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The Proud, Defiant History of the Zionist Organization of America

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has been around for more than a century, much longer even than the founding of the State of Israel itself. Yet its roots are far older still: Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple and the ancient Jewish state itself in the year 70 CE, the Jewish people have had to fight for their right simply to live and to be once again a free people in their own land. Since 1897, ZOA supporters have stood up courageously on behalf of the right of Jews to reestablish a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel, to live there in peace and security, and to be safe from the threat of antisemitism, wherever it is found.

The organization has always spoken with a forthright, unapologetic voice and has served as a public advocate and a driving force behind historic policy decisions that now seem self-evident, but may have been controversial in their day: the deportation of Nazi war criminals over the past few decades, the application of federal civil rights legislation to Jewish students, official United States recognition that the Golan Heights rightfully falls under Israeli sovereignty, and the 2018 relocation of the U.S. embassy to the Israeli capital of Jerusalem.

America’s first and oldest pro-Israel group

The ZOA got its start as the first American organization to fight for the Zionist cause with the work of the Anglo-American scholar and dedicated Zionist Richard Gottheil, who became the group’s first president. For the next half-century, the ZOA would work to support the creation of an official Jewish homeland in Israel and the associated right of Jews all over the world to find a haven from persecution there.

Gottheil had attended the Zionist Congress in Europe and based his Federation of American Zionists (the ZOA’s original name) on that organization. In 1901, the fledgling Federation began publishing its own monthly magazine, entitled The Maccabean. A Yiddish-language publication, Dos Yidishe Folk, appeared eight years later.

The year 1918 was a watershed one for the Federation. At its convention that year, it took on its current name. It elected the Supreme Court’s first Jewish associate justice, Louis D. Brandeis, as its honorary president. In addition, other newly formed Zionist groups, including the youth movement called Young Judaea and the women’s organization Hadassah, folded themselves under its umbrella before expanding their missions and moving forward on their own.

Present at the creation

From 1918 to 1921, the ZOA worked under the leadership of Judge Julian W. Mack, of the United States Court of Appeals, as its president. Mack directed much of the organization’s focus to assisting the Zionist Commission in Palestine (as the land that would become the State of Israel was then known).

Under the later leadership of journalist Louis Lipsky, the ZOA supported Keren Hayesod (literally “the foundation fund”), established at the 1920 World Zionist Congress in London. Keren Hayesod served as the central funding organization that supported immigration, absorption, and public works throughout pre-state Israel. The year 1925 saw the merging of multiple fundraising programs under the Zionist banner as United Palestine Appeal.

In the dark days of World War II and the Holocaust in Europe, the ZOA’s leadership played a major role on the American Emergency Committee (later Council) for Zionist Affairs, or ECZA. This organization was designed to support the rescue of the Jews of Europe.

The renowned Rabbi Stephen Wise served as ECZA president from 1939 to 1942. Unusual for a politically progressive Reform rabbi, Wise was an ardent supporter of Israel. It was Wise who tried, but failed, to enlist his friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist more European Jews fleeing the Nazis and facilitate their arrival in the U.S.

Other prominent American Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (author of the popular 1956 book Where Judaism Differed) and lawyer Emanuel Neumann, held the presidency of the ZOA in the years immediately preceding the establishment of Israel in 1948. Their work helped lay the foundations for greater U.S. government support for the state’s creation.

Defending Israel and Israeli honor

After 1948, the ZOA shifted its activities to fundraising for Israeli causes and public advocacy. Its leadership continued its support by sponsoring ZOA House as a cultural center in Tel Aviv, which still exists. In the U.S., the ZOA supported programs designed to increase Hebrew cultural education, as well as education in the principles of Zionism.

Today, the ZOA stands as the oldest continuous pro-Israel organization in the U.S., under the leadership of president Morton A. Klein. A long-time activist on behalf of Jewish and Israeli causes, Klein is an economist who served in three successive presidential administrations in the 1970s. During his tenure at the ZOA, he has worked tirelessly to fight anti-Israel bias in media, as well as in school texts and on college campuses. Klein has also provided expert testimony to the U.S. Congress and the Israeli Knesset.

The ZOA continues to offer free programming and free legal aid to pro-Israel students at U.S. colleges and universities. The current rising tide of antisemitism has only heightened the importance of its mission to combat anti-Israel boycotts and lies about Israel as an “occupier” of the Jewish people’s own ancient lands.

The ZOA and its leadership support human rights and dignity for all people. Contrary to the many slanders propagated around the world by extremists on both the political right and left, Zionism is not a racist or colonizing movement. It is rather the Jewish people’s expression of their own human dignity as the indigenous inhabitants of the historic Land of Israel.

The ZOA champions the lawful right of Jews to live and settle these historic Jewish lands, and the necessary corollary that the creation of a Palestinian state would endanger these rights and Israel’s security. Its leadership also continues to help educate the public about the root causes of violence and unrest in the Middle East, which spring from neighboring Arabic/Islamic societies’ generations-long fight to destroy Israel as a Jewish state and a safe homeland for the Jewish people—the only one in existence.

Named by the Jerusalem Post as one of the most “important and influential” of all American Jewish organizations, the ZOA plans to continue the fight for Israel’s existence, peace, and security as long as there remains a need to do so.


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