Der Füror

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

But despite all the quibbling, some things are irrefutable: Lewkowitz's resignation triggered serious concerns in the Jewish community. But rather than meet with Jewish leaders, Connie Robinson stalled until tensions were so high there was no easy fix.

And for that, there are plenty of witnesses.

One of them, Janet Marcotte, is executive director of the Tucson YWCA. Marcotte, who is not Jewish but understood the volatility of the situation, immediately tried to get Maricopa's board together with Phoenix's Jewish leadership to defuse the issue.

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.

But Connie Robinson made it clear she had no interest in that. She missed a conference call, skipped a meeting with the Jewish Community Relations Council, and didn't return calls or e-mails.

She also rejected an easy chance to make peace.

Marcotte was sponsoring a resolution on the national level that clearly objected to the language in Pagelkopf's report and the anti-Israel bias in the 2003 World Resolution. When Marcotte asked the Maricopa County YWCA to add its name as a co-sponsor, Robinson finally returned a call, but only to say the Maricopa County YWCA wasn't interested. They were too busy.

As for Lewkowitz, she paid a price for being outspoken. She'd always intended to stay part of the organization. She planned to push for continued change through a Middle East Task Force organized by the national YWCA office.

But in February, a letter mistakenly released by the national YWCA indicated that the YWCA USA's CEO, Peggy Sanchez Mills, wanted Lewkowitz off the task force "with a passion."

Today, the YWCA spokesman, Debra Roth, says the task force that Lewkowitz was on has been "rebuilt." And Lewkowitz is no longer on it.

Abbie Beller couldn't get the Maricopa County YWCA's attention by resigning from the board. Barbara Lewkowitz couldn't do it by quitting her job. Janet Marcotte couldn't make a difference.

The one person who did, kind of, was Carolyn Warner. And that was only because Warner's concern threatened the Maricopa County YWCA's premier fund raiser.

Every year since 1994, the Maricopa County YWCA has honored nearly a dozen women at its Tribute to Women gala. This year, one of the biggest "names" among the honorees was Carolyn Warner, the former gubernatorial candidate, state superintendent of public instruction and longtime Democratic party leader.

She heard about Lewkowitz's resignation. Then she checked out the World YWCA's Web site and read its resolutions for herself.

Warner, a Methodist, wasn't happy. And she wanted to know what the Maricopa County YWCA was going to do about it.

The task of mollifying Warner fell to Herb Paine, then the interim executive director. He explained that the Maricopa board had added its vote to the regional statement calling for "balance."

Not good enough, Warner said.

(Warner did not return calls for comment, but YWCA records, as well as interviews with Paine and Jewish leaders, confirm her involvement.)

Finally, on December 2, the board swung into action. That night, members held an emergency meeting and passed a statement decrying the World YWCA's statements about Israel.

That should have been it.

But it wasn't. Paine forwarded the statement to the Jewish News and several Jewish organizations -- but then got an odd e-mail from Robinson asking him to hold off. It was too late, of course. It wasn't a huge surprise when Paine started hearing reports that board members were backing away from the statement and downplaying it to the YWCA's supporters.

"There was a begrudging acceptance of this statement and a reluctance about it," Paine says. "It was like they'd been pushed into a corner and regretted doing it." He resigned in early January, frustrated by the board members' recalcitrance.

Warner kept pushing. She contacted Rabbi Robert Kravitz, executive director of Arizona's American Jewish Committee, and asked him to meet with the board.

In February, the YWCA board members met with Kravitz, and promised to write a letter denouncing anti-Israel bias and publish it in both the Jewish News and the Arizona Republic. As a show of good faith, Rabbi Kravitz would give an invocation at the Tribute luncheon.

But the fragile treaty quickly collapsed. First, the Jewish News advertisement immediately drew derision. The ad condemned the World YWCA's 2003 resolution against Israel -- and then added, with more than a pinch of defensiveness, that the board of directors had actually denounced the resolution every month from September through February. (There was no mention of Pagelkopf's report.)

The implication: All the Jewish complaining had been completely unnecessary.

The statement, however, was untrue. There's no record the board condemned the resolution any time before the special meeting on December 2.

No ad ever appeared in the Republic.

The reasons for that are even more bizarre. Lisa Benson, a Jewish consultant the YWCA hired specifically to deal with the Israel issue, says she advised against it. Crazy people who hate Jews might see the ad, she says, jeopardizing the women at the YWCA's shelter.

But even if that was a legitimate reason for backing out, Benson can't explain why the YWCA didn't call the Jewish leaders to let them know about its change of heart. "I don't want to get into 'he said, she said,'" Benson says.

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