ZOA in the LA Times: Tapping Into Jews’ Fears: Zionist Morton Klein — once seen as an extremist — is winning support for his hard-line view of Palestinians, even among U.S. liberals
ZOA in the news
June 26, 2002

Metro Desk; Metro

COLUMN ONE Tapping Into Jews’ Fears Zionist Morton Klein—once seen as an extremist—is winning support for his hard-line view of Palestinians, even among U.S. liberals.


Home Edition A-1 Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

Morton Klein is telling a group of Reform Jews—among American Jewry’s more liberal members—how much Palestinians hate them. He carries plenty of ammunition.

The bearded, bespectacled Jewish leader holds up Palestinian maps of the Holy Land that do not name Israel—proof, he says, that they do not accept the existence of the Jewish state.

Klein claims Palestinian textbooks depict Jews as odious killers of Christians and Muslims. He waves fliers reportedly posted at hundreds of Palestinian schools in 1996 praising a suicide bomber as “our hero” and depicting a cracked Star of David, rivulets of blood streaming out.

“The culture that Arabs have created and promoted is no different than Nazi Germany,” said Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, the nation’s oldest pro-Israel group, founded in 1897 to work for establishment of a Jewish state. The Arab goal, he tells the crowd, is to “get people to murder Jews.”

Until the current outbreak of Mideast violence began 21 months ago, most American Jews dismissed Klein as a fear monger—a provocateur against peaceful relationships with Palestinians. Back then, the vast majority of American Jews supported terms negotiated in Oslo to give Palestinians land in exchange for peace. In that pursuit, Jews seemed willing to suspend suspicions of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Not any more. Once hopeful for peace, many now say their optimism was misplaced, their trust in Arafat irredeemably shattered and their faith in the Oslo process proven wrong. And nothing symbolizes this shift more dramatically than the fact that the once-vilified Klein is now basking in what he sees as vindication.

In the last two years, he says, his organization has increased its membership by several thousand. Klein, 54, says he is besieged by requests for speaking engagements, such as his recent address to Reform Jews at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

“Morton Klein, unfortunately, can pound his chest and say, ‘I told you so,’ ” said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, former president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “But so many of us sadly are agreeing with him—if only for today.”

David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, says Klein and others have tapped into what he called “a deeply felt historical memory of persecution” that has abruptly and spectacularly reemerged among many Jews. Despite American Jews’ attainment of unparalleled economic success and social acceptance, he said, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the relentless suicide bombings in Israel have rekindled a sense of collective vulnerability.

The Passover suicide bombing in March was a psychological milestone. As a suicide bomber detonated himself at a Seder dinner of hundreds of people in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya, Myers said, Jews worldwide were reading in their Haggada, or Passover liturgical book, the warning that every generation would bring forth a new enemy to try to destroy the Jewish people.

To Jews, he said, the Passover bombing “highlighted the fear that the enemy has returned.”

At a recent forum on the Mideast at Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, one man who described himself as a secular Jew and political liberal put it this way: “After the Passover bombing, I turned to my wife and said, ‘That’s it!’ I was electrified, because I knew that we had turned that corner. I’m really happy [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon finally said, ‘Enough is enough.’ People are trying to kill us.”

Not all Jews have closed ranks. A national network of American Jews supporting an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state was recently launched.

At the same time, Myers, among others, bemoans what he calls the “mainstreaming of Morton Klein.” Pressure to present a “united front,” he says, is having harsh consequences for any dissenting Jewish voice.

The growing sentiment has led to boycott threats against even the Jewish Journal, a Los Angeles weekly newspaper, for carrying ads from a Jewish peace group. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA, who has led efforts to bring Jews and Muslims together, was recently accused by writer Avi Davis of justifying the murder of Jews and aiding Israel’s enemies.

Since World War II, being against Jews “has had a very charged implication…. Your reputation can be ruined,” said J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish Forward newspaper in New York. “So there ought to be a premium on Jewish civility. Phrases like anti-Israel and anti-Semitism should be used with caution, but they’re not.”

No Apologies

Klein makes no apologies. At Stephen Wise temple, he tells the crowd that Muslim religious leaders in the Mideast preach sermons advocating the torture of Jews. He draws gasps when he says Arabs are blaming Israeli security forces for secretly plotting the suicide bombings to make them look bad.

Asked to prove his assertions, Klein produced 29 pages of news clippings from the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, and other sources. He also cited Israeli translations of Muslim sermons.

Of course, the Palestinian-Israeli debate knows few accepted truths. Israelis have one set of facts, one narrative, and Palestinians another. Within the context of that Israeli narrative, Klein relentlessly promotes the theme of Palestinian treachery.

Quoting Winston Churchill, as he frequently does in his talks, Klein throws out thunderous warnings like a modern-day Hebrew prophet: “Those who appease the crocodile,” he said, “will simply be eaten last.”

His remarks draw applause and shouts of “Amen!” Shirley Rosenberg, a Westlake Village resident who used to support the Oslo accords, says she now thinks Klein is “absolutely right” in opposing a Palestinian state.

“There’s a smattering of people who don’t like him because they think he’s too hard-line,” said Harvey Erlich, another former Oslo supporter who runs a food-distribution business in West Los Angeles. “But all he does is recount the facts.”

In one-on-one encounters, Klein’s hard-line public image is belied by a disarming personal courtliness and self-deprecating humor.

Until a decade ago, Klein says, he was not particularly interested in Jewish or Israeli affairs, despite his own family’s dramatic personal history. He was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after his father, an Orthodox rabbi, survived Auschwitz by dint of his carpentry skills.

He grew up in a poor section of South Philadelphia, where his father served as rabbi at a small synagogue. In 1969, he graduated with degrees in math and economics from Temple University in Philadelphia, then earned a master’s degree in biostatistics. He grew his hair long, he says, demonstrated against the Vietnam War and volunteered to work for Democratic Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.

Klein taught high school math, then worked as a health economist in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. In the mid-1970s, he became a consultant for two decades to Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Klein’s scientific claim to fame includes front-page headlines for a 1992 study that demonstrated that daily doses of 300 to 500 milligrams of vitamin C could reduce heart problems by 40%.

He began falling away from Judaism, he says, during college. Once he hit Washington in 1973, he dated non-Jewish women and even remembers eating on Yom Kippur—albeit with guilty thoughts of how miserable his father would be if he knew.

Klein’s transformation into a Jewish activist began in the early 1990s, when he says he became aware of a “media bias” against Israel. Beginning in 1991, he began campaigning to correct errors about Israel in travel guides and textbooks, such as claims that the Jewish state started the 1967 Mideast War without provocation while failing to mention Egypt’s closure of the Suez Canal and ejection of United Nations peacekeepers.

He began drawing national headlines in the Jewish press. By then he had married a Jewish woman and had begun returning to traditional religious life. In 1993, he ran for president of the Zionist Organization of America, which claims 40,000 members, and won.

“I ran for one reason: Oslo,” Klein said. He says he believed the historic negotiations to give Palestinians a state in exchange for assurances of peace was “a historic error and would lead to disaster” for Israel.

Klein says his Jewish activist work was deeply influenced by his association with Pauling. “I’m not interested in your fantasies about experiments,” he said Pauling would tell him. “I’m interested in one thing: What do the data require me to believe?”

Klein contends the data showed Arafat could not be trusted. Citing translations showing Arafat speaking peace in English but advocating holy war in Arabic, Klein charged that the Palestinian leader was not complying with the Olso accords, which required an end to anti-Semitic propaganda.

He Sees a Ploy

The peace process, Klein said, was a Trojan horse, a ploy by the Palestinians to placate Israel before attempting to destroy it.

Trouble was, Klein says, few would listen.

Peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians were advancing. Optimism was high. In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“I went to every major Jewish leader with the [Arafat data], saying, ‘We have to do something,’ ” Klein said. “I was told: ‘These are just words. They’re not important.’ ”

In an acrimonious dispute a few years ago, he criticized the Anti-Defamation League for inviting as keynote speaker Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman—a man Klein faulted for criticizing then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line policies. In a letter, Klein told ADL national President Abraham Foxman that he should not give a platform to such a “hostile” critic of Israel. Foxman released the letter and condemned Klein as an “attack dog of the thought police.”

David Lehrer, who was the ADL’s Los Angeles director at the time, calls Klein’s actions in the Friedman affair “dangerous nonsense.”

“Vilifying someone you disagree with is inimical to civil dialogue,” Lehrer said. “It reflects an obstinacy and rigidity that I think is just wrong.”

Klein also criticized other Jewish policymakers, including the Clinton administration’s then-Mideast negotiators Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and Aaron Miller, for ignoring what he called Arafat’s pro-terror actions.

In 1998, Klein led a campaign against Claremont McKenna College professor John Roth’s nomination as research director for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Klein cited a 1988 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times by Roth that noted the desire of some Israelis to rid themselves of Palestinians in the context of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi roundup of Jews and torching of synagogues.

Roth subsequently apologized in a Jewish newspaper for the article, saying he never meant to create an impression that the two situations were comparable. Klein objected to other Roth writings, and Roth ultimately withdrew his nomination for the museum post.

Professor Defended

Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum says that Roth is a gifted and scholarly friend of Israel, and that Klein made him out to be an extremist. Klein “has introduced, sanctioned and legitimized a coarseness of vocabulary and an ugliness of discourse that is a disastrous contribution to American Jewish life,” said Berenbaum, who plans to join the ethics center of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles this fall.

In 1999, Klein campaigned to kill the nomination of Los Angeles Muslim leader Salam Al-Marayati to a national counter-terrorism commission. Klein charged Al-Marayati justified Arab terrorism—a claim denied by Al-Marayati, who says he has repeatedly condemned violence against innocent civilians.

“His style is to discriminate and exclude people by smear tactics,” Al-Marayati said. “If he’s becoming more acceptable as part of the Jewish mainstream, this is a troubling sign for democracy and a threat to it.”

Klein’s supporters describe him as a welcome “wake-up call,” in the words of Orthodox Rabbi David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. Like Klein, Eliezrie now finds himself transformed from the Jewish margins to the mainstream in his opposition to the Oslo accords.

“Mort deserves a tremendous amount of credit for standing up in the face of ostracism and criticism and living through it and fighting on,” said Phil Rosen of New York-based American Friends of Likud, Israel’s conservative political party.

Klein regards himself merely as part of Jewish pluralism. “That’s what being in Jewish political life is all about,” he said. “Why can’t we talk about these things?”

He says he is an equal-opportunity critic, taking on people not because of their race, culture or faith, but because of their policy positions. “I don’t care if the entire Supreme Court is Muslim, as long as they’re fair,” he said.

He seems amused by the furor and modest about his vindication. “This had nothing to do with genius or vision,” he said. “It just had to do with looking at the facts.”

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