NEW YORK – Did several hundred Jewish protestors thwart Steve Bannon’s attendance at the annual gala of the Zionist Organization of America?
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The controversial former chairman of Breitbart News and recent Donald Trump appointee as chief strategist and senior counsel was expected at the ZOA dinner in New York Sunday night.
He had even told someone close to the ZOA that President-elect Trump might also come, ZOA President Morton Klein told Haaretz. But in the end both Bannon and Trump were no-shows, leading Klein to speculate that it was the protesters who led Bannon to stay away.
Roughly 500 to 600 people came to protest the fact that Bannon, who oversaw an online publication replete with misogyny, racism and, some say, anti-Semitism, now has one of the most powerful positions in the country.
They stood outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown Manhattan chanting, “No, no, no, Steve Bannon he must go,” and “No Bannon, no ZOA, no fascist U.S.A.,” and holding aloft signs saying “Fire Bannon” and “Bannon is treyf,” or unkosher.
While their chants could be heard a full long city block away, inside the hotel, 1,200 elegantly dressed dinner attendees — including 300 students — dined, schmoozed and listened to speakers.
One of the night’s honorees, Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, rebuked ZOA supporters for their partisanship, which prompted boos from the audience.
Though Bannon failed to show, Trump’s two top advisors on Israel — Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman — were present, Klein said.
The protesters had been rallied together by Jewish organizations including If Not Now, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and Jewish Voice for Peace.
After about an hour in front of the hotel they were told by police to disperse or face arrest. Instead they marched around the block and returned to the main branch of the New York Public Library, where they stood on the broad, grand staircase and sang songs of unity and resistance.
Protester Eliyahu Friedman, a modern Orthodox rabbinical student, said he was there because “we believe in a Torah of loving kindness.”
“We're fighting for the soul of our community and we don’t want to be Neville Chamberlain,” said Friedman, 25, referring to the former U.K. prime minister who in the 1930s adopted a stance of appeasement toward increasingly aggressive Germany.
The ZOA, in addition to Dershowitz, honored Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon, as well as conservative Rep. Ed Royce of California.
Marcus, an ardent Republican and Trump supporter, was given the ZOA’s Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award. Marcus spoke about how beneficial Israel’s existence has been to Jews worldwide. He also spoke disparagingly about President Barack Obama.
“We Jews have felt like we’ve been talking to a wall for the last eight years,” he said, referring to Obama’s two terms in office, which will end in January with Trump’s swearing in.
“I am the happiest Jew in the world to see some sense come into the White House, someone who will be a friend to Israel.” Dinner attendees applauded his comments.
Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson, were among those in attendance but did not sit on the dais, as they did last year.
Dershowitz, a prolific writer and speaker in addition to being a law professor, was awarded the ZOA’s Mortimer Zuckerman Award for Outstanding Pro-Israel Journalism.
He spoke about the growing extremism worldwide at both ends of the political spectrum. After mentioning European countries moving to the “almost fascistic right,” he said, “the Democratic National Committee is moving to the left, and that is a serious concern. And we see universities moving to the hard, hard left,” he said.
“It is very difficult to have a nuanced conversation about Israel at universities today,” Dershowitz said.
Then he took aim at the ZOA and its supporters, seeming to refer to expected guest Bannon and what Dershowitz recently described as bigotry on Breitbart's part directed toward Muslims, women and others.
“We must not be complicit in bigotry, whether it is from the right or the left,” Dershowitz said at the ZOA dinner.
“I think the ZOA is a great organization. But it must be a home to all Zionists, not just right-wing Zionists. It must be a home in which Herzl and Brandeis would be as comfortable as Jabotinsky, in which [Labor leader Isaac] Herzog would be as comfortable as [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
“In the clapping for Donald Trump,” Dershowitz said, referring to earlier remarks from Marcus and others, “we heard support for that bigotry.” The audience booed.
“The Zionist Organization of America should not take sides on Israeli or American domestic policies,” said Dershowitz. “It is both a tactical error and hurts the unity of the Jewish people. Israel must always be a bi-partisan issue.”
After the dinner, Klein told Haaretz in a phone interview that what Dershowitz said, “was inaccurate."
"We honored Alan Dershowitz, a clear liberal Democrat. All sorts of Democrats have spoken at our galas and I criticized George H.W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, all Republicans. I don’t care about Democrat and Republican. I only care about Israel.”
Klein spoke in his own address, of last month’s UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem which decried Israel as “the Occupying Power” and made no reference to the Jewish people’s ties to Israel’s capitol city.
“It is a myth that Jerusalem is holy to Muslims. It is not,” Klein said to applause. “Jerusalem is mentioned 700 times in Jewish holy books and not once, not at all, in the Koran,” he said.
“There is no occupation,” said Klein. “that’s another propaganda lie. [Palestinians] run their own schools, radio, TV, police force. And they continue to have terror cells to murder Jews.”
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, offered greetings in which he reprised some of his favorite lines, which played to an adoring crowd.
“In Israel and in the world way too many people are walking down a failed path of interjecting a hostile, foreign Palestinian state into Israel,” he said. “One cannot occupy his own home,” Bennett said to enthusiastic applause.
In addition to Dershowitz’s rebuke, there was another unusual sight at the ZOA gala: Mort Klein bopping back and forth like a homeboy while rapping out a song.
The song, of course, was a pro-Israel one: Bob Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully,” which the soon-to-be Nobel Laureate wrote in the wake of the Lebanon War and recorded in 1983 and describes Israel as a hated, lonely nation.
Klein rapped, “The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land/He’s wandered the earth an exiled man/Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn/
He’s always on trial for just being born/He’s the neighborhood bully.”