Jewish Journal

My Problem with the ZOA

July 1, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Scarcely a week goes by without a barrage of press releases -- one-two-three, pow, pow, pow -- from the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) shooting across my desk. It is always alarm day, or eternal vigilance, or Israel's enemies at the gates.

Recently, the call to arms concerned one of Los Angeles' own, Salam Al-Marayati, head of our local Muslim Public Affairs Council. Al-Marayati has been named (by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt) to serve on the newly created National Commission on Terrorism.

According to the ZOA, Al-Marayati's appointment is tantamount to naming white supremacist David Duke to a civil rights task force. "We don't want anyone on this group who condones terrorism and praises terrorist groups as Al-Marayati and his top leaders have done," said Morton A. Klein, president of the ZOA, in Philadelphia. Who could argue with that?

All this is quite troubling. It should be emphasized that some of the ZOA's alarums, in a literal sense, are correct. Arab journalists routinely denounce Israel, as do many Palestinian leaders, and the ZOA is there to expose the enemy for us. The subtext underscoring these bulletins is that we should not trust the Palestinians and should urge Israel to reject the Oslo Agreement.

To the ZOA, apparently, it makes little difference that 75 percent of the Israeli public today accepts the Oslo peace plan, as do the newly elected Knesset and prime minister. What matters to the ZOA is that about 75 percent of the Palestinians do not; they want Israel out of the area, maybe even driven into the sea. That essentially is the warning cry of the opposition Likud Party and of the Zionist Organization of America.

The new prime minister in Jerusalem, however, has, for better or ill, taken another tack. He and his followers believe that 1) Israel is militarily strong; 2) Oslo, if given a chance, will eventually bring some kind of political and economic benefits to the Palestinians that will turn the next generation(s) around; and 3) peace is a better option for Israel than an armed state enforcing anti-democratic policies against its own citizens and confronting hostile guerrilla youths on the West Bank and in Gaza.

We, of course, can argue with that view. I do not. The ZOA, which seems to function often as a lobby group for the Likud in Israel and for militant Jewish Republicans here, does. The United States, as they say, is a free country, and Klein is within his rights to urge policies on Israel, even if he does not make aliyah.

Nevertheless, there are elements that make me uneasy. A few years ago, Klein lashed out at the Anti -Defamation League for honoring New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman. Klein urged Jews in New York to picket the event instead of attending the dinner. Why? Apparently Friedman in some of his columns and in his book "From Beirut to Jerusalem" had written passages that criticized Israel. More recently, it was Hadassah and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The first lady had committed a political indiscretion months ago by referring to a Palestinian state in affirmative terms. Her true colors (and those of the Clinton administration) were suddenly revealed. How dare Hadassah honor her?

Now it is Salam Al-Marayati's turn. I called to ask him about the ZOA's latest round of artillery across his bow. I agree with Morton Klein, he said. The National Commission on Terrorism should not include a member who condones terrorist acts. I certainly don't, he added.

Where, then, has he misstepped? According to Al-Marayati, the ZOA is upset because he has been critical of Israel; has sought, in his writings, to find common ground between democracy and Islam; and has expressed the view that when Hezbollah attacks Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil, it is a form of resistance (although when Hezbollah turns weapons against civilians in Israel, he has made equally clear, he sees it is a form of terrorism, which he does not condone.)

I am less sure about Hezbollah in Lebanon than Al-Marayati and do not share all his views. But I see no reason for him not to serve on the Commission on Terrorism. His views and mine may differ, but, from his account, he is no terrorist; nor does he approve of terrorism.

The major issue that has provoked the ZOA, he believes, is his statement shortly after Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister and decided to open an archaeological tunnel beside the Al Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam and known to Jews in Israel as the Temple Mount. There were protests by Muslims, violence erupted, and Palestinians were killed. Al-Marayati condemned the action, as did many Israelis and a number of American Jews. He then called on groups to mobilize and stop Israel, through political and economic means, from persisting in this kind of behavior. He likens this to policies adopted by unions and striking labor forces in America; he does not see it as a form of terrorism.

Where does that leave us? To be sure, what the ZOA is about is legal and legitimate, albeit somewhat abrasive. It reminds me of an uncle of mine who had little tolerance for anyone's view but his own. I thought of him -- and of the ZOA -- as always wearing the uniform of the Jewish Thought Police. Only certain views were acceptable. All others -- and those who held them -- must troop before the Jewish Un-American Activities Committee, which is what ZOA has come to represent for me.

For someone who pushes contrarians aside and appears to bully all those whose views he finds wanting, Morton Klein is -- to my surprise -- a nice guy. I take his phone calls with pleasure, occasionally print his letters in these pages and continue to read his press releases. I know they will pop -- bang, bang, bang -- across my desk the minute he reads this column. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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