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2016-11-18 digital edition

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November 18, 2016  RSS feed
World News

Text: T T T

Bannon appointment may pose dilemma for Jewish groups seeking access to Trump

By RON KAMPEAS JTA news service

Stephen Bannon Stephen Bannon WASHINGTON – Offer an open hand or a closed fist – or maybe both. Welcome to the second week of the World of Trump, Jewish organizational edition.

Week 1 was fraught enough, with Jewish statements marking Donald Trump’s surprise election ranging from the confrontational to “it’s a new day” accommodation.

Then President-elect Trump named Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist.

Bannon was formerly the CEO of Breitbart, the right-wing news site that has been the clearinghouse for the alt-right movement, which includes elements of racism and anti- Semitism.

The Anti-Defamation League and a range of liberal Jewish groups have condemned Bannon’s appointment.

“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,’” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, said in a statement after Trump made the announcement.

Bannon is believed to have authored the Oct. 13 speech Trump delivered in West Palm Beach, that cast his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, as part of a secretive international cabal of international financiers seeking world control – with the assistance of a servile media. The speech did not mention Jews, but the themes were familiar to anyone with a memory of conspiracy theories featuring Jewish villains.

The sense that the campaign was dog whistling to white supremacists who embrace such theories was reinforced when in its last days, it ran an ad featuring excerpts of the speech accompanied by images of three prominent Jews.

Such themes are prevalent at Breitbart, and while the site does not indict Jews per se – with rare exceptions – and is robustly pro-Israel, it also has become a nexus of the alt-right movement. The site does not remove anti-Semitic comments.

Breitbart employs Jews and confidants of Bannon insist he is not anti-Semitic.

The right-wing Zionist Organization of America in a release listed stories showing Breitbart as sympathetic to Israel or to Jews. “ZOA’s own experience and analysis of Breitbart articles confirms Bannon’s and Breitbart’s friendship and fair-mindedness toward the Jewish people and Israel,” said Morton Klein in a JTA op ed.

Republican Jewish Coalition board member Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot, called Bannon stridently pro-Israel. “I have known Steve to be a passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel who felt so strongly about this that he opened a Breitbart office in Israel to ensure that the true pro-Israel story would get out,” a statement by Marcus reads. “What is being done to Steve Bannon is a shonda,” a Yiddishism for a shame or a scandal.

But liberal Jewish groups were unequivocal in their condemnation of the appointment.

“If President-elect Trump truly wants to bring together his supporters with the majority of the country that voted against him – by a margin that is nearing two million people, Bannon and his ilk must be barred from his administration,” the National Council of Jewish Women said in a statement.

The dilemma posed by Bannon’s hiring is one of access to the executive branch. It is the lifeblood of groups seeking to influence every nuance of Israel policy, as well as groups that partner with federal agencies on a range of domestic programs, including combating bias and preserving the social safety net.

Greenblatt said in a phone interview that the ADL will engage with the government on areas of common interest and strike a critical posture when necessary, as it has in the past.

“We’re prepared to engage optimistically and take the president at his word about bringing the country together but hold the new administration [to account] relentlessly on our issues, which means we’ll speak out when there’s a white nationalist as adviser,” he said.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, another group that condemned Bannon’s appointment, said – with resignation – that groups would likely lean more on Congress to advance their agendas. “American Jewish organizations have to speak up with clarity and strength,” he said.

That did not appear to be happening, in the short term at least, among centrist Jewish organizations. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee refused to comment on Bannon, noting that it did not routinely comment on appointments.

The American Jewish Committee also would not comment on Bannon. “Of utmost concern is ensuring that policies proposed and put into place make good on Presidentelect Trump’s election night promise, for the benefit of all citizens of our too-divided country, and address the central concerns of the American people and our allies around the world,” said Jason Isaacson, its assistant executive director for policy.

At the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella body’s chairman of the board of trustees, Richard Sandler, counseled Jews unsettled by the election to reconcile with their antagonists and move on. Sandler suggested that Jewish Americans may have an overinflated notion of their importance.

“We are less than 2 percent of the population of this great country,” he said.

It is precisely the place of Jews in the American firmament that should guide their opposition to Trump, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who directs T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group. Jews have former alliances with other minorities that feel threatened by Trump, and those friendships should now guide the community.

Shtadlanut is a mode of survival,” she said, referring to the practice of some Diaspora communities of deferring to a leader in order to protect themselves. “But in the long run cozying up to authority never works. The danger for the Jewish community is cozying up to the administration to get something for ourselves but tearing ourselves from our allies.”

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