The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), founded in 1897, was the first official Zionist organization in the United States, and, especially early in the 20th century, the primary representative of American Jews to the World Zionist Organization, espousing primarily Political Zionism.
Today, the ZOA is a prominent pro-Israel group in the United States, with 25,000 current members.
The ZOA was initially founded in 1897 as the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ), an amalgam of Hebrew societies, Chovevei Zion, and Jewish nationalist clubs that all endorsed the Basle programme of the First Zionist Congress. Initially founded as an organization for the greater New York area, the FAZ was established as a national organization at a conference in New York the next year where the constitution was adopted by the delegates with Richard Gottheil elected as president and Stephen S. Wise as honorary secretary. The FAZ was meant to support the founding of the 'Jewish National Home in Palestine'. Along with its sister organization, Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America, founded 1912, as well as the Labor Zionist Po'ale Zion parties, and the Religious Zionist Mizrachi, the ZOA served as one of the key voices in early American Zionism. Their voice was limited however, since most American Jews and the organized American Jewish Committee were initially strong opponents of the Zionist movement, and worried, with their assimilationist views, about charges of ‘dual loyalty’, a common antisemitic canard.
In 1917, the FAZ was renamed as the ZOA.
The demographics of Jewish Americans were changing rapidly around the turn of the 20th century, and by 1920 and the Jewish population of America had increased by over ten times.
When the secular “people’s lawyer” Louis Brandeis became involved in the movement in 1912, just before World War I, Zionism started gaining significant support. By 1917, Brandeis' leadership had increased American Zionist membership ten times to 200,000 members, and “American Jewry thenceforth became the financial center for the world Zionist movement,” greatly surpassing its previous European base of support. In addition, during the early years of World War I, he and others established the American Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs to run Zionist affairs on behalf of the worldwide Zionist Organization, which had been rendered largely impotent because its members were divided by allegiance to the different sides in the conflict.
The Zionist Organization of America was instrumental in mobilizing the support of the U.S. government, Congress, and the American public for the creation of Israel in 1948. Former ZOA presidents during the period included Brandeis, Louis Lipsky, Daniel Frisch, Stephen Samuel Wise, and Abba Hillel Silver.
In 1949 the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the ZOA under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act after the organization solicited supporters to accelerate technology transfers to Jews in Palestine. On February 25, 1948, the ZOA was ordered to register as a foreign agent. After a series of conferences with the US Attorney General, the ZOA changed its constitution and "affected a change in the constitution of the World Zionist Organization in an effort to remove itself from agency status. As a result all attempts to procure the registration of the subject organization were dropped."
Following the founding of Israel, and to unify Jewish representation with the executive branch of US government, the ZOA became a charter member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. ZOA was historically a liberal Zionist group, though it has since become right-wing.
In 2005, the Los Angeles branch of ZOA elected former actor and singer Ed Ames as president. Tom Tugend of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles noted that Ames' career was far behind him and made particular note of his role as an actor on the Daniel Boone TV series, before going on to say, "Founded in 1896, ZOA had been in decline from its heydays under the leadership of Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, but has regained some prominence since the energetic and vocal Klein assumed the presidency 10 years ago," having been elected in 1993 and assuming office in 1994.
The ZOA was strongly opposed to Israel's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005. In January 2009, the ZOA issued a statement calling on supporters of the withdrawal to apologize, stating that the "past three years of rapid security deterioration in the southern part of Israel," and that "in these circumstances, it is high time for all MKs, journalists and others, regardless of party affiliation, who supported the process of unilateral withdrawal to apologize to the Israeli electorate.
In January 2009, the ZOA expressed concern about President Barack Obama's selection of George J. Mitchell as an envoy to the Middle East. The ZOA criticized Mitchell because he "believes both sides are equally at fault" and that "settlements are the main problem, not the Palestinian people' refusal to end terrorism."
In late March 2009, ZOA activists urged the United States Congress to tighten sanctions on Iran and place conditions on U.S. aid to the Palestinians. The ZOA stated that Congress should make the Palestinians comply with commitments to "end incitement and arrest terrorists" before receiving the $900 million in financial assistance that the United States has pledged. However, the ZOA reportedly faced opposition from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which had called for the aid to be distributed without these additional conditions. The ZOA activists also expressed support for legislation to enhance transparency for U.S. funds that go to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees and for a bill that withdraws funding for the 2009 Durban Review Conference.
ZOA has been highly critical of Israeli security procedures on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which they claim discriminate against religious Jews. It questioned Israeli claims that these restrictions were truly necessary to maintain security, and demanded "unimpeded access" to the Temple Mount. ZOA is critical of Israeli police and security personnel, who attempt to appease the Wakf authority on the Temple Mount, by engaging in discrimination against openly Jewish visitors which includes: arrest for praying at the Temple Mount, arrest for swaying or bowing, and arrest for wearing a prayer shawl or tefillin (phylacteries)
In 2012 ZOA lost its charitable status in the United States, having failed to provide the Internal Revenue Service with tax returns for three consecutive years. The tax-exempt status was restored by the IRS in 2013.
The ZOA was criticized for failing to comment on the killing of a Palestinian teenager.
The ZOA today works to strengthen U.S.-Israel relations through educational activities, by combating what it perceives as anti-Israel bias in the media, textbooks, travel guides, and on college campuses. The ZOA also sponsors educational and cultural programs in Israel. The "ZOA House" is a noted cultural center in Tel Aviv. The ZOA is responsible for founding the Kfar Silver school, which provides education and vocational training for new Jewish immigrants and others on a 500-acre (2.0 km2) campus near Ashkelon. The ZOA's youth division sponsors one of the largest programs for sending young Jews to visit Israel.
The Brandeis Award is given annually to a prominent national or international figure. Recipients include Miriam Adelson, Joseph Biden, Abba Eban, Justice Arthur Goldberg, Ronald Lauder, Natan Sharansky, Simon Wiesenthal, Elizabeth Taylor, Mortimer Zuckerman, Raanan Gissin and Frank Gaffney.