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Why I Refuse to Call Steve Bannon an anti-Semite

The problem isn't that Bannon hates Jews. It's that he threatens the liberal democratic ideals most of us hold dear.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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People protest the appointment of Steve Bannon to be chief strategist of the White House in Los Angeles on November 15, 2016.
People protest the appointment of Steve Bannon to be chief strategist of the White House in Los Angeles on November 15, 2016.Credit: David McNew, AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Last week, a journalist I admire asked me a question: Why won’t I call Steve Bannon an anti-Semite? He had seen me on television debating two GOP-leaning Jewish commentators who were eager to defend Trump’s chief strategist from the charge. Why hadn’t I leveled it?

Because we on the American Jewish left must not be hypocrites. If we decry American Jewish conservatives for deploying charges of anti-Semitism promiscuously in an attempt to undermine their political foes, we can’t in good conscience do the same thing.

The evidence that Bannon is an anti-Semite is weak. In 2007, according to court documents, his ex-wife claimed that while touring private schools in Los Angeles on behalf of their daughters, Bannon said, “he doesn’t like Jews andhe didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.” Bannon also allegedly asked why one school had so many books about Hanukkah in its library and remarked that another was housed in a former synagogue.

Did Bannon really say these things? We don’t know. He denies it. His ex-wife hasn’t repeated the charge. What we do know is this: If Bannon made a habit of privately denigrating Jews, journalists would likely have found other examples. They haven’t. Even the Jews who worked with Bannon, and loathe him, like Ben Shapiro, don’t call him an anti-Semite.

The second argument for Bannon’s anti-Semitism is the articles he published while running Breitbart. Critics cite two examples. In May, Breitbart published an article whose headline referred to Weekly Standard editor and Trump critic Bill Kristol as a “Renegade Jew.” Sounds bad. But the author, David Horowitz, is Jewish himself. And by “renegade” he meant that Kristol, by opposing Trump, will “weaken the only party that stands between the Jews and their annihilation.”

Horowitz’s logic is pitiful. But attacking another Jew for advocating positions that you believe undermine Jewish safety isn’t anti-Semitic. Jewish pundits do it all the time.

In a second article, this September, Breitbart author Matthew Tyrmand attacked the American-born Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who resides in Poland, for opposing the kind of ultra-nationalism that Breitbart applauds. The article declared that, “hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.”

The reference to Applebaum’s Jewishness comes out of nowhere. Tyrmand never explicitly connects it to her allegedly globalist perspective, though the link between Jewishness and globalism has a long history in anti-Semitic thought. But here again, the author, Matthew Tyrmand, is Jewish himself. He clearly erred in referencing Applebaum’s Jewishness without explaining its relevance to his argument. But during the four years Bannon ran it, Breitbart published thousands of articles. If this is the most anti-Semitic sentence his critics can find, they don’t have much of a case.

Finally, critics point to Trump’s final television ad, which included references to “those who control the levers of power in Washington,” “global special interests” and “money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations,” alongside images of George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. I doubt most Americans know that Yellen and Blankfein, who isn’t even named in the ad, are Jewish. But Trump’s white supremacist backers likely do.

The ad is not unambiguously anti-Semitic, but it’s closer than anything a major party nominee has run before. But if Bannon is an anti-Semite for overseeing the campaign that ran it, then why isn’t Trump himself? Trump, after all, has a clearer public record of objectionable comments about Jews – in particular, his reference to Jon Stewart as Jon Leibowitz – than does his top aide.

I’m not comfortable using the term about either. It’s one thing to label a particular comment as anti-Semitic; it’s another to pass judgment on someone’s very being. That requires more than ambiguous, contested statements. It requires a clear, sustained record of malice.

Besides, liberal Jews don’t need to classify Bannon or Trump as anti-Semites to register our moral revulsion. Their campaign called for banning Muslims from entering the United States. It endorsed torture. It celebrated violence against protesters. It threatened retribution against the owners of newspapers that covered Trump critically.

Now Trump and Bannon are creating an administration that will likely prove more corrupt, more dishonest and more hostile to civil liberties and the rule of law, than any in recent American history. That alone is reason for liberal Jews to oppose them with every ounce of strength we have.

Too often, the American Jewish right calls its opponents anti-Semites to derail substantive debates (usually about Israel) that they don’t like. We need not go down that road. The problem isn’t that Steve Bannon hates Jews. It’s that he threatens the liberal democratic ideals most of us hold dear.

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