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ZOA Retools Its Image by Focusing on Jihad Via Lectures and Film

April 2, 2009 By:
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A crew member of "Ever Again," a film recently shown by the Zionist Organization of America, records a neo-Nazi rally in Germany.

Coming to a shul near you -- "Jihad Unveiled."

The title doesn't refer to the latest cinematic spy thriller or to a secret government report that's just come to light. Instead, "Jihad Unveiled" is a regional, ongoing film-and-lecture series put together by the Zionist Organization of America's Greater Philadelphia District.

As opposed to cultural programming, ZOA is best known for expressing views on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are to the political right of much of the American Jewish establishment and, oftentimes, of both the Israeli and American governments. This series, while falling far short of an image makeover, is part of a retooling effort on the part of the local ZOA to build support for the organization and bring attention to specific issues during a time when many groups have had to cut back due to a lack of resources.

The films and the speakers utilized in this series seek to set off alarm bells about the threat of Muslim extremism and its connection to the rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout much of Europe.

Local ZOA leaders point out that the Obama administration -- as well as Americans in general -- have shifted their focus from the threat of terrorism to the nation's economic woes.

"People who just think that this is a war concerning Israel or the Jews are misunderstanding the crisis," stated Leonard Getz, a vice president for national ZOA and co-president of the Philadelphia district. "It's a war that's against the entire Western civilization."

National ZOA is still expending most of its energy on Israel, rather than the global Muslim threat. In recent weeks, the organization openly opposed the plan to provide more than $900 million for the reconstruction of Gaza, arguing that first there needs to be an end to rocket attacks against southern Israel.

Still, outside observers and ZOA's top leaders said that very little differences exist between the national body and its local districts; they work as one.

A Bastion of Support

The Philadelphia region made up the largest contingent of participants in ZOA's annual mission to Washington. On March 26, more than 40 local people met with lawmakers about issues related to the Jewish state.

Philadelphia has been a bastion of support for Mort Klein, ZOA's national president and a native son, but the local chapter has run up against the problems facing many Jewish entities -- namely, how to entice broader support and getting the next generation to take up the cause.

Local leadership has made a few decisions they hope might help with these goals.

For starters, they've decided to nix a few staple activities. That means no more weekly counterprotests against anti-Israel demonstrators in front of the Israeli Consulate's Center City offices, something done until the consulate moved last year.

"We came to a point that we felt that our presence was drawing more attention to them than if they were just ignored," said Marc Pevar, co-president of the district, which has about 500 members. (ZOA has about 30 chapters nationwide and 30,000 members. Five of its chapters, including Philadelphia, have executive directors who are paid; the rest are volunteer-run.)

September also marked the end of "Middle East Report" on WNWR 1540 AM; for years, the group paid for the airtime. The show was hosted by Steve Feldman, executive director of the Philadelphia district, and former local president Lori Lowenthal Marcus.

"It was just not financially viable. There was no evidence of a growing or expanding audience to justify the amount of cost we were spending on it," said Pevar.

In the past, they held quarterly membership meetings; now they hope to produce more programs like the jihad series.

"These films really shed a lot of light," said Feldman, who added that "the media is not doing enough to educate the public. If the media is not doing it, then ZOA and groups like us have to step forward."

Nevertheless, only 30 or so people came to see a March 11 screening of the contemporary documentary "The War On Britain's Jews?" at Temple Beth Hillel/ Beth El in Wynnewood.

The next night, at the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia, the film was different -- "Ever Again," a Simon Wiesenthal Center film also on current anti-Semitism in Europe -- but the size of the audience was about the same.

The next event will take place on April 26 at Temple Beth Ami in the Northeast. 

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