October 17, 2018

Broadside Ballads

Klein says that he’s surprised and hurt by the backlash. “McCarthyism is the use of state power against people without evidence,” he says. “All I’ve done is to hold people accountable for their words and ideas. That’s the role of a watchdog. ADL does the same thing when it publishes an ad with Louis Farrakhan’s words. Why shouldn’t we?”


Broadside Ballads

Well, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is in trouble again. In case you missed it, they’ve hired a new research director who may once have compared Israel to the Nazis, or maybe not. The charge was leveled by the Zionist Organization of America, which is now under attack for defending Israel’s good name.

Confused? We can help. Travel back with us to 1950. For two weeks that June, a snappy tune from the newborn State of Israel, “Tzena Tzena,” was No. 1 on America’s pop charts. It was sung by the Weavers, a folk quartet led by a leftist troubadour named Pete Seeger.

It was the first and only time an Israeli song ever hit the charts here. For Seeger, it wasn’t unusual. Though not Jewish, he’d been performing Hebrew tunes since he learned “Artza Alinu” in 1935. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he included an Israeli number in nearly every concert he gave. He may have done more to bring Israel alive for Americans in those first, vulnerable decades than any artist except Leon Uris. “Just the other day, I got an audience singing along to ‘Hineh Mah Tov,'” says Seeger, now 79. “It’s still one of my favorites.”

It’s worth recalling “Tzena Tzena” because the Zionist Organization of America forgot it on June 2, when it protested Seeger’s participation in a New York “Israel at 50” concert. ZOA president Morton Klein termed Seeger a “harsh critic” of Israel, citing newspaper ads that Seeger signed in 1978 and 1982. “Evidently, those who invited Seeger were unaware of his record of harsh attacks on Israel,” Klein declared.

Evidently, Klein was unaware of everything else. But that’s the way it is with Klein. If he doesn’t like you, he doesn’t like you, period. No gray areas.

Some months back, at a sensitive point in Middle East talks, Klein issued a report that exposed deputy U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller for his long-standing “anti-Israel bias.” Even Miller’s college term papers were quoted. Missing was the fact that Miller keeps a kosher home and has kids in day school. He entered Middle East policy work because he loves Israel. You wouldn’t learn that from Klein.

Stranger still was his campaign last year to block confirmation of Martin Indyk, then American ambassador in Israel, as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. For months, one press release after another blasted Indyk’s “anti-Israel bias,” based on his actions as ambassador.

Unmentioned was Indyk’s earlier record. Nothing about how he first reached Washington in 1980, a young Australian Zionist invited to work for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Or how he left AIPAC in 1984 to head the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank created by AIPAC leaders. Or how the Clinton administration hired him in 1993 because Jewish leaders demanded it.

You might think such facts could help folks form opinions. Klein doesn’t. “It’s not relevant,” he insists. “What’s relevant is what he’s written and said.” Some of it, anyway.

That’s the standard he’s applying to John Roth, incoming head of the Holocaust museum’s scholarly arm. In a June 2 broadside, Klein called Roth “unfit” for the job because of an Op-Ed he wrote in 1988. Roth compared Israel to the Nazis, Klein said, quoting others to second his complaint, including Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman.

Careful reading suggests that Roth meant to tar a small Israeli extremist group, not all Israel. But it was written clumsily. Roth apologized. Klein launched fresh attacks, citing other “troubling” writings. One, from 1980, compared America’s post-Vietnam sullenness to Germany’s turmoil between world wars, with a swipe at Reagan. Another compared Europe’s indifference toward Jews to America’s indifference toward the hungry.

It all shows Roth’s “shallow understanding of the uniqueness of the Holocaust,” Klein wrote, making him “clearly the wrong choice.” That Roth is one of America’s most distinguished non-Jewish Holocaust scholars, with 25 books to his credit, isn’t relevant.

Business as usual for Klein. Except, now, people are fighting back. Lipstadt calls his quoting her “the height of intellectual dishonesty,” since she was endorsing Roth’s hiring despite the one “odious” essay. Foxman calls it all a case of “McCarthyism.”

Klein says that he’s surprised and hurt by the backlash. “McCarthyism is the use of state power against people without evidence,” he says. “All I’ve done is to hold people accountable for their words and ideas. That’s the role of a watchdog. ADL does the same thing when it publishes an ad with Louis Farrakhan’s words. Why shouldn’t we?”

Klein has a point. His favored weapon, public exposure, was perfected by the ADL in the 1930s, used effectively for years against nativists and neo-Nazis. During the 1970s, it was trained on Israel’s critics, including Jewish dissenters, by ADL and others. Klein has simply picked up that torch.

Often, he’s used it well. In the early 1990s, working from his Philadelphia home, he managed to badger leading travel and textbook publishers to correct anti-Israel falsehoods. Two of the firms, Baedeker’s Travel Guides and D.C. Heath Publishers, asked him to help write the corrections.

Klein became a local hero. The Philadelphia ZOA chapter made him its president. That’s when things got ugly. In 1993, he launched a national campaign to block Americans for Peace Now from joining the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It was his first use of the strategy now identified with him — marginalizing other Jews by dredging up old, out- of-context quotes, ignoring other evidence.

The campaign failed, thanks to a last-minute APN counteroffensive. But Klein won national notice. That December, he was elected national ZOA president. Then came Indyk, Miller, Seeger and the rest.

One of Klein’s campaigns — urging ADL to cancel a speech by journalist Thomas Friedman — nearly blew up in his face last year. Foxman, backing Friedman, called Klein an “attack dog of the Jewish thought police.” He was hoping the broader community, troubled by harsh rhetoric since the Rabin assassination, would pressure Klein to cool it. Instead, Klein complained about Foxman’s language, saying that it violated civility guidelines of the Conference of Presidents. Foxman, fuming, was forced to apologize.

Ultimately, Klein’s record is mixed. To his credit, Klein single-handedly put the issue of Arafat’s noncompliance on the diplomatic agenda. Even his foes now acknowledge the problem. Working closely with congressional Republicans — two of Congress’s three Jewish Republicans are fellow Philadelphians — he’s managed to link the peace process to the issue of reciprocity. This enrages some rightists who fear that Arafat might comply and force Israel’s hand. That’s fine with Klein. He isn’t an ideologue, he says. Just a stickler for fairness.

Fairness is the last word his critics would pick. “He goes after people with a purpose to destroy them in the Jewish community,” says Foxman. “To label them as traitors in the hope that nobody will give them a platform. Then he attacks anyone who gives them a platform. It becomes a vendetta.”

Then again, it rarely works. Indyk was confirmed. Miller is still deputy negotiator. Seeger sang at the Israel concert, and found it “thrilling.” As for Klein’s attacks, Seeger says, “I always say musicians and politicians are in the publicity racket. This is just more free publicity.”