Der Füror

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

"People are crazy if they think you can be an executive director from 9 to 5," she says. "You're there a lot. I worked my butt off."

With her background in fund-raising, Lewkowitz focused on shoring up the agency's finances, which had only recently gained a secure footing. By the time she left, she says, the agency increased its United Way contributions 10 percent. Grants were up 400 percent.

And in her five and a half years on the job, she recalls, not one of the agency's core staffers left. "We worked really well together," she says, smiling, and then she stops.

Gya Watson was stunned that the report generated no outrage, even when Lewkowitz resigned over it.
Peter Scanlon
Gya Watson was stunned that the report generated no outrage, even when Lewkowitz resigned over it.
Herb Paine wanted the YWCA to address the report --
and its finances.
Peter Scanlon
Herb Paine wanted the YWCA to address the report -- and its finances.

Today, four of those seven core staffers, including Lewkowitz herself, are gone. And the YWCA, the agency she once loved, now considers Lewkowitz one of its biggest obstacles.

The problem was Middle Eastern politics -- and, as Lewkowitz tells it, her agency's board of directors.

At the 2003 YWCA World Council meeting in Brisbane, Australia, YWCA delegates passed a resolution for "freedom and dignity in the Middle East." The resolution condemned the U.S. (for being in Iraq) and Israel (for a host of "illegal actions" involving Palestine). The U.S. delegate was the only "no" vote.

Then came Doris Pagelkopf's Witness Report.

Pagelkopf, vice president of the World YWCA, visited Palestine and Jordan in the spring of 2004 as a guest of the YWCAs there. She met with the sister of Jordan's King Hussein and even visited Yasser Arafat in his bunker.

Then, armed with the insight of a well-meaning Lake Wobegon liberal who's spent all of two weeks in Palestine, Pagelkopf compiled a five-page report bemoaning the actions of Israel and the U.S. government.

"We heard over and over again of the hate for the current USA President and his advisors," she wrote. "It was so overwhelming that some days my friends would ask me at the end of the day if I was okay."

But Pagelkopf was sympathetic. "It is very understandable why the Arab world does not like the administration after the advent of the Iraq war," she wrote.

Visiting Palestine, Pagelkopf added, "I strongly felt a correlation to World War II. During that war 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."

Pagelkopf had insisted earlier that the trip was not anti-Israeli. ("NO, NO, NO," she wrote.) But the report focused on the Palestinians' mistreatment, without a word about Arafat's history of terrorism or unwillingness to accept a two-state solution.

And then there was that Hitler reference, about as subtle as a suicide bomber in a synagogue.

When Lewkowitz called the YWCA offices, they assured her that the link to the report had been removed.

But she knew the report was out there. And that was enough.

She brought a copy to the president of her agency's board, Connie Robinson. Lewkowitz wanted the Maricopa County YWCA to pass a resolution condemning it.

"I don't know how many times I said to her, 'This is a big issue for me, and we need to talk about it,'" Lewkowitz says.

But Robinson had never been warm to the executive director. Both staffers and board members say that Robinson's attitude toward Lewkowitz could be dismissive, even rude. "She would just totally be ignoring whatever Barbara had to say," recalls Sandra Wagner, then the YWCA's grant coordinator. "Or she'd give her looks when she was talking. Like she couldn't be bothered with her."

Lewkowitz's pleas for action on the Witness Report triggered a similar disdain. Robinson would tell Lewkowitz they'd talk next week. Or when she returned from a business trip.

They never did.

Lewkowitz photocopied Pagelkopf's report and distributed it to the board's executive committee. She held a meeting to discuss it, but none of them came.

In August, one of the board's veteran members, Abbie Beller, resigned. Beller said she was unhappy with both the World Resolution on the Middle East and Pagelkopf's report.

"Abbie said she cannot support an organization that dismisses the need to address the anti-Israel stance directly and is not inclusive," according to board minutes.

It was a clear call for local action, but no one was answering it.

Lewkowitz gave a copy of Pagelkopf's Witness Report to everyone at the meeting. She never got a response.

The first thing people say about Connie Robinson is how attractive she is. Even a process server who once gave her papers noted in his official documents that she was pretty. A slender black woman with perfect hair and makeup, she couldn't be a bigger contrast to the sensible Lewkowitz.

Robinson's built an impressive résumé. She's worked in human resources for Motorola and the Arizona Supreme Court, and served on the Arizona Foundation for Women and the City of Phoenix's Equal Opportunity Commission. She and her second husband, an MIT grad, own their own north Phoenix human resources consulting firm, the Gideon Group.

Behind the scenes, things are messier. In the past five years, Robinson has twice nearly lost her home to foreclosure, according to county records. The check covering her initial $25 contribution to the YWCA bounced. This May, the state government filed a lien for the Gideon Group's back taxes.

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