Three weeks ago, the Zionist Organization of America gave what it called its highest honor to former President Donald Trump. According to Morton Klein, who runs the Z.O.A., the award commemorated Trump as the “best friend Israel ever had in the White House.” Last week, at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Ye—formerly known as Kanye West—and the white supremacist Nick Fuentes, setting off the biggest firestorm over Trump’s bigotry since his response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (which Fuentes attended).
After Trump’s dinner with Fuentes, Klein told the Times, “I have become very frightened for my people.” He added, “Donald Trump is not an antisemite. He loves Israel. He loves Jews. But he mainstreams, he legitimizes Jew-hatred and Jew-haters. And this scares me.” A child of Holocaust survivors who was born at a displaced-persons camp in Germany, Klein became an economist before eventually transitioning into pro-Israel activism. He took over the Z.O.A., which was founded in 1897 and is the oldest Zionist organization in America, in 1993. Since then, he has hewed to a hard-right line, opposing a Palestinian state and frequently supporting right-wing politicians in America who favor right-wing policies in Israel.
I recently spoke by phone with Klein. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his confusion over Trump’s dinner, why Trump has got close to bigots in recent weeks, and Klein’s questions about Barack Obama’s birthplace.
Can you just walk me through the past few weeks, and the medal you awarded to Trump, and why it’s important?
Yes. The Z.O.A.’s highest award, rarely given, is the Theodor Herzl Gold Medallion. We’ve only given it to Lord Balfour—
Of the Balfour Declaration.
That’s right. Of the Balfour Declaration. Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin—and I think that’s it.
Sheldon Adelson, too.
Oh, yeah, we did give it to Sheldon. That’s true. I forgot. This was given to people who’d done extraordinary work benefitting the Jewish state of Israel and the Jewish people. And of course Trump was the greatest President supporting Israel we’ve ever had. From moving the Embassy to Jerusalem to recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli sovereign territory, to not giving any U.S. funds to the Palestinian Authority as long as they pay Arabs to murder Jews—which they continue to do. It’s shocking. Being the first President to pray at the Western Wall. Because he was such an extraordinary President, we thought—especially because no Jewish organization that we’re aware of honored him to say thank you—we felt it morally incumbent upon us to say thank you.
Someone had to do it.
And people told us he’d never show up. Well, he showed up, and, when he walked in, over a thousand people gave him a five-minute standing ovation. We turned people away, because there was no more room. We couldn’t sell any more tickets.
During his speech, there were constant standing ovations. Constant. It was an electric evening. I never had so many people tell me that it was the greatest dinner we’ve ever had. And we’ve had extraordinary dinners. I mean, we’ve had Jon Voight, Mike Pompeo, Ice Cube—the rapper—Ted Cruz. Every dinner we have is extraordinary. And people said this was the best ever. And it was.
You had Ice Cube and Jon Voight?
I had Ice Cube and Jon Voight. Ice Cube is my friend. In his talk to us, he condemned anti-Semitism.
Doesn’t Ice Cube have some anti-Semitism in his past?
Well, in the nineties, in one of his rap records, he said some things that clearly were anti-Semitic.
Oh, I thought he’d posted some things that were anti-Semitic more recently.
Well, he posted pictures saying “Happy birthday” to Louis Farrakhan in the last couple of years—which is horrible. And I told him so. [Ice Cube posted numerous anti-Semitic memes on social media in 2020, several months before the dinner.]
But he is a supporter of Israel?
That’s what he tells me. And, look, he let us honor him at our dinner.
Well, if Ice Cube and Jon Voight can come together to kill that snake in “Anaconda,” it’s good that they can also come together to support Israel.
You saw that movie?
I thought I was the only one who saw that movie.
You traced this long arc of everyone from Churchill to Sheldon Adelson who got the medal. This month, we saw Trump’s arc, from getting the award to unfortunately having dinner with a neo-Nazi. How did that come about?
Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I find it deplorable that he had dinner with an overt anti-Semite like Kanye West—Ye, I mean—who only a month ago called for the death of all Jews, for God’s sake.
So, how do you understand this? You said that Trump was a huge friend of the Jewish people.
You know what? I can’t answer that. It makes no sense. Somebody who’s such an extraordinary friend of Israel, whose daughter is an Orthodox Jew, whose grandchildren are Orthodox Jews—I cannot explain why he would want to have dinner with an overt anti-Semite and dinner with a white-supremacist Jew-hater, an ugly, ugly scum like Nick Fuentes. And Trump says, “I didn’t know who it was.” Even if I take him at his word, that he didn’t know who Fuentes was, fine, now he knows. Why doesn’t he say, “Fuentes is a despicable scum whose beliefs have no place in the United States of America”?
One possible answer is that he’s sympathetic to those views, as evidenced by the fact that he didn’t want to distance himself or really go after the people who marched at Charlottesville. And one of those people was Nick Fuentes. That might be an answer.
No, no. I can’t believe that. Somebody who’s as hostile to Jews and Israel as Fuentes and Kanye are would never do all the extraordinary things for Israel. Trump didn’t have to do all those things. It was way beyond the call of duty.
Do you think that there could be people who, for whatever reason, have sympathies with Israel but don’t like Jews much?
I think it’s highly unlikely. If you like Israel, which is the Jewish state filled with Jews, how can you hate Jews? Can you like Italy and hate Italians? Can you like Spain and hate Spanish people? It’s beyond my comprehension that that’s a possibility.
It’s possible that Trump doesn’t think too hard about Israel aside from that he’s popular there.
Look, when he came, he said, “I hate wearing tuxedos. I’m wearing a tuxedo tonight because I wanted to wear it in honor of Israel and the Jewish people.”
At your dinner?
And he got a standing ovation when he said that.
“I’m wearing it in honor of Israel and the Jewish people.”
I mentioned Charlottesville, and Trump has a long history of—