Analysis

Steve Bannon's Appointment Is a Moment of Truth for U.S. Jews

After tapping campaign CEO Stephen Bannon as chief strategist, no one can say there is any ambiguity as to who Trump is and what kind of president he plans to be.

Stephen Bannon looks on as Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Denver, November 5, 2016.
Evan Vucci, AP

Less than a week after Election Day, a clear moral dilemma is presenting itself to the American Jewish community: To work with or against the most powerful leader in the world – one who has placed a white supremacist and anti-Semite at his side.  

Donald Trump has appointed Stephen Bannon, his former campaign CEO, as chief strategist and top aide – a man who deliberately shaped the Breitbart news site into an online gathering place for racists, white nationalists and misogynists. No one can pretend there is any ambiguity as to who Trump is and what kind of president he plans to be. He is precisely the same divisive and dangerous figure he was in his campaign.

If proof of that is necessary beyond the Bannon appointment, the fact that Trump has refused to repudiate his fractious and frightening campaign rhetoric in post-election interviews provides it. When asked directly by The Wall Street Journal if he regretted inveighing against Muslims, Latinos and other groups during his campaign, the president-elect said “No,” because, after all, “I won.”

Read more on Trump and American Jews: Dr. Priebus and Mr. Bannon: The stuff of which Jewish nightmares are made (Chemi Shalev)President Trump has shattered Jews' American idyll (Chemi Shalev) | 'You deserve to be gassed': Hate crimes skyrocket after Trump win (Debra Nussbaum Cohen) | To the Trump voter who just told me to leave the country (Bradley Burston)

During the days immediately following the elections, American Jews could do little more than cross their fingers, watching with trepidation for a signal as to what kind of president he would shape up to be.

The vast majority of U.S. Jews – liberal Democrats who voted against Trump in overwhelming numbers – were dismayed by his win, but hoped in the name of unity that he would disavow the vile rhetoric that characterized his campaign as he headed into the White House.

Steve Bannon at the final rally of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign in Michigan, Nov. 7, 2016.
Mandel Ngan/AFP

Republican Jews, even some who had deep reservations about Trump, let themselves celebrate the fact that the GOP would now be in control of both the White House and the Capitol. Many had been reassured by surrogates like Trump lawyers Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman – and by Trump's Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner – that a Trump administration would indeed, be “good for the Jews” and, in particular, good for Israel.  

Pragmatic Jewish leaders, knowing who would be in power for the next four years, congratulated and reached out to Trump.

The day after the election, there was already a preview of things to come. Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, attacked the Anti-Defamation League for its behavior during the campaign, charging that the ADL had been too hard on Trump’s supporters.

“The ADL has put itself potentially in a compromising position going forward, in terms of its ability to interact with the incoming administration,” Brooks said.

The ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, responded defiantly that it would not be deterred in calling out anti-Semitism – no matter the source.

And herein lies the crux of the problem. Republican loyalists and the large Jewish organizations whose raison d’etre is to broker and lobby the centers of power in the U.S. government on behalf of Jewish interests will feel they must maintain a connection with the Trump White House. They will be urged to do so by the Israeli government, which will effectively argue that it is a strategic necessity to stay on the good side of the White House, no matter who resides there and no matter who their aides are.  

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These groups are likely to justify “normalizing” Trump by pointing to the Israel-hostile and anti-Semitic elements within the left, and arguing that this never stopped them from talking to the Obama White House.

It’s exactly the same way in which Bannon defends the alt-right, which he denies is racist. In a Mother Jones interview, he contended: “Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe,” he said.

“Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe. Right? Maybe some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right? But that’s just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements.” “

Such equivalency, of course, is impossible to buy.

In 2008, after all, then-candidate Barack Obama ended up resigning his membership in his church over his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory remarks, which were mild compared to what Bannon published every day on Breitbart: He didn’t bring Wright into his campaign, and he certainly didn’t give him a top job at the White House.  

Groups like the ADL, for whom standing against anti-Semitism trumps getting along with the powers-that-be, certainly won’t buy it. The ADL was the first – and only – major U.S. Jewish organization to denounce Bannon’s appointment immediately after it was made.

If violence against minorities continues to mount, and a Bannon-strategized White House continues to dismiss, ignore or in any way encourage it – the Jewish grass roots, particularly young Jews, won’t stay silent when Jewish organizations and Israeli leaders “normalize” President Donald Trump with the usual “warm and productive” meetings and photo-ops that characterize the opening days of a presidency.

Think seas were stormy for Jews and Israel during the Obama-Netanyahu struggle over the Iran deal? We ain’t seen nothing yet.