The Pittsburgh chapter of the Zionist Organization of America appears to have fractured over the national president’s vocal criticism of the Israeli- Palestinian peace accords.
The executive committee recently voted to dissociate from the ZOA and establish the Zionist Organization of Pittsburgh.
In a letter to member, the local president, Dr. Harry Palkovitz, said that since the election of the current national leadership, “a great disparity” has emerged over the appropriate role of an American Zionist organization.
The local organization was committed to “support the duly elected government of Israel,” especially in matters of “safety and security,” he wrote.
“Our national leadership has chosen to disagree with some of Israel’s stands, which has made us very uncomfortable, especially in our advocacy role with our elected officials in Washington and with the embassy of Israel.”
This, said Palkovitz, “was the major barrier between the two groups.”
The decision in Pittsburgh mirrors a similar break by the Baltimore chapter two years ago, which reflected a sea change in the national body.
The ZOA has markedly stepped up its profile, especially on Capitol Hill, under the stewardship of its controversial president, Morton Klein, who was elected in 1993.
But while Klein’s activism has garnered new supporters for ZOA, it also has drawn fore from critics who charged that it worked at times against the interests of Israel’s Labor-led government.
Palkovitz said in his letter that the split came after “our endeavor to bridge a major gap in philosophy between the two levels proved fruitless, despite all meetings and discussions.”
Said the group’s executive director, Connie Schwartz: “People were very saddened” by the action, “but we felt we had no choice. We had reached an impasse.”
One member who voted against the break, Lou Weiss, was angered by the move.
“A group of dissidents hijacked the organization,” he said. “They just happened to be officers.”
For his part, Klein was undaunted. He dismissed both cities’ moves as “personal and political” and said he was “resented from day one” because he was an outsider.
Klein also raided questions about the legality of the secession and criticized the group’s failure to allow the full Pittsburgh membership to vote on the matter.
He also said there is already a slate in place by those prepared to challenge the move at a Pittsburgh convention May 28.
Weiss concurred. “There are two factions,” he said. “One will continue to support” the national ZOA.
Klein, who has been an outspoken critic on part of the Labor government’s peace polices contended that his fight has been only to ensure that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat comply with requirements in the accords to fight terrorism in order to receive the U.S. aid he has been promised.
“Every major Jewish organization support this link,” he said. If the Palestinians “are not complying, we should use the money as leverage. If they don’t fight terrorism, we won’t have peace.”
Weiss defended Klein’s leadership. “Love him or hate him – and I love him – Mort Klein is the best thing that happened to ZOA – no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Weiss said. “He raised the profile of an organization on the skids.”
Klein, he said, does not take “stands against the government of Israel,” but he forces the Palestinians to comply with the accords in some instances “where the Israeli Labor government turns a blind eye.” This rankles people, he said.
In an apparent effort to counter any negative publicity triggered by the Pittsburgh move, the ZOA announced last week the establishment of seven new districts, proclaiming that its, “national revival” has “continued in full force during the past year.”
There are disparate accounts of the Pittsburgh chapter’s membership numbers.
Schwartz said there are 1,600 dues-paying members, while Klein contends the membership figure is 370.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.