Jewish leaders split on response to Steve Bannon’s appointment
This segment originally aired Nov. 14, 2016, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of his campaign adviser Steve Bannon to White House chief strategist is stirring trouble among American Jews.
Bannon’s ex-wife swore under oath (in a domestic violence proceeding) that he said he didn’t want his kids attending school with “whiny brat” Jews. And the man himself has described his website Breitbart.com as a “platform for the alt-right,” an amalgam of nationalist philosophies that he conceded may be attractive to anti-Semites.
So it makes sense that some Jewish leaders have a big problem with Bannon’s appointment. But leading American Jewish organizations are split between forcefully condemning it and staying quiet.
The left-leaning Religious Action Center, whose ex-director Rabbi David Saperstein now works for the State Department, didn’t mince words. “Both in his roles as editor of the Breitbart website and as a strategist in the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia,” current RAC director Rabbi Jonah Pesner said in a release. “There should be no place for such views in the White House.”
The RAC is the political arm of the Reform Jewish movement, whose constituency makes up the largest denomination of American Jewry; according to one poll, 70 percent of American Jews voted for Hillary Clinton, and 25 percent cast ballots for Trump. The RAC’s former chief Saperstein is widely viewed as a confidant of President Obama.
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, released a similarly aggressive statement, in which executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs called out “Bannon’s open promotion of white supremacy, racism and anti-Semitic rhetoric [which] disqualifies him for a position of power in the United States, whose strength lies in its diversity.”
So did Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt: “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,'” he said in a statement Sunday night.
And yet not all major Jewish American organizations have spoken up yet about Bannon’s appointment. Instead, a few have already offered Trump notes of congratulations, including the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, and the bipartisan, pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.
These organizations, which carry political weight in D.C. and help fund huge swaths of organized American Jewish life, have largely stayed quiet about the rise of Trump.
AIPAC, for example, had Trump speak at its keynote Policy Conference in Washington earlier this year, where he was met by the thousands-strong crowd with applause. And these organizations kept mum when a Trump foreign policy adviser was accused of anti-Semitism during the summer, or when Trump tweeted an anti-Hillary Clinton meme with a Jewish star that was created by white supremacists.
Further right-wing Jewish organizations, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, have decided to defend Bannon as a Zionist and friend of Israel. In a statement, the RJC said that what “is being done to Steve Bannon is a shonda,” using the Yiddish word for “shame.”
When reached for comment over email, AIPAC representative Marshall Wittmann declined to offer any, citing the organization’s “long-standing policy” of not commenting on presidential appointments.
As for the American Jewish Committee, in a statement attributed to the Assistant Executive Director for Policy Jason Isaacson, the organization said that “Presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on the appointment of every key advisor.”
T’ruah director Rabbi Jacobs told VICE News in a phone interview that she thinks “there’s a choice here for the Jewish community.”
“The Jewish community relies a lot on working with federal government to fund social services, protect Israel, and protect us from hate crimes,” Jacobs said. “But this is the first time in recent memory that the administration is not business as usual. Some groups are trying to normalize things, and they hope it will become business as usual. But that’s actually very dangerous.”
UCLA history professor David N. Myers, a well-known figure in American Jewish academic and communal circles, told VICE News there is now “a moral imperative of the highest order” for American Jewish leaders to condemn Trump’s appointment of Bannon.
“There is a long track record at Breitbart of not just stigmatization but ferocious stigmatization of Jews, among other groups,” Myers said. “This is the moment for every party, including major Jewish American organizations, to demand a clear statement from the president elect, and a clarification from Bannon on the views attributed to him. Short of that, he should be dismissed from the Oval Office.”
Speaking on CNN on Monday, Donald Trump’s transition team communications chief Jason Miller told correspondent Chris Cuomo that the coverage of Bannon’s appointment has been “irresponsible.” In a Today Show interview on Tuesday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said that Bannon is “not as scary” as critics say he is.
Trump ally and potential cabinet appointee Newt Gingrich said on CBS on Sunday that Bannon couldn’t be anti-Semitic because of his experience working in finance and Hollywood.
Miller did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.