NEW YORK – The Zionist Organization of America is facing enormous backlash for its enthusiastic defense of Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News and President-elect Donald Trump's appointee as chief strategist and senior advisor.
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Bannon is slated to attend the ZOA’s annual banquet Sunday evening, where Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot and a prominent Trump supporter, will be honored with the group’s Louis D. Brandeis Award for Extraordinary Pro-Israel and Pro-Jewish Activism.
A few large Jewish groups, including the National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, as well as J Street and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, issued statements condemning Bannon’s appointment. Many in the American Jewish community are upset, they say, not only about Bannon being given a coveted position in the coming presidential administration, but about his being invited to the banquet of a Jewish organization.
Calls to protest went out on social media as soon as Bannon’s plan to attend the dinner was announced by the ZOA. On Wednesday and Thursday the ZOA office was inundated with calls to the point that its phone lines were overwhelmed, say some of those who called. Dozens of callers got through, according to ZOA president Mort Klein. Some tried to call and couldn’t get through or had their call cut off as soon as it was picked up, they told Haaretz.
“I called because whether or not Bannon is an anti-Semite, or pro-Israel, he stands for everything that is repugnant to me: homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and the promotion of hatred and violence,” said Beth Levine, an attorney who lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “I do not think he should be invited to a Jewish event or defended by a Jewish organization.”
She felt spurred to call the ZOA by seeing friends’ Facebook posts saying that they had done the same.
The ZOA’s Klein told Haaretz that he called back every person who phoned the ZOA to complain and left their contact information. Those he reached “were shocked it was me calling,” he said. But he dismissed their critique because they are not ZOA members. “They’re not members and they don’t support us. I speak for my membership and my board, not anyone else,” Klein said, “I don’t speak for the whole Jewish community. No one does.”
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie got through to the ZOA on Wednesday when he called. “Bannon's views are toxic and his support of Israel is no reason to ignore his dangerous positions and views against all minorities, including Jews,” Lau-Lavie, the creator of an independent New York City congregation called Lab/Shul, told Haaretz. “It's a polarizing disgrace and reflects deep lack of concern and respect to the rest of the Jewish community and the American people.” He was put through to a ZOA staffer, and got a polite reply, Lau-Lavie said.
Libby Lenkinski, who works for the New Israel Fund but called the ZOA as a private citizen, said that when she saw that Bannon would be at the ZOA gala, “I felt all the rage of my ancestors boiling up. Both of my grandfathers – the Zionist pioneer and the Holocaust survivor – are rolling over in their graves today. We did not survive the Holocaust, we did not found the State of Israel, just so that less than two generations later we could cozy up to neo-Nazis,” she told Haaretz.
“I will not watch that happen in the name of Judaism or Zionism without putting up a fight.” She got through and left a message with “No to Steve Bannon, no to white supremacy, no to anti-Semitism,” Lenkinski said.
Some who called in, however, were supportive of the ZOA’s stance, says Klein. He estimated that more than half the calls were supportive of the ZOA position, and just under half critical.
“We’ve had a ton of calls on both sides of the issue, many people thanking us for taking a stand for a man who is not an anti-Semite,” Klein said in an interview with Haaretz. “You can question Bannon’s judgment for allowing them [racists and anti-Semites] on the site, letting the ridiculous people on it, but he’s not an anti-Semite. He’s the opposite of an anti-Semite. He’s a philo-Semite.”
When Bannon was first appointed on November 13, days after Trump won the election, the ZOA issued a statement welcoming his ascension.
But the ZOA is almost alone among Jewish organizations in its stance. The Anti-Defamation League has been out in front in issuing statements about Trump’s racist, incendiary rhetoric throughout the presidential campaign, and has now put out statements condemning Bannon’s views.
“It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the alt right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists - is slated to be a senior staff member in the 'people's house,'” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. "We call on President-elect Trump to appoint and nominate Americans committed to the well-being of all our country's people and who exemplify the values of pluralism and tolerance that makes our country great."
The ZOA has publicly taken aim at the ADL for its criticism of Bannon, demanding that it retract its condemnation.
A Change.org petition addressed to the heads of the Jewish Federations of North America that called to condemn Bannon's appointment on Thursday had 2,300 signatures. The JFNA issued a statement after the election congratulating the incoming president.
“With hate crimes on the rise, we must address this as an issue of our collective safety. Having Stephen Bannon as a key strategist in the White House sends a clear message to hate groups that their belief system is no longer fringe, but now accepted,” says the JFNA petition’s letter.
A website called “Never Shtadlanus” is keeping an accounting of dozens of Jewish organizations, including federations around the country, and listing contact information at those groups which have taken no position on Bannon’s appointment or are supportive of it, like the ZOA. Their aim, according to the website, is to encourage people to call or write to complain. Shtadlanus refers to shtadlanim, Jewish leaders appointed to curry favor with elected or royal officials, who are viewed as kowtowing at the expense of Jewish wellbeing.
Other Jews on the left who take issue with Bannon’s new job are taking their protests to the streets.
On Thursday members of IfNotNow, a grassroots, anti-establishment Jewish group, “stormed” the lobby of the Washington, D.C. building housing Trump’s transition team to demand that it fire Bannon.
The INN is planning a major rally in New York on Sunday, when it will demonstrate outside the ZOA’s banquet after marching from Bryant Park several blocks away. On Thursday, some of its members marched on Trump Tower in protest.
"We're protesting because organizations like the Zionist Organization of America have an unbelievable double standard in welcoming anti-Semites because of their unwavering support for Israel,” INN leader Lizzie Horne told Haaretz. “Supporting Steve Bannon and welcoming him into Jewish organizations is exactly what ‘pro-Israel at any cost’ looks like. The Jewish community is so invested in supporting the occupation that it will cozy up to political leaders who are openly anti-Semitic, so long as they are pro-Israel,” she said.
“We want to be clear that using pro-Israel [statements] to defend against accusations of anti-Semitism is unacceptable for our generation of Jews, and frankly, for our entire community. IfNotNow and our allies will not be fooled by the rhetoric floating around, and we plan to resist for our own safety and the safety of others."
A letter protesting Bannon being signed by the New Israel Fund and other Jewish groups is in the works, said some who are involved in organizing it. It will be published by Monday, said one source.