I like Mort Klein.
To people who know him and me both, that must seem as incongruous as a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on a Prius.
Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Over the years, including this year, he has espoused positions that I consider wrong, at the very least, if not outright dangerous.
I wouldn’t say we’re friends. But we speak on the phone occasionally, we’ve met once for coffee, we’ve shared what each other’s homes are worth and we’ve promised each other that one day we’ll get together with our wives for dinner. By L.A. standards, that makes us practically soul mates.
I truly believe that if Mort Klein had his way, the State of Israel would face mortal danger. He would say the same of me.
I have many friends who despise his positions. In some cases, Klein has sharply criticized their own positions publicly. These friends may think I’m a fool, but so be it: The danger of understanding your opponents is not that you will agree with them, but that you might come to like them.
I saw Mort about two weeks ago. He lives just outside of Philadelphia but comes to Los Angeles every few months. He has many financial backers here, some of whom are very wealthy. When he speaks at parlor meetings, they invite other wealthy friends, and Mort is able to raise a good chunk of the ZOA’s multimillion annual budget from the so-called liberal Westside.
Mort says he is not against compromise; he is certainly not against peace. But as he sees the Palestinians and the Arabs today, there is no point even considering such things as negotiation, territorial compromise or, God forbid, withdrawal, now or in the near future. Everyone who has worked toward or supported such ends is being duped.
Mort was born in a displaced persons camp. His father, a native of Czechoslovakia, survived several concentration camps and was liberated from Auschwitz. His mother survived the war in Siberia. His parents immigrated to America, where his father served as the rabbi of a poor Orthodox shtibl.
They lived in a small apartment in a poor, all-black neighborhood. Mort slept in the living room, his brother in the kitchen and his parents in the bedroom.
"We never traveled, we never ate in a restaurant, not once, we never had a car," Mort said.
The language in his home was Yiddish. Mort doesn’t remember his father ever praising him, although he and his brother excelled in school.
"I’d show off my report card to him, and he’d say, ‘How does this help you learn Torah?’ All that mattered to him was Torah," he said.
I told Mort his life story reminds me of so many told by the children of Holocaust survivors. It could be a chapter of "Maus," the Art Spiegelman comic epic.
"Yeah," Mort said, "but isn’t Spiegelman extremely left wing?"
Mort went on to become a respected biostatistician. He worked closely with Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize laureate. His brother Samuel is the world-renowned director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Washington, St. Louis.
Mort abandoned his professional career and threw himself into working on behalf of Israel, when his wife complained that he was doing nothing for the Jewish people.
In college he had worked for McGovern, but like many others he switched. I asked why.
"I followed the facts," he said. "I go where the facts lead me. During Oslo, everybody was saying the Palestinians were ready for peace, and I said, ‘No they’re not, look at their textbooks, look at what they’re doing. Look at the facts.’"
Mort eventually took the reins of the ZOA, which was at the time a moribund American Jewish relic of Israel’s birth. He turned the organization into an effective champion of hardline policies.
I began speaking with Mort after having accepted and published his op-ed pieces. They were clearly written and powerfully argued polemics. My soft spot for good writers eventually softened into friendly familiarity.
Now Mort tells me he is opposing Ariel Sharon for the planned unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Mort thinks it rewards and encourages Palestinian terror. President Bush has been, in his estimation, "not beneficial" to Israel or the war against terror in pushing for the withdrawal from Gaza. You can read why at www.zoa.org.
In the comfort of a Palisades Starbucks, far from the pressure of daily Israeli and Palestinian life, Mort and I went back and forth. Where, I asked, does his position eventually lead Israel?
He shrugged. "First Israel must dismantle the Palestinian Authority, and then we will see if there is a possibility of true negotiation," he said.
But, I speculated, couldn’t such a position lead to chaos, more religious extremism, bloodshed and desperation on both sides? Mort didn’t take up my argument. He didn’t have to. Facts belong to the present, the future is all just theory.