ZOA’s Mort Klein Continues to Fight for Israel, Earn Respect of Wife

Mort Klein with U.S. senator from Maryland Ben Cardin (Courtesy of Mort Klein)

Most American Jews supported the Oslo Accords, the attempt to normalize relations with the Palestinians, at the time of its signing in 1993. A majority of American Jews today support the effort to find a two-state solution.

But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has supported neither. Klein believes there’s no evidence that the Palestine Liberation Organization/Palestinian Authority, led in 1993 by Yasser Arafat and today by Mahmoud Abbas, is anything but a terrorist-supporting organization.

And the Merion Station resident and Young Israel of the Main Line member is not afraid to say so.

“Bibi should make a major speech explaining the horrors of the Palestinian Authority,” said Klein, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “How they pay Arabs to murder Jews. They’ve named hundreds of schools, streets and sports teams after terrorists. They don’t arrest terrorists. They refuse to negotiate with a Jewish state.”

Klein and ZOA promote their pro-Israel message in the media, textbooks and on college campuses. Dating to 1897, it’s the oldest pro-Israel organization in the United States, according to zoa.org.

But its leader did not always care so much about Israel.

Klein’s father

The Main Line resident was born in 1947 in a displaced persons camp in Gunzberg, Germany, according to his Wikipedia page. His parents were Holocaust survivors.

His father was a Satmar Chasidic rabbi, a movement that did not support a Jewish state until the messiah arrived. Yet Klein’s father broke with his movement.

“He devoured everything about Israel,” Klein recalled. “He lived and died Israel. When there was a war, he was suffering terribly.”

But the father never talked to the son about Israel. Instead, he just told the boy to study Torah. Klein listened until he got to Central High School, where he became more interested in his schoolwork. Klein grew up to become a biostatistician.

“As a Jew, I cared about Israel. But it was not part of my thinking,” Klein said.

Klein’s wife

It was the late 1980s. Klein was a successful guy with a wife, Rita, and daughter, Rachael. But one day, his wife told him that he wasn’t doing anything more than “making a living and deciding what movie to see.”

Mort Klein with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Courtesy of Mort Klein)

She told him he needed to help Israel.

“The media is attacking Israel,” she said.

“I don’t know that much about Israel. I don’t know the issues. I don’t know how to discuss them,” he responded.

He began to read about Israel. Then Rachael came home with a social studies textbook that contained falsehoods in every paragraph about Israel, he recalled.

He went to the next Lower Merion Board of School Directors meeting to express his concern. The board chair and another board member, both Jewish, called him afterward and asked him to stop. Klein met with the superintendent of schools and wrote to the textbook publisher.

The superintendent, a Christian, took up his cause. The publisher agreed to change the text.

Later, Klein’s friend was going on a trip to Israel. The friend showed him the travel guide they were using. Klein saw that it contained “100 mistakes” about Israel, he recalled.

He wrote two articles in the Jerusalem Post about the issues. Baedeker, the German company behind the travel guide, offered to meet with him. After the meeting, the company hired Klein to rewrite the guide.

A few years later, Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. senator, Arlen Specter, was running against Democrat Lynn Yeakel to retain his seat. Yeakel belonged to the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, which had hosted a “vicious anti-Israel sermon,” Klein said. (Klein had attended the sermon.)

Klein wrote op-eds in the Jewish Exponent and The Philadelphia Inquirer calling on Yeakel to repudiate the church. She said she disagreed with the sermon, but she refused to repudiate her church.

Specter had been under fire that year for his alleged difficult questioning of Anita Hill during her sexual harassment testimony about future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He had trailed Yeakel by 20 points in the polls.

The incumbent ended up winning by less than three percentage points.

A year later, high-ranking members of ZOA asked to Klein to run for president of the organization. He won.

“I was afraid of losing my wife’s respect,” he said.

He stayed on for the next 31 years.

“I consider myself a rational centrist telling the truth about the Palestinian war against Israel,” Klein said. “I am to the right of mainstream Jewish groups. But I still believe I’m in the center. I have no trouble espousing views that differ from the vast majority of the organized Jewish world.”

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