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.
By TERESA WATANABE
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 26 2002
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
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
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
Until the current outbreak of Mideast violence began 21 months ago, most
American Jews dismissed Klein as a fear monger—a provocateur against
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
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
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
that has abruptly and spectacularly reemerged among many Jews. Despite
American Jews' attainment of unparalleled economic success and social
said, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, rising anti-Semitism in Europe and
the relentless suicide bombings in Israel have rekindled a sense of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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