Opinion |

Why Steve Bannon Likes Nationalist Israel but Dislikes Internationalist American Jews

Trumpian right discovers what Jews have known for a century: That Zionism is built, in part, on the rejection of Diaspora Jewish identity.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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People walk past signs bearing the name of U.S. President-elect Republican Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Nov. 14, 2016.
People walk past signs bearing the name of U.S. President-elect Republican Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Nov. 14, 2016. Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I don’t know if Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, is anti-Semitic. I can’t see inside his soul. What I do know is this: Citing his support for Israel doesn’t exonerate him of the charge. You can believe that Jews are a malevolent force in the United States and still love the Jewish state. It’s easy.

It’s easy because for Bannon, and many on the Trumpian right, the crucial political divide in today’s world is between internationalists (who they call “globalists”) and nationalists. Internationalists believe in universal principles like human rights, international law and free trade. They see their countries less as ends in and of themselves than as means for achieving these broader principles.

That’s why they support foreign aid and humanitarian wars even when they don’t serve any direct national interest. It’s why they support admitting refugees even if vetting and settling them poses a challenge. It’s why they support free trade, which they believe enhances global prosperity and peace, even if it dislocates people at home.

Not all internationalists believe in all the same principles. Left-wing internationalists like Bernie Sanders support foreign aid and refugee resettlement but not humanitarian intervention and free trade. For right-wing internationalists like Bill Kristol, it’s closer to the reverse. But while they fight about which principles the United States should champion, left and right internationalists agree that the United States is a vehicle for causes greater than itself. They see America as not merely a nation but an idea.

Bannon and Trump reject that. They believe that when American elites pursue their universalist agendas, ordinary Americans get screwed. American kids die in military interventions. American workers lose their jobs as the result of trade deals. Americans lose their lives because refugees commit terrorism. Nationalists like Bannon and Trump think that when internationalists appeal to moral principle, they’re utterly phony. It’s a cover for their own interests. As economic elites, they benefit from freer trade and immigration. It’s not their kids who fight the nation’s wars.

Steve Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist.Credit: Carlo Allegri, Reuters

Seen from this perspective, American Jews and Israel look utterly different. American Jews are among the most internationalist populations in the United States. Their historical memory makes them sympathetic to immigrants. And given their class position, they rarely compete with low-skilled immigrants for jobs. Their historical memory also makes them fear isolationism.

Trump’s slogan, “America First,” which strikes his supporters are common sense, chills many American Jews with its echoes of Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic opposition to American entry into World War II. Given the kinds of jobs they do, American Jews also disproportionately benefit from free trade.

Bannon and company may have Jewish friends they love dearly. But politically, they see most Americans Jews as their adversaries. And while this doesn’t constitute anti-Semitism, the line sometimes blurs. In his final campaign aid, Trump showed images of George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, all internationalist-minded Jews, alongside the words “global special interests, “global power structure” and “handful of large corporations.” In her book Adios America, Trump booster Ann Coulter says the United States is letting in terror-prone, job-stealing immigrants so “Mark Zuckerberg can underpay his employees.”

To most Trumpians, however, Israel looks completely different. In his fight against internationalism, Bannon is seeking alliances with nationalists across the globe. He loves the U.K. Independence Party. He loves France’s National Front. And he loves Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.

Why? Because Netanyahu’s Israel scorns international law. It refuses refugees. Its foreign policy is ultra-realist. Most Trumpians love Israel. And they resent that fact that most American Jews, who love Israel too, don’t support Israeli-style policies in the U.S. In Coulter’s words, “Palestinians demand a right to return to their pre-1967 homes, but Israel says, quite correctly, that changing Israel’s ethnicity would change the idea of Israel. Well, changing America’s ethnicity changes the idea of America, too. Show me in a straight line why we can’t do what Israel does. Is Israel special? For some of us, America is special too.”

Bannon and the Trumpian right have discovered what Jews have known for a century: That Zionism is built, in part, on the rejection of Diaspora Jewish identity. That’s especially true today, as a rising Orthodox population pushes Israel toward greater nationalism and secular millennial Jews push American Jewry further away from nationalism.

The real question isn’t: How can Steve Bannon oppose American Jewish political culture while embracing Israeli political culture? That’s easy. The real question is how long liberal American Jewish Zionists can straddle the divide the between the two.

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