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ZOA’s Klein faces challenger for first time in decades

Over the past two years, Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton Klein has had to defend himself against three lawsuits from two different fired employees, as well as to weather the temporary loss of his organization’s tax-exempt status and to undergo heart surgery. At the end of 2013, he earned the dubious distinction of being named by The Jewish Daily Forward as one the five most “overpaid” leaders of Jewish organizations.  

Now, for the first time since 1993, when he unseated then incumbent president James Schiller, Klein is facing a challenge to his leadership of the 117-year-old hawkish pro-Israel organization. Steven Goldberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney, is actively campaigning to unseat Klein at the board election to be held at the ZOA’s upcoming convention in March.

Goldberg, who was nominated in 2010 to his current position as vice chair of the ZOA’s national board by Klein at the organization’s last convention, announced his candidacy in a YouTube video released on Jan. 21.

“I care about Israel and the Jewish people, and I believe the ZOA is a vitally important organization that really occupies a unique space in Jewish activism and the pro-Israel community,” Goldberg told the Journal in a recent interview. “But unless changes are made, the ZOA, which has existed since 1897, is not going to last much longer.”

First and foremost, Goldberg is urging ZOA members to vote Klein out and said in an interview that he advocates using the money formerly allocated to Klein’s salary — $435,050 in 2012, according to the Forward’s analysis – for increased outreach to younger people and to hire more fundraising staff.

Klein, who has been reelected to his post by vocal affirmation at every convention held over the last two decades, told the Journal he intends to keep the job, and dismisses any suggestion that the ZOA has grown weaker under his leadership.

“The ZOA has never been stronger financially than it is today,” Klein said from his home in suburban Philadelphia on Jan. 24. “In the last six months, I’ve raised $4 million dollars. Our budget is $4 million.”

Klein rejects any assertion that his salary is inflated. When he took over the ZOA in the 1990s, Klein said, he helped revive the organization to the point where it has no outstanding debt – and said he took no salary for a period of almost six years. The money he’s being paid today, Klein said, is intended to make up for those years when he worked without pay. Taking into account those years, Klein said his average salary for the past two decades is “under $200,000.”

This is not the first time Goldberg has butted heads with Klein. When the organization lost its tax-exempt status in Feb. 2012 after failing to file three consecutive years of disclosure forms with the Internal Revenue Service, Klein sought to keep the matter quiet. Upon finding out, Goldberg first aired his disagreement with the decision inside the ZOA; when the loss became public, Goldberg spoke to the Journal and other media about his frustration with the ZOA’s response.

Now that episode is the primary basis for Goldberg’s challenge to Klein’s leadership. And yet, so far, Goldberg’s efforts have had little noticeable effect on the organization or on Klein’s leadership of it. Klein won a vote of confidence from his board in September 2012, just days after news of the ZOA’s lost tax-exempt status broke, despite Goldberg’s lobbying of his fellow board members to oust the leader. Goldberg also strongly supported Orit Arfa, who worked for ZOA as its Los Angeles-based regional director for one year, but that didn’t stop the organization from terminating her and closing the L.A. office in November 2012. (Arfa is also a blogger from Israel for the Jewish Journal, and was formerly a freelance contributor.)

Goldberg has called his bid for the job “a long shot,” but he is calling on Klein to debate him publicly before the convention, and he has urged ZOA to open up voting to people who don’t travel to the convention, which is scheduled to take place in Klein’s hometown of Philadelphia on March 9-10.

Goldberg’s requests both seem unlikely to be granted. In a memo dated Jan. 30, ZOA National Executive Director David Drimer informed ZOA board members that only members present at the convention will be able to vote. (Unlike Klein, Drimer is a hired employee of ZOA, not an elected one; he declined to speak about the election, claiming that doing so could suggest he was trying to influence the outcome.)

As for agreeing to debate Goldberg, Klein said he is hesitant.

“I love debating,” Klein said. “I debate Arab Jew-haters all the time. I debate non-Arab Jew-haters all the time. But with someone like [Goldberg], who has personally called me names, who has promoted incredible falsehoods about the ZOA — I will think about it, but it is uncomfortable.”

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