Already in a land of confusion over how to deal with Donald Trump and his impending administration, Jewish organizations were further dizzied when the president-elect on Nov. 13 named Stephen Bannon as his senior counselor and chief West Wing strategist.
The Anti-Defamation League was one of the first Jewish organizations to come out strongly opposing the appointment. Bannon is the former CEO of Breitbart News, the right-wing site that has been the clearinghouse for the alt-right movement.
“It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house,’ ” CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement after Trump made the announcement.
In its own statement, the National Council of Jewish Women said: “If President-elect Trump truly wants to bring together his supporters with the majority of the country that voted against him — by a margin that is nearing 2 million people — Bannon and his ilk must be barred from his administration.”
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said it was “deeply disturbed” by the appointment, noting in a statement that Bannon “was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. There should be no place for such views in the White House.”
Bannon is believed to have authored the Oct. 13 speech Trump delivered in West Palm Beach, Florida, that cast Hillary Clinton as part of a secretive international cabal of international financiers seeking world control — with the assistance of a servile media. The speech did not mention Jews, but the themes were familiar to anyone with a memory of conspiracy theories featuring Jewish villains.
The sense that the campaign was dog whistling to white supremacists who embrace such theories was reinforced when in its last days, it ran an ad featuring excerpts of the speech accompanied by images of George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankenfein, all prominent Jews associated with international banking or finance.
Such themes are prevalent at Breitbart, and while the site with rare exceptions does not indict Jews per se and is robustly pro-Israel, it also has become a nexus for the alt-right movement, where anti-Semitism has become prevalent, as has misogyny, white supremacism and homophobia. The site does not delete anti-Semitic comments.
Jason Miller, a top Trump campaign official, told CNN on Nov. 14 that media examination of Bannon’s alt-right ties was “irresponsible,” and that the focus of coverage should be on Trump’s planned policies.
Before the appointment was made official, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is expected to play a senior role in a Trump administration, said such claims about Bannon and the alt-right come from “nut cakes.” Gingrich, who is close to the right-wing pro-Israel community, told CBS on Nov. 13 that Bannon could not be an anti-Semite because he had worked on Wall Street and in Hollywood.
More centrist Jewish organizations declined to criticize Trump’s pick, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which urged Trump “to continue to work toward bringing the country together.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee noted that it did not routinely comment on appointments, telling Politico that “AIPAC has a longstanding policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments.”
The American Jewish Committee also would not comment on Bannon. “Presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on the appointment of every key adviser,” said Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s assistant executive director for policy.
Such carefully worded statements illustrate one dilemma posed by Bannon’s appointment — not doing anything to jeopardize access to the executive branch. It’s the lifeblood of groups seeking to influence Israel policy as well as those that partner with federal agencies on a range of domestic programs, including combating bias and preserving the social safety net.
Bannon was the buzz in the hallways at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly in Washington, D.C., this week, attended by more than 3,000 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders from 120 communities.
Comments on the record criticizing his appointment were rare. But Trump supporters at the Nov. 13-15 conference did not hesitate to make their views known. Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, speaking on a panel of Republicans reviewing the election, said he wanted to know more about Bannon, although he was confident from his statements that he was pro-Israel.
“I look forward to the opportunity to sit down with him and figure out how to work with him in the coming administration,” said Brooks, whose group had avoided advocating for Trump until the final days of the campaign.
RJC board member Bernie Marcus issued his own statement, calling the attacks on Bannon “nothing more than an attempt to undermine the incoming Trump administration,” according to Time magazine. “I have been shocked and saddened to see the recent personal attacks on Steve,” said Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot. “What is being done to Steve Bannon is a shonda,” Yiddish for a shame.
In a press release, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America cited stories showing Breitbart as sympathetic to Israel or to Jews. ZOA’s director, Morton Klein, called on the ADL to “withdraw and apologize for their inappropriate character assassination” of Bannon and Breitbart.
The ADL’s statement condemning Bannon’s appointment began by commending Trump’s other major appointment of Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, as White House chief of staff.
Greenblatt later said that the ADL will engage with the government on areas of common interest and strike a critical posture when necessary, as it has in the past.
“We’re prepared to engage optimistically and take the president at his word about bringing the country together, but hold the new administration [to account] relentlessly on our issues, which means we’ll speak out when there’s a white nationalist as adviser,” he said.
After a presidential campaign in which Trump set new markers for invective, however, hurling insults at reporters, politicians and just about anyone he didn’t like, the fear among Jewish leaders is that the White House will be run the same way.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, another group that condemned Bannon’s appointment, said with resignation that groups would likely lean more on Congress to advance their agendas.
“We network with Republicans and Democrats,” said Pesner, whose group has forged ties in recent years with Republicans seeking to protect persecuted Christians overseas and preserve voting rights for minorities, among other issues.
At the JFNA assembly, Richard Sandler, chairman of the board of trustees, counseled Jews unsettled by the election to reconcile with their antagonists and move on. He suggested that Jewish Americans may have an overinflated notion of their importance.
“Let us stop trying to delegitimate those who disagree with us,” Sandler said. “We are less than 2 percent of the population of this great country.”
It is precisely the place of Jews in the American firmament that should guide their opposition to Trump, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who directs T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group. Jews have formed alliances with other minorities that feel threatened by Trump, and those friendships should now guide the community, she said.
“Shtadlanut is a mode of survival,” she said, referring to the practice in some diaspora communities of deferring to a leader in order to protect themselves. “But in the long run, cozying up to authority never works. The danger for the Jewish community is cozying up to the administration to get something for ourselves but tearing ourselves from our allies.”
Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who has longstanding relationships with Jewish organizations, said younger Jews should draw inspiration from the alliances of the civil rights generation.
“We are all in the same boat,” said the Georgia Democrat, who spoke at a G.A. gathering at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.