Der Füror

One bad Hitler analogy turned the Maricopa County YWCA into a war zone

When Barbara Lewkowitz first saw the report, she was too stunned to hit "print." And when she went back online, hoping to read it again, the link was gone, leaving her to wonder if the whole thing was a figment of her imagination.

It wasn't.

After a colleague faxed over a copy, Lewkowitz read it again, slowly. Only then was she certain that she hadn't read it wrong, that it really was as bad as she'd first thought.

In some circles, ignoring comparisons to Hitler will always come back to bite you eventually.
Mark Poutenis
In some circles, ignoring comparisons to Hitler will always come back to bite you eventually.
Barbara Lewkowitz wanted her local board to condemn the report -- or even just discuss it.
courtesy of Barbara Lewkowitz
Barbara Lewkowitz wanted her local board to condemn the report -- or even just discuss it.

The report compared Israelis to Hitler.

In part, it read, "Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews and now a group of Israelis, not all Israelis, is trying to choke off and rid the land of Palestinians."

Compare anyone to Hitler, and you'd probably face some criticism. (See: and that whole Bush-as-Hitler flap.) But to compare Israelis, after Hitler murdered six million Jews, is practically begging for controversy.

And the report wasn't just circulating through any old company. Lewkowitz was executive director of the YWCA of Maricopa County, a nonprofit agency that runs a shelter for homeless women and feeds the elderly. Like the better-known YMCA, the "C" technically stands for Christian, but the YWCA is really nonsectarian.

In fact, the group's stated mission is "eliminating racism and empowering women."

Lewkowitz is a devout Jew. A woman named Doris Pagelkopf, who is a vice president of the World YWCA (she's not Jewish), had written the incendiary words, and then apparently asked for them to be e-mailed to YWCAs across the United States. The Hitler analogy had gone out in the YWCA USA's e-newsletter, forwarded a second time in a series of e-mails, and even posted on at least one YWCA regional Web site in Chicago.

To Lewkowitz, the name-calling wasn't just hurtful, it was racist, and in direct conflict with the YWCA's goals.

It wasn't the first time the World YWCA had taken shots at Israel. But it was the first time Lewkowitz refused to accept it. Her struggle to force the Maricopa County YWCA's board of directors to deal with the report would eventually make headlines from Phoenix to Jerusalem. There are more than 300 local YWCA chapters across the country, and certainly some reacted to the report, but only in Maricopa County did the debate touch off a yearlong battle that nearly caused the agency to implode -- and threatens it to this day.

Locksmiths were summoned. Injunctions were filed. A police officer was hired to escort "insubordinate" employees off-site. The agency's public relations consultant resigned, as did nearly half its board of directors. Some staff members were fired; others quit. A rabbi denounced the board of directors from the podium at its premier fund raiser.

And, when Jewish leaders continued to agitate, a relative of the board president would helpfully suggest that she call Louis Farrakhan to "take care of them."

That's right: Louis Farrakhan. The guy who called Hitler "a great man" and compared Jews to leeches.

The agency's finances had been given a troubling bill of health even before things really got bad. Supporters worry that all the controversy is only making things worse.

Lewkowitz didn't bargain on any of that when the report arrived in her inbox last summer. To her, the whole thing seemed simple enough: The YWCA board could denounce the report, and everything would be okay.

"When you have a small problem and you take the time to think about it and take care of it, you can find a solution," Lewkowitz says.

But that didn't happen here. "Instead," she admits, "it became a big problem."

The organization that began as the Young Women's Christian Association is today neither particularly young nor Christian. Women of all faiths -- or even no faith -- have been welcome for decades.

Founded in London in 1855 by a group of Protestant women, it now includes associations in 122 countries.

In the U.S., at least, the YWCA has little affiliation with Christianity or its major tenets, beyond a desire to help the poor. Most YWCAs in this country do work similar to that of the Maricopa County branch: They feed the hungry, shelter domestic-violence victims, and run fitness centers.

But despite the more practical focus of its local affiliates, the YWCA's national office is a left-leaning crusader against racism and for women, almost like NOW and the Rainbow Coalition rolled into one. It's aggressively pro-choice and anti-Bush.

The World YWCA, while open to "interfaith dialogue," has stayed closer to its Christian roots. The global association advocates for women's economic rights and education. It, too, has taken a stand for reproductive rights, but it also offers a 12-month Bible reading plan and sponsors an annual week of prayer.

Barbara Lewkowitz came to the agency in 1999, as executive director of the YWCA of Maricopa County. Before that, she'd been director of planned giving at Planned Parenthood of Central Arizona, and it's easy to picture her on the job, convincing elderly benefactors that their descendants don't want an inheritance so much as pro-choice advocacy. Her voice is so sweet and her manner so kind, you almost don't notice the steely persistence beneath the surface.

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