Split in Pittsburgh highlights ZOA debate over leader

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NEW YORK — 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 members, 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 Pittsburgh 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 ZOA 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 fire from critics who charged that it has worked against the interests of Israel's Labor 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."

The group's executive director, Connie Schwartz, said "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."

Klein was undaunted. He dismissed both cities' moves from the national ZOA as "personal and political" and said he was "resented from day one" as an outsider.

Klein also raised questions about the legality of the secession and criticized the group's failure to allow the full Pittsburgh membership to vote on the split.

There is already a slate in place by those prepared to challenge the move at a May 28 Pittsburgh ZOA convention, Klein added, and Weiss concurred.

Klein, an outspoken critic of some of the Labor government's peace polices, said his fight has been only to ensure that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would comply with the peace accord requirement to fight terrorism before the Palestinians receive U.S. aid.

"Every major Jewish organization supports 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. "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," he said. "He raised the profile of an organization on the skids."

Klein does not take "stands against the government of Israel," Weiss said, but he forces the Palestinians to comply with the accords when "the Israeli Labor government turns a blind eye." This rankles people, he said.

In an apparent effort to counter negative publicity triggered by the Pittsburgh move, the ZOA announced last week the establishment of seven new districts, saying 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 says the figure is 370. Klein also contends that national membership figures have skyrocketed under his stewardship.