More Tur­moil at the ZOA as a Critic Is Fired And an Of­fice Is Closed

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Josh Nathan-kazis

The Zion­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­ica has fired an in­ter­nal critic who aired con­cerns about the way the group has han­dled the re­cent re­vo­ca­tion of its tax-ex­empt sta­tus and who re­ferred to her­self as a whis­tle blower in in­ter­nal memos.

Orit Arfa, the Los Angeles-based ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the ZOA’s Western Re­gion, con­firmed to the For­ward that she had been in­formed of her dis­missal on Novem­ber 19.

The group’s na­tional vice pres­i­dent, Steve Gold­berg, who has been strongly crit­i­cal of ZOA man­age­ment, ac­cused the or­ga­ni­za­tion of re­tal­i­at­ing against Arfa. “It’s ab­so­lutely re­tal­ia­tory,” he said. Gold­berg had spo­ken with Arfa and said she planned to sue.

A ZOA spokesman de­nied that Arfa’s fir­ing was re­tal­ia­tory. The group has sim­ply cho­sen to move its West Coast head­quar­ters to San Fran­cisco from Los Angeles, he said, in or­der to cut costs.

The fir­ing comes amid signs of in­creas­ing dis­ar­ray within the ZOA, a hawk­ish pro-Is­rael group with chap­ters across the coun­try. In an­other de­vel­op­ment, the ZOA’s Orange County branch voted to dis­band fol­low­ing the res­ig­na­tion of both its pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent. And Gold­berg said that the or­ga­ni­za­tion has re­ceived just $700,000 in con­tri­bu­tions in 2012.

“You have true chaos here now,” Gold­berg said.

The ZOA lost its tax ex­emp­tion this past Fe­bru­ary af­ter fail­ing to file tax re­ports to the IRS for three con­sec­u­tive years. Upon re­ceiv­ing notice of the IRS sanc­tion, the group in­formed ma­jor donors that it was no longer tax ex­empt and chan­neled con­tri­bu­tions to an out­side hold­ing ac­count pend­ing restora­tion of its ex­empt sta­tus. But it made no pub­lic state­ment, ar­guably leav­ing lesser donors un­aware of their con­tri­bu­tions’ on-hold sta­tus. Even some lead­ers within the ZOA’s re­gional ap­pa­ra­tus didn’t know the group’s ex­emp­tion had been re­voked un­til the For­ward re­ported on it in Septem­ber.

Arfa raised con­cerns within the ZOA as early as Septem­ber that the or­ga­ni­za­tion had not been do­ing enough to in­form donors about the loss of its tax ex­emp­tion. In a Septem­ber memo to ZOA lead­er­ship, Arfa al­leged that Pres­i­dent Mor­ton A. Klein had asked her to “re­main se­cre­tive” about the ZOA’s change in sta­tus, a charge the ZOA de­nied. Arfa also wrote in that memo that Klein had im­plied that she could be fired if she does “some­thing that does not please him or is per­ceived as be­ing dis­loyal to him.”

Arfa sent a sec­ond memo to ZOA lead­er­ship in Oc­to­ber in which she ac­cused Klein of con­tin­u­ing to urge her to down­play the ZOA’s loss of tax-ex­empt sta­tus, an­other charge that the ZOA de­nied.

“I’m afraid my job is in jeop­ardy,” Arfa wrote at the end of that memo.

Arfa’s Los Angeles of­fice will close at the end of Novem­ber. In a state­ment sent to the For­ward, the ZOA said it was clos­ing its L.A. of­fice and re­lo­cat­ing to San Fran­cisco.

“The clo­sure of the Los Angeles of­fice is due to fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions and in­ter­nal man­age­ment is­sues re­lated to co­or­di­na­tion of per­son­nel and fundrais­ing,” the or­ga­ni­za­tion stated. “A ma­jor donor, who wishes to re­main anony­mous at this time, will fully fund the ZOA San Fran­cisco of­fice. Mov­ing the ZOA of­fice to San Fran­cisco will save the or­ga­ni­za­tion over $100,000 per year.”

The ZOA’s na­tional ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, David Drimer, said in a sub­se­quent in­ter­view with the For­ward that the pos­si­bil­ity of fu­ture lit­i­ga­tion lim­ited what the or­ga­ni­za­tion could say about Arfa’s ter­mi­na­tion. “I con­sider this a pri­vate mat­ter re­gard­ing a law­ful and not re­tal­ia­tory ter­mi­na­tion of an em­ployee,” Drimer said. “We are open­ing an of­fice in San Fran­cisco which will re­sult in sig­nif­i­cant out-of-pocket sav­ings for the ZOA, and we be­lieve that any per­for­mance-re­lated is­sues should be kept pri­vate.”

Gold­berg, who works as an at­tor­ney, dis­puted the ZOA’s as­ser­tions. “She’s be­ing per­son­ally sin­gled out be­cause she ex­pressed in writ­ten mem­o­randa and in phone calls with Mort Klein her dis­com­fort with not vol­un­tar­ily dis­clos­ing to po­ten­tial donors that the ZOA had lost its 501(c)(3) sta­tus,” Gold­berg said, us­ing a le­gal term for a char­ity’s tax ex­emp­tion. “By com­plain­ing about it and blow­ing the whis­tle and putting into writ­ing and ex­press­ing her dis­com­fort, the tim­ing is such that that is why it was done.” Reached via tele­phone, Arfa, who was work­ing in her of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity as re­cently as the day be­fore her fir­ing, would con­firm only that she had been ter­mi­nated.

Arfa’s fir­ing came a day af­ter the pres­i­dent of the ZOA’s Orange County chap­ter an­nounced that his lo­cal board had cho­sen to vol­un­tar­ily dis­band. Chap­ter Pres­i­dent Jesse Rosen­blum no­ti­fied Klein and other mem­bers of the ZOA lead­er­ship in a Novem­ber 18 email ob­tained by the For­ward.

In Oc­to­ber, Rosen­blum told the For­ward that he had not been in­formed that the ZOA had lost its tax ex­emp­tion un­til it was re­ported in the For­ward, and that one mem­ber of the board of the Orange County chap­ter had re­signed over the is­sue.

Rosen­blum de­clined to speak to the For­ward for this story. He did not cite a rea­son for dis­band­ing the chap­ter in his email to ZOA lead­er­ship, but wrote that he had de­cided to re­sign as chap­ter pres­i­dent fol­low­ing a phone call with Klein. Fol­low­ing his res­ig­na­tion the vice pres­i­dent re­signed, and the en­tire board sub­se­quently dis­banded.

Drimer said that he had been trav­el­ing and was un­aware of the chap­ter’s dis­band­ing.

The state of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s fundrais­ing ef­forts has also been a sub­ject of criticism. The ZOA can­not ac­cess money in the out­side ac­count to which it has been chan­nel­ing con­tri­bu­tions un­til the IRS re­in­states its tax-ex­empt sta­tus. Gold­berg told the For­ward that Drimer had told him that the ZOA has raised $700,000 so far in 2012. An­other $1.2 mil­lion has been pledged to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Asked about the claim, Drimer told the For­ward, “That may be true.”

The group re­ceived $2.5 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions and grants in 2011. Drimer noted that the or­ga­ni­za­tion will send out an­other mail­ing be­fore the end of the year. He said that he doesn’t think fundrais­ing has been par­tic­u­larly slow.

“I don’t think we’re hav­ing an es­pe­cially weak year,” Drimer said.

COUR­TESY ORIT ARFA

Dis­missed Critic: ZOA’s Orit Arfa says she has been fired.

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