increasing antisemitism is that [while] all these antisemites are making vicious statements of this nature, they are not being condemned and ostracized. And the Jewish leadership has failed in doing their duty as spokespeople for the Jewish people to strongly repudiate the types of statements…That’s my biggest frustration. Jewish leaders are not doing what they are required to do, what they’re being paid to do, to protect the Jewish people and protect Israel. They’re not doing it.
The answers I gave you today, no head of a Jewish organization would ever have answered the way I have. It’s really very sad that no other Jewish leader would say this.
HG: Is there anything about your work or about some trend you’ve observed, that has made you hopeful about change in the future?
MK: Well more Jews in America now understand that the Palestinian Authority is not serious about peace. That’s changed. We have many more people, we now have in the polls more American Jews oppose a Palestinian state than support it. You have overwhelming numbers opposed to aid for the Palestinians. I’ve seen American Jews now understand the reality of the Arab-Islamic war against Israel. When I speak at synagogues, even reform synagogues, I get standing ovations every single time. Standing ovations, when I speak … this could not have happened 25 years ago.