Establishment Jewish advocacy groups did not call on President Trump to fire far-right firebrand Steve Bannon because leaders worried that it would hurt fundraising efforts, according to an internal email discussion obtained by the Forward.
In emails sent a few days after a white nationalist rally turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, the head of an umbrella group for local Jewish community relations groups explained that his organization could not call for the firing of Bannon — or controversial Trump advisers Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka — because it could anger wealthy donors.
“I suspect that few of us could call for the dismissal of these presidential appointees without generating an unacceptable backlash that would make it harder for us to do other important work,” wrote David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group for local Jewish community relations organizations.
Bernstein and a colleague warned local constituent groups not to sign on to calls on Trump to dump Bannon, Gorka or Miller.
“[Jewish Community Relations Councils], to varying degrees, are part of the Jewish federated system, whose primary task is to raise funds for Jewish communal needs,” Bernstein wrote. “We are — again, to varying degrees — partially constrained in what we can say and do so that federations can successfully raise the necessary dollars.”
Bannon left the White House on August 18, rendering moot the specific dispute over whether to call for his dismissal. But the internal emails shed light on how Jewish establishment groups are approaching the Trump administration.
Bannon’s ties to white nationalists have made him an object of concern for Jewish leaders since his appointment to run Trump’s campaign last year. The Forward has reported extensively on Gorka’s ties to a far-right Hungarian group.
Yet, with some exceptions, establishment Jewish groups have largely refrained from calling for either Bannon or Gorka to be fired.
In an interview with the Forward, Bernstein acknowledged that his emails were intended as warnings about upsetting donors. “That is a reality of our work,” Bernstein said.
“Without a question, the mainstream Jewish community is ideologically diverse, which means we have to take into account the varied voices and sensibilities whenever we speak and act,” he said.
The emails obtained by the Forward were sent to a JCPA listserv for members of its network of JCRCs, advocacy groups usually tied to Jewish federations, which act as joint fundraising bodies for their local Jewish communities.
The emails were sent August 15 and August 16, three days after the violent incidents in Charlottesville. The names of the senders of some of the emails were removed from the version shared with the Forward.
The thread appears to have begun with a question about a petition circulated by the left-wing Jewish group Bend the Arc Jewish Action, which is not a member of the JCPA, calling on members of Congress to demand the firing of Bannon, Gorka and Miller.
A senior JCPA staffer recommended that local JCRCs not get involved in calls to fire the presidential advisers. Bernstein then wrote in to elaborate, saying that the JCPA has historically had a practice of not calling for the dismissal of presidential appointees.
He acknowledged that the Anti-Defamation League, which is a member of the JCPA, had independently called on Trump to fire certain staff members, and said that JCPA members are free to take their own positions.
“I would caution you to consult closely with your federation and many segments of your community to determine whether a local consensus exists on this matter before proceeding,” Bernstein wrote. “Obviously, we have entered an extraordinarily challenging community relations period that will require not only our heightened activism, but also political nuance.”
Bernstein wrote that the JCPA would continue to challenge the White House in other ways.
“By suggesting that there are times we can’t speak out forcefully doesn’t mean we can never take a principled stand,” he wrote. “To the contrary, we have at our disposal numerous ways to represent our values and advocate for an inclusive society.”
Others on the thread, whose names are missing from the text obtained by the Forward, argued that current events demand the JCPA depart from recent history and take more decisive action.
The JCPA has fundraised in recent days off the events in Charlottesville. In an email appeal August 23, the group said it was “extremely concerned about the rise in white supremacist groups in the United States,” and that it was “playing a critical role in bringing together national Jewish agencies to coordinate and strategize.”
Clarification, 9 p.m.: This story was updated to include additional text from David Bernstein’s leaked email.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.