Mourning the Legacy of the ZOA - The Jewish Voice
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Mourning the Legacy of the ZOA

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The 97th annual convention of the ZOA spelled the death knell of the venerable organization, as it reappointed the dyspeptic Morton Klein as its presidentThe mournful peals that could be heard from Philadelphia this past Sunday, May 9, 2014, did not come from the Liberty Bell. They emanated instead from the Hilton Hotel on City Avenue, where the Zionist Organization held its convention. What could be heard was the death knell of the venerable ZOA, as it reappointed the dyspeptic Morton Klein as its president.

We use the term “reappointed,” rather than “reelected,” because the process by which Klein maintained his title was hardly democratic. The ZOA members across the United States who donated money, time and energy were not allowed to vote unless they traveled to Klein’s hometown of Philadelphia. The delegates who did attend were locals approved by Klein and his friends pursuant to an antiquated and byzantine set of rules that were interpreted in ways designed to ensure that Klein would retain his grip on power.

The convention was sparsely attended, with only 124 voting delegates. Such a meager turnout for a convention that occurs once every four years is an embarrassment to the ZOA, but not as much as the reappointment of Klein, who has presided over the ZOA for the past 20 years and must bear responsibility for its implosion.

Once upon a time, long ago, the ZOA was a proud and influential Zionist organization, perhaps the most important in the United States. Its membership numbered 200,000 under the leadership of United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis during World War I and almost 250,000 in 1947 when led by the fearless Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

Since that time, including during Klein’s 20 year tenure, the ZOA has been in decline. Nevertheless, even as recently as 2005, the Encyclopedia Judaica reports that the ZOA’s membership was 50,000.

Recently, the ZOA has been in free fall. Although the ZOA’s website dishonestly represents that it has more than 30,000 members, the ZOA’s list of members includes fewer than 10,000 names. Of that group, the ZOA has e-mail addresses of only 1100, and approximately 25% of those e-mail addresses are no longer valid. Thus, at most, the ZOA has approximately 800 members. Such a pitifully small constituency is less than the critical mass necessary for an organization to have any relevance.

The ZOA’s financial resources are similarly paltry. Notwithstanding Mort Klein’s braggadocio about his fundraising prowess, an analysis of the Form 990s publicly available reveals that from 2001 through 2012, the donations to the ZOA have averaged less than $2.5 million per year. The ZOA is a dwarf compared to organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, and has also been greatly outperformed by relative newcomers like Stand With Us and J Street.

Even worse are the revelations that the ZOA’s demise is not the consequence of simple incompetence. The Form 990s that the ZOA belatedly filed, only after losing its status as a 501c3 status for two years, reveal that a grotesquely excessive share of the donations to the ZOA went into the pockets of President Morton Klein. In 2008 alone, Klein received $1,245,851, more than half of the ZOA’s total donations of less than $2.4 million. That was the first year the ZOA failed to file its Form 990 with the IRS, which meant that there was no public disclosure of Klein’s excessive compensation.

As noted in last week’s editorial, the ZOA’s Board of Directors is also complicit in its mismanagement. It is painfully apparent that the Board exercised no governance and oversight over Klein. The Board’s failure to fulfill its fiduciary duties enabled the ZOA’s disintegration. Perhaps one day the Attorney General of New York will investigate and hold the culpable parties responsible.

There was one ray of hope for the ZOA in the candidacy of Steven Goldberg, an attorney in Los Angeles and, as National Vice Chairman of the ZOA, the sole dissident among the ZOA Board, who became a pariah for demanding that Klein be held accountable for his actions. Goldberg mounted an audacious and effective social media campaign against Klein for the presidency of the ZOA, and in the process shined the light on the ZOA’s incompetent management and resulting ineffectiveness.

Goldberg also demanded a democratic election, and when the ZOA Board denied him, he had an independent website provider conduct a straw poll of ZOA members nationwide. Not surprisingly, Goldberg won the poll and aggressively publicized the result.

Klein panicked but he need not have. He and his supporters on the ZOA Board had an iron grip on the machinery for the selection of the next president at the convention, and Goldberg never had a chance.

The ZOA committed suicide this past Sunday, March 9, 2014. The ZOA will go through the motions of an active organization, but Mort Klein’s loss of credibility is irreversible. Now that the truth is out, it is impossible to take him seriously again.

Those of us who want a strong Zionist organization to help defend Israel in its hour of need must look for a new organization. There is no time to waste.

Rest in peace, ZOA. We will missyou, but we must move on.

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