Thirty years ago, it would have been safe to say the American Jewish community agreed on the need to fight for Israel and against anti-Semitism.
It still may be true that most American Jews support those causes. But now, apparently, some people aren’t so sure what either of those things mean.
One Jew’s support of Israel is another’s attack on the Jewish state. And as we’ve seen recently, one Jew’s condemnation of an alleged promoter of anti-Semitism is another’s smear on a purported defender of the Jews.
Nowhere did this emerge more clearly than at an Anti-Defamation League conference and subsequent Zionist Organization of America dinner. They were held days apart from each other on the same floor of the same hotel in Manhattan.
Both organizations claimed to fight for the same things: opposing Jew-hatred and supporting the Jewish homeland. But their rhetoric could hardly have been more different.
The ADL, which strives to be nonpartisan in fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry (and as a result has been criticized from the right and the left), called out anti-Semitism on both ends of the political spectrum at its conference on Nov. 17.
One panel, for example, focused on anti-Israel activism on the left. But immediately before that, CEO Jonathan Greenblatt took aim at the anti-Semitism and Islamophobia heard among some supporters of President-elect Donald Trump, and instances in which the campaign itself sent messages that echoed anti-Semitic themes. He pledged to sign up as a Muslim if, as Trump hinted during the campaign, a Muslim “database” were to be created.
“The harassment and hate that bubbled up around the campaign was unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history,” Greenblatt said. “The American Jewish community … has not seen this level of anti-Semitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930s.”
The ADL was among the first of several mainstream Jewish organizations to condemn the hiring of senior Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, who used to run Breitbart News, a website accused of publishing anti-Semitic, misogynist and racist articles. The Conservative and Reform movements, which together represent most affiliated American Jews, soon followed.
These were the same organizations that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for accusing Israel of genocide. In addition to the ADL and all three major denominations, groups from the right to the left on Israel slammed the “genocide” claim, as did the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee.
No similar consensus on Bannon has coalesced among the American Jewish alphabet soup: JFNA and AJC, as well as major Orthodox groups, have stayed silent on Bannon.
And at the ZOA’s dinner on Nov. 20, an entirely different Jewish narrative emerged. In the same room where Greenblatt had admonished the Trump campaign three days earlier, ZOA President Morton Klein welcomed the president-elect. “Thank God we have Donald Trump,” Klein said.
In an invocation earlier in the night, Dr. Alan Mazurek, a ZOA officer from Long Island, said Trump’s election was “divinely driven” and that “once again the United States will be blessed.” Honoree Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of the Home Depot and a Trump supporter, mentioned the New York Times, and the audience booed. Marcus said he was “one of the happiest people in the world to see some sense come into this White House.”
Lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a self-described enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter, drew boos when he pointed out that Clinton won the popular vote.
Far from criticizing Bannon, ZOA had advertised that he would attend the dinner, headlining at least one email with that news. In the end, he didn’t show up. But that didn’t stop attendees from praising him.
“I like the appointment of Steve Bannon a lot,” said Justin Bender, 23, a consultant from Philadelphia. “I think he’s not afraid to say what he likes. Whether you agree or disagree with Breitbart, he ran it very well. You don’t have to agree with everything, and the content on the website, to have a great environment with everyone running it.”
Bender, like several others at the dinner, dismissed critics who say Breitbart News has published anti-Semitic articles, or that Bannon has tapped into anti-Semitic tropes in criticizing “globalists” and “international bankers.” Some said the content wasn’t anti-Semitic at all. Some adopted Klein’s position that Bannon himself — who employs Jews and is pro-Israel, and under whom Breitbart News published lavishly pro-Israel articles out of its Jerusalem bureau — certainly isn’t an anti-Semite.
The ADL said that it is “not aware of any anti-Semitic statements made by Bannon himself” but is nonetheless troubled that Breitbart has “served as a platform for a wide range of bigotry” aimed at Muslims, women and occasionally Jews. Such bigotry, it insists, cannot be ignored or forgiven because the site is also pro-Israel.
The ADL worries that if intolerance is allowed to go mainstream once again, Jews will eventually pay the price.
The ZOA, meanwhile, counts Bannon as a friend, pointing out the ways he has defended Israel, opposed the Iran nuclear deal and criticized leftists who bash Israel. And it wants to know why the ADL (and other groups) haven’t criticized the pending appointment of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison as Democratic National Committee chair. ZOA regards Ellison, a Muslim, as an “Israel-basher” with “ties to radical anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups.”