Stephen Bannon was at the red-hot center of power a year ago when the announcement that he would attend the Zionist Organization of America’s 2016 gala banquet sparked intense controversy among American Jews.
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Bannon sat at the right hand of Donald Trump, who with Bannon as campaign chief, had been elected president of the United States and had just been named Trump’s future top aide and head strategist, after he was widely credited with shaping the populist message that won Trump the election.
In the end, Bannon never showed up. Presumably, he was put off by the 500 young leftist protesters outside geared up to angrily chant at the former head of Breitbart News, for what they and many other American Jews saw as Breitbart’s encouragement of racism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism and hate-mongering against immigrant communities. And so he stayed away, even though the organization’s head, Morton Klein, and top patron, Sheldon Adelson, were ready to serve as Bannon’s character witnesses against charges that, as the head of Breitbart News, Bannon had been a godfather of the burgeoning anti-Semitic alt-right, and Adelson had been a key Trump supporter.
Yet Bannon, despite his powerful position, was still a fringe figure a year ago, and it was shocking to many that a Zionist organization would welcome him with open arms. The ZOA was “flooded” with calls protesting Bannon’s presence at its event. The pressure proved to be so strong that Klein even made a point of telling the Jewish media that the Trump aide hadn’t been officially invited, but requested to attend the dinner on his own initiative.
What a difference a year makes.
At the 2017 ZOA gala on Sunday night, the stars were realigned. Bannon is no longer at Trump’s side. After only seven months in the White House, he resigned last August and returned to Breitbart. He announced he was done with his short stint as part of the political power structure. Now, he said, he would be “at war” with it, publicly using the kind of angry, charged language he couldn’t use in the West Wing, and nuclear-charging his website to aggressively go after those who challenged Trump or politicians that he and, by extension, Breitbart, supports. The website’s latest move was to dispatch Jerusalem bureau chief Aaron Klein as part of a team to discredit the women accusing Breitbart-backed Alabama candidate Judge Roy Moore of making sexual advances on them as teenage minors.
And yet, after he proved to be too hot for the White House to handle, Bannon was no longer just officially invited, but “proudly” welcomed by Morton Klein and cheered by the crowd, many of whom stood up as they applauded, as he took the podium as a featured speaker in the hotel ballroom.
Bannon was just one of a group of Trump White House refugees who had a checkered relationship with the Jewish community. Also on hand was Sean Spicer, who famously mangled Holocaust history by saying that Hitler never gassed his own people like Bashar Assad did (Spicer later apologized for it) and Sebastian Gorka, who left after being tied to anti-Semitic political groups in Hungary (but remains unapologetic). Judging by social media, the Trump team was in high demand for selfies by their fans in the crowd. The gala demonstrated once again that for the far-right edge of American Jewry, muscular support for Israel and enmity towards Islam trumps misgivings about xenophobia, anti-immigrant hostility and even ties to white supremacist and neo-Nazi sympathizers.
Bannon certainly supplied that support, declaring, “I am proud to stand with the State of Israel, that’s why I’m proud to be a Christian Zionist, that’s why I’m proud to be a partner of one of the greatest nations on earth and the foundation of the Judeo-Christian West!” to great cheers.
It was no surprise that his speech highlighted what he saw as Trump and Israel’s common enemies: radical Islamic terrorists abroad and the “radical left that is trying to nullify the 2016 election.”
Less expected was the precise nature of his praise for Adelson, lauding him not as a donor and supplier of “resources” but as a Trump whisperer – a friend, almost a therapist. Victory in 2016, Bannon said, “would not have come without one other person besides Donald Trump – Sheldon Adelson. It’s not about resources. It’s about counsel, guidance and wisdom.” When what Bannon called “Billy Bush weekend” arrived (his euphemism for Trump being caught on an Access Hollywood tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals), he said, “Most of the establishment Republicans [did] what they do when things get tough. They cut and they run. Sheldon Adelson didn’t cut and run. Sheldon Adelson had Donald Trump’s back. Sheldon Adelson offered guidance and counsel and wisdom of how to get through it. He was there for Donald Trump about how to comport oneself and how to dig down deep. And it was his guidance and his wisdom that helped get us through.”
The crowd’s approval of Bannon’s red-meat rhetoric on support for Israel, the fight against Palestinian Authority funding for terrorists with the “blood of innocent Jewish civilians on their hands,” and the Iran deal – which he said needed to be “torn up” – seemed to negate any discomfort they might have with his other messages. The crowd seemed forgiving, if not enthusiastic, over his bashing of the “Republican establishment,” “permanent globalist class” and the “opposition party” media – references seen by many as anti-Semitic dog-whistles which encourage the racist elements of the Trump base. (Over the weekend, Bannon reportedly called Paul Singer, a Jewish mega-donor, a “scumbag.”)
The Daily Beast website headlined their report on the event as the ex-Trump aides’ “return to glory” and that they “got to be rock stars again.”
Weirdos and provocateurs
But it wasn’t just dubious former White House figures enjoying the ZOA’s embrace. Less-famous figures on the alt-right were also on hand, notably Laura Loomer, a far-right figure who recently made headlines when she was banned from ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft after posting a day-long tweetstorm blaming Islam for the recent terror attack in New York City. She tweeted extensively from the gala, showing off selfies with Bannon, Spicer, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and tweeted defiantly that the media “is desperate to portray these people as Nazis, but they are all here tonight to celebrate Israel and Zionism.”
Another guest at the ZOA gala: Jack Posobiec, a Trump supporter and right-wing provocateur with a quarter of a million Twitter followers, known for promulgating the bizarre Pizzagate and Seth Rich conspiracy theories.
Most recently, Posobiec attacked media accounts of a Polish Independence Day march in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal as “fake news,” disputing accounts that up to 60,000 protesters from across Europe disrupted Poland’s celebration with a torch-lit flag-waving march in Warsaw.
He also tweeted a photograph and the place of employment of the Judge Roy Moore accuser and told his Twitter followers that they should target her, later deleting the tweet after being attacked for “doxxing” a victim of alleged sexual abuse.
As in 2016, the left-wing group IfNotNow took to the streets at the entrance to the ZOA event, protesting Bannon’s appearance.
In countering the action on Twitter, ZOA policy adviser Arthur Schwartz took one out of the conspiratorial playbook of his alt-right guests, discrediting the demonstrators by charging that they were protesting for profit.