Steve Bannon was a Jewish controversy from the beginning. When Donald Trump appointed Bannon his chief White House strategist, several Jewish groups responded quickly by criticizing him for his role in leading the far-right website Breitbart. Then other groups and individuals leaped to defend him as a friend of Israel, and an employer who treated individual Jews well.
But the debate didn’t stop there, as one group that supported Bannon then went on the offensive against those who didn’t.
That’s what happened when the Zionist Organization of America attempted to shift the debate away whether or not Bannon should be in the White House and toward the question of whether he is, personally, an anti-Semite.
Here’s how: Morton Klein, head of the group, has in recent days publicly criticized several other Jewish organizations for calling Bannon a Jew-hater. However, a look at those organizations’s actual statements about Bannon reveals that they did not accuse him of anti-Semitism personally.
His current targets are two Jewish groups not often associated with political controversy: Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization, and the Conservative Movement.
“Retract Your False Statements/Campaign Calling Trump Aide Stephen Bannon Anti-Semitic,” Klein called on the two organizations in an email he sent supporters and journalists over the weekend.
“I, Morton A. Klein, am a child of Holocaust survivors born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, and lost most of my family to that monstrous war against the Jews,” Klein opened his latest statement on the issue. “If there were a hint of anti-Semitism in Stephen Bannon’s background I would be the first to scream out and fight against him.”
Here’s what Hadassah said, in its offical statement, by national president Ellen Hershkin issued November 21. She expressed “grave concerns” following Bannon’s appointment, and explained that these concerns were based on Bannon’s “previous positions and statements about specific groups of people in our country.” The only mention of anti-Semitism comes toward the end of the statement, when Hershkin promises to stand by members of her organization as they “combat anti-Semitism at home and abroad.”
Bottom line - despite ZOA’s claim, Haddassah did not accuse Bannon of being anti-Semitic.
Likewise, the Conservative Movement, America’s second largest Jewish denomination, criticized Bannon in its official statement.
“Bannon, in his previous position as head of Breitbart News,” the movement said “trafficked in white nationalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and misogyny.”
The statement depicts Bannon in an extremely negative light, but does it, as Klein argues, call “Trump Aide Stephen Bannon Anti-Semitic?” No.
The first in the Jewish community to raise a public outcry against Bannon’s nomination because of his ties to white nationalists was the Anti-Defamation League and its national director Jonathan Greenblatt.
A day after the appointment was announced, Greenblatt spoke out against Trump’s pick saying it was a “sad day when a man who presided over the primer website of the ‘alt-right’ - a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists - is slated to be senior staff member of the ‘people’s house.’”
Two days later, the ADL issued a backgrounder on Bannon, which included a clear statement that while Breitbart News, under Bannon, served as a platform for a wide range of bigotry, “we are not aware of any anti-Semitic statements made by Bannon himself.”
Klein and the ZOA argue that the ADL “quietly walked back its initial accusation” of anti-Semitism, but as Greenblatt’s initial statement indicates, the group had never accused Bannon of anti-Semitism in the first place.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman