Steve Bannon’s appointment to a top position in the Trump White House is putting the Jewish community’s red lines to a test.
Struggling to balance a need to speak out against bigotry and anti-Semitism, which many believe Bannon has endorsed, and the wish to maintain open doors to the future administration, some Jewish groups and activists have chosen to remain silent on an otherwise no-brainer of an issue.
“If you give up access, you give up everything,” said Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in the Bush administration. “That’s why you have to pick your fights and that’s why picking a fight with a new president wouldn’t make sense.”
The dilemma was clear in the response of AIPAC, the major pro-Israel lobby, to Bannon’s appointment. “AIPAC has a long-standing policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments,” said Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for the Israeli American Public Affairs Committee. The group has maintained a long record of avoiding commenting publicly on political appointment, but in the past it made its views known through backdoor channels when the lobby did not feel some appointments fell in line with the pro-Israel agenda it is advancing.
And while other Jewish groups and individuals may have the liberty to criticize the incoming administration with no real consequences, AIPAC’s refusal to weigh in also reflects the understanding that as a group actively lobbying for specific issues relating to the American-Israel relationship, it will, most likely, have to deal with Bannon personally.
“It’s not a fight worth fighting,” added Zakheim who noted that since Bannon’s role, as senior strategist, is still vague and his influence on policy is yet to be seen.
The Bannon dossier is ripe with incidents of promoting hate speech, racist commentary and conspiracy theories when he headed Breitbart News, a media organization Bannon referred to as the “platform for the ‘alt-right.” Under his stewardship, Breitbart went after Jewish conservative pundit William Kristol describing him as a Renegade Jew because of his opposition to Donald Trump.
To be sure, some American Jews actively embrace Bannon as an ally and a Zionist.
But many others shudder at the website’s sensibilities. It’s hosted articles arguing that contraceptives make women “unattractive and crazy,” and promoted Islamophobic conspiracy theories, including the claim that Hillary Clinton’s adviser Huma Abedin had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Another Breitbart headline took aim at Jewish former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was severely injured in an assassination attempt and has since advocated for gun control measures, referring to her as the “gun control’s movement human shield.”
That’s why, on social media, some were less understanding of practical considerations, arguing that objecting to Bannon’s appointment should be a moral issue for the Jewish community.
@nathanguttman Shame on AIPAC for not using its voice and mandate to speak out on issues that threaten the Jewish community.— Rabbi Adam Greenwald (@rabbi_adam) November 14, 2016
Nonetheless, the American Jewish Committee, one of America’s largest and most respected organizations, also chose to sit out this debate.
“Presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on the appointment of every key advisor,” said Jason Isaacson, AJC Assistant Executive Director for Policy. He stressed the need to “make good on President-elect Trump’s Election Night promise, for the benefit of all citizens of our too-divided country.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization, an umbrella group representing the community on foreign policy issues, declined to comment on Bannon’s White House appointment as well.
As has been the case throughout this election cycle, it was the Anti-Defamation League that spoke out first and most forcefully when detecting perceived expressions of anti-Semitism and bigotry in the Trump camp.
“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 raciest - is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house,’” said ADL national director Jonathan Greenblatt.
But the sense of alarm from Bannon’s appointment was clearly not shared by all.
“I certainly object to what Bannon has stood for and the statements he made, but it depends on what use the president will make of his advice,” said Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, in an interview with the Forward. “The president has wide latitude to use people we don’t always agree with.” Rosen said that while the Jewish community should be “conscience” about Bannon, there is no need for intervention if he does not advise Trump on issues relating to relations with the Jewish community and minorities.
So is there a red line when it comes to top administration appointees?
The only players who seem to think so are those well to the left of Trump — and other Jewish organizations.
While the mainstream Jewish community was struggling to address Bannon’s appointment, liberal and left-wing groups were quick to call on President Elect Trump to rescind the controversial nomination.
J Street called the choice of Bannon for a top White House position “alarming and unacceptable” and said it sends an opposite message to Trump’s promise of promoting unity by “fanning the flames of hatred.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council warned that the Jewish community “cannot allow Donald Trump’s alliance with the alt-right to be normalized” and said Bannon must step down immediately.
Bend the Arc Jewish Action CEO Stosh Cotler called Bannon “a professional purveyor of white nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric” and called on leaders across the political spectrum to denounce Bannon.
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 Haaretz 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.