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ZOA Rolled Out The Red Carpet For Steve Bannon — And It Backfired

On Sunday night, some of America’s most fervent Zionists gathered in midtown Manhattan for the Zionist Organization of America’s annual gala. The well-heeled crowd at the Grand Hyatt included members of Congress, Fox News contributors and members of the Knesset, as well as many young Orthodox Jewish men. They were attending a reception and a dinner honoring, among others, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and aRepublican megadonor, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

The event also included some more unexpected guests. Laura Loomer was there. So was conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. Also in attendance was Sean Spicer, who as spokesman for President Trump had to apologize for claiming that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons against his own people, and for calling concentration camps “Holocaust centers.” Sebastian Gorka was also there, seated at the head table. Gorka was formerly a prominent aide to Trump and — as the Forward reported in February — identified as a sworn member of the far-right Vitezi Rend in Hungary by its leaders. The State Department considers the group to have been “under the direction of the Nazi government” during World War II. (Gorka denies he is a member and says he has worn the Vitezi Rend medal in memory of his father.)

Most notably, Steve Bannon, executive director of the “alt-right” news site Breitbart, was there after having personally called ZOA and asked if he could present Sheldon Adelson’s award to him.

Thanks to these controversial characters, a protest had assembled outside the hotel, revealing a deep rift in the Jewish community. Indeed, rather than an event for pro-Trump Jews, the evening turned into a contest for the future of American Jewry.

At issue was a defining question: Are American and Israeli Jews still embattled enough that when figures with anti-Semitic affiliations like Gorka and Bannon come along and profess Zionism, we should embrace them as allies in our fight for survival? Or should Jews reject these figures for refusing to repudiate anti-Semites, and should Jews likewise refuse to embrace an Israel that doesn’t live up to progressive standards?

What Sunday showed was that for today’s American Jewish community, this question spells not just a political conflict, but a generational one as well.

For his part, Morton Klein, ZOA’s president, denied accusations against Bannon and Gorka, calling the claims character assassinations by a left-wing press.

“This is rubbish,” Klein said. “Whenever we would ask Steve Bannon to help us in fighting anti-Semitism and harassment of Jewish students on campus, he would send reporters to talk to the administration, asking what are you going to do about this. I don’t think anti-Semites would do that. He called me regularly to ask my views about specific issues concerning Israel.”

As for Gorka, “I know Sebastian Gorka personally very well,” he said. “Every time I talk to him, he talks about what he can do to help Israel and the Jewish people.”

Klein insisted that a person should not be judged by those who support him. “Ronald Reagan had neo-Nazis and white supremacists supporting him. So what?” he said. “Reagan wasn’t a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist. I have many truly extreme right-wing Jews supporting me. Do I agree with their extremist, lunatic right-wing positions? No. I completely condemn that. I can’t control that they support me. All that matters is what am I doing and saying, not who supports me.” (In a follow-up email, I asked Klein if this meant that a Hamas endorsement would similarly get no condemnation from him. He hadn’t responded by the time of this publication.)

Despite Klein’s words, I was surprised when Gorka got a huge round of applause from the audience, the biggest one of the evening apart from Spicer’s. At one time in the not so distant past, belonging to what is officially considered an anti-Semitic organization would lead to being shunned by Jews, yet this largely Orthodox assembly was deeply excited by Gorka’s presence. At one point during the evening, I found Gorka standing amid a throng of Jewish supporters. As I approached, a man in a yarmulke was saying: “Keep up the good work. Can I get a photo?” (Gorka, now a private citizen, refused to answer questions for the Forward, as he has on all previous occasions.)

The crowd wasn’t just pro-Gorka; it was pro-Trump (a young man sitting in front of me had a red leather yarmulke with “45” emblazoned on it atop Trump’s visage). And I wasn’t the only one to notice. Despite being fired from the White House and opposing some of Trump’s down-ballot nominees, Bannon was careful to align himself with three characters when he took the podium: Jared Kushner, Donald Trump and Sheldon Adelson.

Most notably, nestled amongst the well-rehearsed claims about his pride in belonging to the Judeo-Christian West, Bannon claimed that Adelson got the Trump campaign through what he called “Billy Bush weekend.”

“You gotta remember, folks, that we were down by double digits almost the entire time,” he said. “When we closed the gap, and finally got within shouting distance, Billy Bush weekend happened. And you know what most of the establishment of Republicans do when things get tough. They cut and they run.”

Not so Sheldon Adelson. “Sheldon Adelson didn’t cut and run,” Bannon said. “Sheldon Adelson had Donald Trump’s back. Sheldon Adelson offered guidance and counsel and wisdom about how to get through it. He was there for Donald Trump about how to comport himself and how to dig down deep. And it was his guidance and his wisdom that helped get us through.”

It was the one moment that the crowd didn’t applaud. They seemed shocked that the major funder of ZOA would be cited as the reason that the presidential candidate’s admission of sexual assault was discounted. But they were not shocked by the claims that we are a nation at war, or that President Trump had “destroyed the physical caliphate of ISIS [the Islamic State group],” which got uproarious approbation.

Did American Jews, who voted 70% for Hillary Clinton, ignore this long-simmering bastion of Trump supporters at their own peril? Was this room their own private Ohio?

It was tempting to read things that way inside the gala. After all, Bannon and Gorka weren’t just tolerated here, they were heroes. Their unsavory associations were not so much forgotten as waved away as irrelevant, a left-wing political smear campaign. Even Sen. Joe Lieberman at one point in the evening took a photo with Bannon. (“He’s here, I’m here, somebody asked me to take a picture with him,” he later told me by way of explanation with a chuckle. “I think he’s here as a friend of Israel and I’m here as a friend of Israel. He spoke very clearly tonight as a pro-Semite. I disagree with him on a lot of things, but I’m not the kind of political person who’s going to refuse to take a picture with somebody. That’s ridiculous.”)

But just outside the gala, a different picture emerged. A protest organized by the grassroots Jewish, anti-Occupation movement IfNotNow had gathered outside the Hyatt to protest Bannon’s inclusion in the event.

“The ZOA is hosting Steve Bannon, somebody who is known to represent white supremacy, anti-Semitism, sexism and misogyny, and we believe that we would like to hold our mainstream institutions accountable for the values of what makes me Jewish today, which are the values of standing up for freedom and dignity for all,” Hannah Temkin, a member of IfNotNow, told me outside.

I asked what she thought about the defense of Bannon that I’d heard inside, on the grounds that he is a firm Zionist.

“There is a big difference between Zionism and anti-Semitism,” she told me. “There are Zionists who are anti-Semites, like Steve Bannon. There are anti-Occupation activists who are also anti-Semites. We stand in the middle, celebrating our Judaism and our support for all people, for Muslims, for immigrants, for LGBTQ, women, people of color, and all groups that have been threatened by this administration.”

Eli Valley, the comic artist, was also in attendance. He didn’t mince words explaining why he’d given up his Sunday night to protest ZOA.

“I’m here because we need to let the world know that Nazi collaboration is not Judaism, and these motherf—kers should be excommunicated,” he told me.

He was holding a sign that read, “You collaborate with neo-Nazis and call us Kapos?”

“Some of the greatest anti-Semites of our time are Zionists,” Valley said. “That’s no defense.”

Though much smaller than the group inside, the crowd outside the hotel was a strong showing, about 200 strong, and an energetic one. And everyone I spoke to seemed convinced of one thing: The future of American Jews was outside, protesting Bannon, not inside, cheering him.

“The future is out here, of course,” Valley told me. “The future is inside if our future is a fascist dystopia. Okay? Then the future is inside. Hopefully that is not our destiny.”

Perhaps most interestingly, those inside seemed to agree with Valley. Or at least they seemed worried that the protesters were right, that the future of the Jewish people — the majority of its young people — was outside, protesting Bannon and the occupation. And though there were plenty of young folks inside, including a contingent of college students who received a prize for pro-Israel activism, the focus on college campuses belied a deep-set anxiety that college students were being convinced to join the other side en masse.

No one expressed this anxiety more than Alan Dershowitz, who was incensed that the Forward was even in attendance. (Klein, it should be mentioned, was graciously happy to see the Forward.)

When I asked Dershowitz if we should be concerned that Gorka was at the event, he told me no — because Gorka has no influence with young Jews. Actually, there was a much more dangerous force at the gala, Dershowitz told me.

“We should be much more concerned that the Forward is here today, because the Forward is a Jewish organization that turns Jews against Jewish values, against the State of Israel, and I’m not concerned about people who are not Jewish and people who are supporting Israel,” he said.

It seemed a bizarre characterization of a publication that not only ran his own words last week, but also ran an op-ed by Klein himself, helpfully included in the press kit for the evening. Then there was the fact that Gorka had influence on the White House. Surely that’s of some consequence to American Jews?

“People like Gorka have no influence among young Jews,” he repeated. “The people who have influence among young Jews are J Street, the Forward, Haaretz.”

“How could that be more dangerous than people who had influence over the president?” I asked.

“The president isn’t taking actions right now that are in any way influencing young people,” he said.

His anxieties were reflected by other things at the gala, like the fact that in a night where the speeches of which were laced with mentions of terrorists and Iran, the only person whose name was actually booed was Linda Sarsour’s. Linda Sarsour!

The anxiety also belied Bannon’s claim that Adelson was more than just a Daddy Warbucks for the right. If the night was a referendum on Trump versus the future of the Jewish people, it felt like there wasn’t enough money in the world that could erase the anxieties of those inside that they were losing the youth.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.

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