The Los Angeles office of the Zionist Organization of America has had a difficult search for a successful executive director. The two most recent hires lasted only a few months. Now it’s Mark Paredes’ chance to try to turn the office around.
Paredes, who served as the American Jewish Congress’ director of Latino outreach until Dec. 31 and before that was press attaché for the Israeli Consulate, is not Jewish. In fact, he’s a local leader in the Mormon Church who loves Israel and wants you to, too.
Jewish Journal: At least two people have held your position since late 2006. What will be your formula for turning ZOA around?
Mark Paredes: I plan to bring together Jews, both religious and secular, who are proud to be Zionists, who are willing to defend Israel and the Jewish people, who want Israel to negotiate peace only with partners who have already renounced terror and incitement and recognize Israel, and who believe that Jews have the right to live in the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. Belief in these principles transcends movements and the religious-secular divide, and it’s my job to organize events that will inspire our supporters and attract other defenders of Israel to the ZOA banner.
JJ: Sixty-one years after the creation of the State of Israel, is there still a need for the Zionist Organization of America?
MP: Absolutely. In fact, we’re currently planning a national conference whose theme will be the meaning of Zionism in the 21st century. Let’s look at college campuses, for example. I’m proud that the ZOA is the only Jewish organization that takes college students on trips to Israel where they visit Judea and Samaria. In order to understand the miracle of a modern-day Jewish state, one has to visit Hebron, Efrat and Ariel, as well as Tel Aviv and Haifa. In this age of worldwide anti-Israel marches, attacks on synagogues, anti-Zionist professors and authors, and Holocaust deniers, Zionist advocacy is sorely needed — and all too often absent.
JJ: How much of ZOA’s role today is fighting anti-Semitism, and how much is promoting Israel?
MP: I’d say the breakdown is about 75 percent promotion of Israel’s security and 25 percent fighting anti-Semitism. Of course, these days it’s sometimes hard to separate the two.
JJ: You left American Jewish Congress at the end of December as part of major staff reductions after millions were lost in the Bernard Madoff scandal. As someone who loves Jews but isn’t Jewish, how much did it bother you to see a Jew cause such damage to Jewish organizations and the community?
MP: I honestly don’t know how people like Madoff can sleep at night. Not only did his actions betray his community, but they gave fodder to anti-Semites who propagate hateful stereotypes about Jews, greed and money. I think he makes a good case for reviving the practice of issuing cherem [excommunication] decrees.
JJ: Mormons are major Zionists, but it’s got to be unusual for a Mormon to be running a regional office for a major Jewish organization.
MP: I am still a Latter-day Saint, though I also think of myself as a “yehudi b’nefesh” [Jewish in soul]. I’m unaware of another non-Jew who has headed a regional office of a national Jewish organization, but I don’t foresee any problems. You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist or to understand what’s happening in the world.
JJ: What is it about the Jewish community that has attracted you to it?
MP: Jews and Judaism have always exerted a pull on me. In 2001, I was introduced to former L.A. Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem, and he hired me to be his press attaché after we rapped in Hebrew for several minutes about camels in Mauritania. The rest, as they say, is history. I love the energy and passion that Jews bring to everything they’re involved in, and I have a deep love for Jews, Israel and Judaism.
JJ: So what’s next?
MP: Many weeks and months of hard work.
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