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With Bannon Unleashed, Things May Get Worse for U.S. Jews Before They Get Better

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File photo: Steve Bannon and Gary Cohn, May 20, 2017.
File photo: Steve Bannon and Gary Cohn, May 20, 2017.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

The Trump administration has been exceedingly generous when it comes to giving American Jews fresh intrigue to discuss over Friday night dinner and at synagogue on the Sabbath this summer. If the White House was actually a reality show and didn’t just resemble one, surely its big “elimination” episodes would be aired on Friday afternoons. White House spokesman Sean Spicer resigned on Friday, July 21. Reince Priebus was replaced and left behind on a rainy tarmac on Friday, July 28.  

And now to cap it off, Stephen Bannon, at Donald Trump’s side for precisely a year (he was named Trump’s campaign manager on August 17, 2016), is the latest White House staffer to be shown the door and dominate the headlines on a Friday. 

If there is one factor that has made the Jewish community deeply uneasy since Trump’s election, it has been the chief strategist and senior aide’s presence at the commander-in-chief’s side. So presumably, this should give Jews something to raise their wine glasses to and toast his fall from grace.

Or should it?

The question of whether Bannon himself is personally an anti-Semite has been hotly debated since he joined the Trump campaign last summer, resting heavily on a statement by his ex-wife Mary Louise Piccard in their 2007 divorce, in which she claimed that Bannon didn't want their daughters to go to an elite Los Angeles school because he "didn't want the girls going to school with Jews" because “he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats.'” She also said he looked negatively at one school they visited because of the presence of books on Hanukkah books in the school library, a story later confirmed by the school’s director.

The charge has been hotly denied by Trump supporters like Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, who repeatedly posted chummy selfies with Bannon, as well as Alan Dershowitz and Jewish Breitbart employees like Joel Pollak.

What hasn’t been up for debate are the disturbing populist leanings of Breitbart - the website that Bannon he ran before stepping away to help Trump, and which he is presumably returning to, which he himself has described as the ‘platform for the alt right.” Whether or not Bannon was anti-Semitic himself has been less important than the aid and comfort his website has given to those with disturbing white nationalist views. As his former employee Ben Shapiro put it, he is “a very, very power-hungry dude who’s willing to use anybody and anything in order to get ahead, and that includes making common cause with the racist, anti-Semitic alt-right.” 

It is this background that legitimately sparked worried hand-wringing from the American Jewish community when Bannon took on his campaign role in the summer - and a full-on outcry in November when the news broke that Bannon would be Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, giving the alt right access to the highest realms of power. 

Subsequently, every time Trump the president made a move that appalled the Jewish community, fingers were pointed at Bannon, whether or not he could be directly tied to the incident. 

This began in January, when the White House suppressed a State Department's Office of the Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day that explicitly included and commemorated Jewish victims, and issued its own statement, that made no mention of Jews, and was roundly condemned. Even following multiple press reports the White House statement was written by Boris Epshteyn - a Jew - the blame went to Bannon. It continued with Trump’s tone-deaf response to the wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and defacement of Jewish cemeteries. 

Bannon’s rivalry with another top Trump aide, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner fueled speculation that surges of anti-Semitic sentiment directed at Kushner online came at Bannon’s bidding. In April, it was reported that Bannon had been calling Kushner names behind his back, including charges that he was a “globalist” - often used as an anti-Semitic dog-whistle. 

Before Charlottesville, there might have indeed been some reason for Jews to celebrate the end of Bannon’s tenure and that it would inspire hope that the tone of the White House would change. 

But it is impossible to pin Trump’s Charlottesville remarks on Bannon. By all accounts, he had submitted his resignation to Trump before the Charlottesville events and that the two men were barely on speaking terms when it occurred.

Trump’s appalling double-down - refusing to specifically condemn neo-Nazis blaming “all sides” for the violence and callous stance to victim Heather Heyer was all his own doing. Bannon had already been shunted aside.

As CNN commentator Chris Cillizza put it, “Although Bannon won't work in the White House any longer, his worldview and mindset have been adopted almost in toto by the one person whose opinion matters in this White House: Donald John Trump.”

In the past, when Trump aides depart, they remain in communication with Trump, and continue to work with him, sometimes even more harmoniously. Trump and Bannon may now coordinate as a double team - Trump from within the White House and Bannon from the outside through Breitbart. 

Liberated from political considerations, and able to whip up Trump’s base back at Breitbart, Bannon could be more dangerous, not less. A senior White House official quoted by the well-connected Axios website said it seemed that ‘Bannon was setting himself up to be a martyr — the nationalist hero fired by the "globalists,” warning “"Get ready for Bannon the barbarian." Breitbart - it should be noted - published the Axios report faithfully

Even before Bannon’s departure, the anti-”globalist” drumbeat on Breitbart seemed to intensify, targeting Trump’s Jewish chief economic advisor Gary Cohn.

These ominous signs may give the Jewish community more - not less - to worry about.