NEW YORK (Jul. 20)
America’s largest Zionist organization is slated to begin its annual convention in Washington on Sunday amid accusations from a small, but vocal, cadre of members that it has betrayed its pro-Israel principles.
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, a 300,000-member organization best-known for its hospitals in Jerusalem, has come under fire for its decision to honor first lady Hillary Clinton for her work on behalf of women and children.
The campaign against honoring the first lady has not drawn widespread support, but it has generated concern at Hadassah.
In a July 14 demonstration organized by Americans for a Safe Israel, a 5,000- member group that opposes all land-for-peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, approximately 25 people — many of them not Hadassah members – - gathered outside Hadassah’s New York headquarters to burn a replica of its membership card.
Carrying posters that said, “Just Say No to Hillary, supporter of Hamas” and “Hadassah, Hillary and Hamas — For Shame,” the demonstrators described Clinton as an “Arabist” who has “done nothing for Israel or the Jewish people.”
They also said it was inappropriate for a nonpartisan organization to honor a political candidate.
Clinton has not formally announced her candidacy for New York’s 2000 Senate race, but has formed an exploratory committee.
It is widely believed that she would not be able to win the election without the majority of the Jewish vote. In a move some criticized as pandering, she recently said that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel.
Interviewed after the card-burning demonstration, Hadassah leaders stood by their selection of Clinton, who is receiving the organization’s highest honor, named for Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.
The award has been publicized as the high point of the Jewish organization’s four-day convention, which will also include meetings with members of Congress, lectures on issues such as First Amendment religious rights and domestic violence, installation of a new president and recognition of the five Jewish women members of Congress.
Some 2,500 delegates are expected to attend.
According to Hadassah’s outgoing president, Marlene Post, the organization received complaints from only 300 people, one-tenth of 1 percent of its members, over the Clinton award.
Post said a “tiny fringe group” of critics had taken Clinton’s “statements and activities to an extreme to prove a point.”
“I don’t believe Hillary Clinton is an Arabist or anti-Zionist,” Post said. “Do I believe that she wants to see a resolution in the Middle East and see the peace process continue? Absolutely. Is she against Israel or the Jewish people? No way, not at all.”
Concerned about the controversy, Hadassah distributed “talking points” to reporters, regional presidents and concerned members. In the packet of material, Hadassah said it selected Clinton for the award before her campaign intentions were known, and quoted tax lawyer, D. Benson Tesdahl as saying, “The political campaign rules do not prohibit charities from giving humanitarian awards to candidates or potential candidates for public office.”
Several of Hadassah’s regional leaders said they had received only a handful of complaints about the award, and that the issue was not being raised at local meetings.
Andrea Silagi, governing cabinet chairwoman of Hadassah Southern California said no one even mentioned the issue at a leadership training session last week.
“I’m not sure the average member even knows about this,” she said, adding, “I don’t think it’s made a major impact.”
Carol Fein, president of Hadassah’s northern New Jersey region, said some people had called wondering about the Americans for a Safe Israel information.
“Once I explained we weren’t promoting Hillary Clinton for senator, but were giving the award because of her interest in women’s and children’s issues, they were more than satisfied,” Fein said.
Beverly Apel, president of Hadassah’s metropolitan Detroit region, said she had received “half a dozen calls and a few letters,” some simply expressing disappointment and others announcing plans to end memberships.
“The institutions we support are so much greater than this one award that I don’t understand this antagonism,” said Apel. “If you had a piece of chicken on your plate and three or four side dishes and didn’t like turnips, you wouldn’t eat them. That doesn’t mean you’d throw your whole plate away.”
Although attendance was small at the hourlong card-burning demonstration in New York, it was lively, replete with a heckler, representatives of more than 10 media organizations and two men standing across the street with signs proclaiming “Stop Hitlery.”
“Hillary is a proven anti-Zionist,” Helen Freedman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel, said shortly before igniting the oversized card with a lighter.
Hadassah’s actual membership cards were not flammable, said Freedman, an “on- and-off” member of Hadassah, who ended her own membership to protest the Clinton award.
At the demonstration, and in literature distributed to reporters, Freedman – - who said she had received letters and membership cards from 100 irate Hadassah members — criticized the first lady for supporting the idea of a Palestinian state, serving on the board of a foundation that allegedly sent $15,000 to the PLO in the 1980s and for hosting “apologists for Hamas terrorists” at the White House.
Calls to Clinton’s office were not returned.
Many of the women gathered at last week’s demonstration said they were not actually members of Hadassah, but were nonetheless troubled at the idea of a Zionist organization honoring Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton is dangerous for the entire civilized world,” said Helen Berkovitz, of Queens, N.Y., who said she “refused to join Hadassah because I didn’t like their policies.”
Other Hadassah critics, in phone interviews after the demonstration, echoed Berkovitz’s dramatic rhetoric.
“I won’t donate one more penny to Hadassah,” said Charlotte Wahle, a Hadassah life member from New York. “Hillary Clinton is pro-Arafat and a leftist radical.”
American Friends for a Safe Israel will not demonstrate at Hadassah’s convention in Washington, although individual members are talking about organizing some sort of protest, said Freedman.
Post said she hoped the convention would be free of demonstrations, because “I wouldn’t want a fringe group to take away from the excitement of the convention.”
“But if they do picket, I respect their right, so be it,” she said.
Although this is the first time anyone set membership cards aflame, Clinton is not the first Hadassah honoree to generate controversy, say Hadassah officials.
Many liberal members complained when Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was honored in 1983. And when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were honored in 1995, the right-wing Women in Green protested.
Clinton, who, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Israel Policy Forum, enjoys a “favorable” rating from 72 percent of American Jews and has spoken at other Jewish organizational gatherings.
On the same night she receives the Szold award, Clinton will be the headline speaker at a reception for the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Despite accusations that Hadassah has strayed from its founding ideals, Post says her organization is as Zionist as ever and notes that it consistently supports Israel’s elected government.
“We’re the most relevant Zionist organization,” she said. “We give over $60 million a year to projects in Israel, and our fund raising is primarily focused on doing good for the people of Israel.”