This fall, the Zionist Organization of America announced that Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart and a former adviser to President Trump, would speak at its annual gala.
Liberal Jews protested that Bannon has fanned the anti-Semitism of the “alt-right.” Conservatives replied by citing all the Jews Breitbart has employed, and Bannon’s support for moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem. Far from being an anti-Semite, they insisted, he loves and admires Jews.
Problem is, the conservatives are right.
Bannon does love Jews. But that love is inseparable from his hostility toward Muslims. Breitbart runs story after story with headlines like “6,000 Child Abuse Allegations in Muslim Grooming Gang,” and “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture,” and “Malaysia Opens Muslim-Only Laundromat to Ensure ‘Purity’ of Clothing.” Bannon has personally celebrated the fact that, historically, the “Judeo-Christian West[’s] struggle against Islam” kept Muslims out of Europe. And he’s questioned whether Muslims who adhere to Sharia can be “integrated into a society where you have the rule of law.”
The implication is that, because Jews and Christians are more capable than Muslims of upholding liberal democratic norms, America’s fate rests on ensuring that these more advanced groups remain numerically and politically dominant.
It’s easy to see why this appeals to ZOA. The organization endorsed Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees because “We’re opposed to bringing in people who have enormous antipathy toward Jews and Israel.” In their view, limiting Muslim immigration and influence safeguards American support for Israel.
But ZOA is hardly alone. Powerful elements of the organized American Jewish community have been embracing Bannon’s worldview for years now. In fact, the two most influential anti-Muslim organizations in the United States — Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy and Brigitte Gabriel’s ACT for America — both enjoy significant Jewish support.
For years, Gaffney’s group has published reports arguing that Sharia law is not a religious doctrine but rather a “totalitarian ideology cloaked in religious garb.” As a result, Muslims who follow it should be treated like Americans who espoused “communism” during the Cold War, or “fascism, National Socialism or Japanese imperialism” during World War II. “Far from being entitled to the protections of our Constitution under the principle of freedom of religion,” Gaffney has argued, Sharia “is actually a seditious assault on our Constitution which we are obliged to prosecute, not protect.” A January 2015 Center for Security Policy report declared, “Over eighty percent of U.S. mosques have been shown to be shariah-adherent,” calling them “incubators of, at best, subversion and, at worst, violence” which should be “treated accordingly.” Gaffney has also served as an “expert” witness for local communities seeking to block the construction of mosques. And he and his colleagues have accused numerous Muslims working in the federal government of being agents of a Muslim Brotherhood-led conspiracy to replace the Constitution with Islamic law.
Gaffney and his colleagues have also helped shape Trump’s pronouncements about Muslims and Islam. According to The Huffington Post, Trump cited Center for Security Policy material “dozens of times in press releases and speeches during his presidential campaign.” In March 2015, a report by the center proposed “a complete halt, with the goal of beginning to reverse Muslim migration to the West.” Nine months later, after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, Trump proposed his own ban. His announcement cited an (easily debunked) poll, conducted for the center by Kellyanne Conway, which purportedly showed that 51% of American Muslims “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.”
All this would have been harder without American Jewish support. According to a 2015 report by the Center for American Progress, Jewish-themed foundations (the William Rosenwald Family Fund, the Newton D. & Rochelle F. Becker Foundation and the Russell Berrie Foundation) comprised three of Gaffney’s seven largest donors. The late Irving Moskowitz, known for buying Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, also donated to the Center. So has the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which gave Gaffney’s group $60,000 to fight the Iran nuclear deal. Last December, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer accepted the center’s act. In his acceptance speech, he praised Gaffney’s “unwavering commitment to freedom.”
If the CSP formulates the rationale for denying American Muslims equal citizenship, ACT provides the grassroots muscle. In state after state, ACT has lobbied to ban the use of Sharia by American courts. Its activists have scoured school textbooks in an effort to eliminate passages equating Islam with Judaism and Christianity. They have even denounced supermarkets and schools for serving halal food. According to the group’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, “a practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Koran to be the word of Allah, who abides by Islam, who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day — this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.”
Like Gaffney, Gabriel is a Trump ally. In March she visited the White House. And, like Gaffney, she benefits from American Jewish support. StandWithUS lists Gabriel in its speakers bureau. And she has spoken at least a dozen times to local Jewish federations.
There’s a deep irony here. The arguments Gaffney and Gabriel make about Muslims resemble arguments long deployed against Jews. For centuries, anti-Semites have claimed that Jews were loyal not to the countries in which they lived but to a global Jewish conspiracy. Today, Gaffney and Gabriel posit a global Muslim conspiracy — led by the Muslim Brotherhood — that they claim secretly controls America’s largest Muslim organizations and most of its mosques.
Gaffney and Gabriel also choose the most outrageous quotations from Islamic texts, and the most barbaric practices in use by any Muslims anywhere in the world, to show the supposed depravity of Islam.
But for every Muslim-only laundromat in Malaysia, or Muslim activist who defends rape, there is a rabbi in Brooklyn who defends metzitzah b’peh, which gives infants herpes, or the “chaining” of women to their husbands as agunot. For every defender of jihad, there is a rabbi who defends the erasure of Amalek, against whom the Bible mandates genocide. (Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers have repeatedly brought up Amalek in discussing the government of Iran). It is for these reasons that the Lebanese-American writer Hussein Ibish has argued that “Islamophobia is a barely warmed over, 20 seconds in the microwave, version of traditional anti-Semitism.”
Pro-Bannon Jews might argue that while both Judaism and Islam contain illiberal strains, Jews aren’t committing terrorism on American soil. Muslims are. Thus, it’s right to claim a moral, even civilizational, difference between the two.
The problem with this logic is that it assumes that Islam causes jihadist violence. That’s almost certainly wrong. The University of Chicago’s Robert Pape has assembled a database of suicide terrorist attacks since the early 1980s. He concludes that what unites people who commit these heinous acts isn’t religion. In the 1980s, for instance, the group that pioneered suicide bombing were the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist organization comprising mostly Hindus. What unites suicide terrorists is that they perceive their countries to be under foreign occupation. That’s why jihadists — despite their stated desire to impose a global caliphate — don’t generally attack Costa Rica.
Overwhelmingly, jihadist terrorists attack countries they believe are occupying Majority-Muslim lands. In the 1980s, Al Qaeda fought the USSR after it invaded Afghanistan. Since the Cold War, as America solidified its dominance of the Middle East, stationing troops in Saudi Arabia and then invading Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Qaeda and later the Islamic State group targeted America and the European allies that joined its wars.
The point is not that America should necessarily withdraw from the Middle East, and certainly not that there’s any moral justification for Al Qaeda and IS’s grotesque violence. The point is that foreign occupation explains jihadist terrorism far better than “Islam” does. If American forces were bombing and occupying Toronto — even if they had good reason to — it’s a decent bet that some Canadians would take up arms against the United States. If American troops were bombing and occupying Tel Aviv, it’s likely some Jews would, too.
Unfortunately, the inability to distinguish jihadist terrorism from Islam fuels American Jewish hostility toward American Muslims. That’s particularly true among the Orthodox. A September poll by the American Jewish Committee found that while Trump enjoyed only a 21% approval rating among Jews overall, his rating among the Orthodox exceeded 70%.
What makes this ironic is that American Muslims have more in common with the Orthodox than with other American Jews. When Gaffney and Gabriel say American Muslims are loyal to Sharia, and go to religious courts, it frightens conservative Christians, who have no personal experience with such things. Even many secular Jews have trouble conceiving of living, as an American, in obedience to a religious law.
But Orthodox Jews don’t. With its fealty to Halacha, Orthodox Judaism in the United States is built on the audacious insistence that Jews can both live fully in accordance with Jewish law and participate fully as American citizens. And from former vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman to former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to Breitbart’s own senior-editor-at-large, Joel Pollak, Modern Orthodox Jews have been astonishingly successful in doing so.
Orthodox Jews are thus better positioned than any other group of Americans to help American Muslims — many of whom are immigrants — learn how to balance American citizenship with strict religious observance. And they are better positioned than anyone else to show conservative Christians why adherence to religious law need not mean disloyalty to America.
But for the most part, they don’t. Instead, to safeguard uncritical American support for the Israeli government, they welcome Bannon’s embrace. To preserve Israel’s ability to deny the rights of Palestinian Muslims, they ally with conservatives eager to deny the rights of American Muslims.
Once upon a time it was possible to believe that the struggles for liberal democracy in Israel and the United States were separate. By addressing ZOA, Bannon proves that, increasingly, they are one and the same.
Peter Beinart is a Forward contributing editor and senior columnist at the Forward.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.