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Jews Must Not Become the Appeasers of the White Nationalist Alt Right

We protested ZOA’s grotesque display of solidarity with Bannon. But we were also saying to the American Jewish establishment: Don't even think about establishing normal relationships with his camp.

Abe Silberstein
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People protest against the appointment of Stephen Bannon to be chief strategist of the White House by president-elect Donald Trump in Los Angeles on November 16, 2016.
People protest against the appointment of Stephen Bannon to be chief strategist of the White House by president-elect Donald Trump in Los Angeles on November 16, 2016.Credit: David McNew, AFP
Abe Silberstein

I am not one to attend protests. My politics, mostly moderate and liberal, are best promoted in the pages of broadsheet newspapers and the warm halls of legislatures and think tanks, and certainly not the streets of Midtown Manhattan on a frigid November evening. Yet I attended the march against Steve Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump's designated chief strategist, outside the Zionist Organization of America's annual dinner, to which Mr. Bannon reportedly asked for an invitation but did not show up. I marched alongside at least one group whose support for BDS would ordinarily keep me at home, an act of luxury I can't afford when baseline decency is on the line.

I did not expect any better from the ZOA, a far-right group most recently in the news for demanding an expedited demolition of the Palestinian village of Susiya. This march was, in part, a public expression of rejection of their politics from members of the Jewish community. The ZOA's grotesque display of solidarity with Mr. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, a website which publishes racist, Islamophobic, sexist, and even anti-Semitic content, was the primary object of the protest. However, there was an underlying message to the American Jewish establishment: don't even think about establishing normal relationships with the alt-right.

There is considerable risk of this happening if we don't speak out. Donald J. Trump, the presidential candidate enthusiastically supported by the alt-right, is now the President-elect. Major Jewish organizations will have no choice but to work with his administration. The alt-right, a loose collection of white supremacists, white nationalists, and outright neo-Nazis, contains some individuals the Jewish community can presumably work with. Mr. Bannon, far-right Republican activists and Breitbart writers who have not publicly engaged in anti-Semitism exist in that "acceptable" framework.

We must make clear any accommodation of white nationalism is unacceptable in the Jewish community. The alt-right is not another interest group the Jewish community needs to work with; it is not another entry in the Salesforce database of so-called necessary moral sacrifices for the greater good. It is an increasingly violent threat to our Muslim, Black, Hispanic, and gay friends and neighbors. 

In particular, the demonizing of Muslim refugees as terrorists should shake us to our core. Replace that description with “Jew” and “terrorist” with “communist subversive,” and this caricature becomes frighteningly familiar. It is a message that has no place in our community even if it now, apparently, has a place in the West Wing.

Thus far, the signs are encouraging. Despite criticism from the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Anti-Defamation League has not backed down on its criticism of the alt-right. At the organization's "Never is Now" gathering last week, the ADL's CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said he would register as a Muslim if a Trump administration instituted such a policy. This was a moving Kiddush Hashem that stood in stark contrast to the ZOA's Chilul Hashem.

But the pressure must not ease. The Trump presidency has not even begun and yet the wheels of normalization are turning apace. Like some of their colleagues in Europe, the extreme elements of the alt-right will soon realize it is in their best interests to tone down anti-Semitism and focus their hatred on more vulnerable groups. Some might even find a latent love for Zionism and Israel. The temptation to appease rather than confront them will be great.

And the response from Jews of conscience and decency to Jewish organizations must be clear: They are not to be invited to your offices, galas, and conferences. If they are, we will stand outside and state clearly who these people really are. If that makes them our enemies, we should be proud.

Instead of seeking to appease the alt-right and its marginal group of sympathizers in the Jewish community, major Jewish organizations should reconcile with the community's progressive youth. On Sunday night, I put aside my differences with groups like IfNotNow to demonstrate against increasingly mainstream racism and hate. Although I don't expect the establishment to engage with supporters of BDS, it is no longer acceptable or wise to make lockstep support for Israel a requirement above all else; and when it comes to uniting against bigotry, all Jews should be welcome.

Abe Silberstein is a political writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @abesilbe 

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