Key members of Washington’s pro-Israel community, along with Israeli government officials, are avoiding criticism of the controversial Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, even as some top Jewish-American leaders and groups including the Anti-Defamation League denounce him for anti-Semitism.
The uproar over Bannon and growing anxiety over signs of anti-Semitism among some Trump supporters has created a political test for some American Jews, particularly those focused on foreign policy. Some described feeling torn between personal disgust and a desire not to pick an early fight with a president whom they hope will be a strong defender of Israel.
“On a personal level I’d like to go bananas about it,” said one Washington Jewish activist. “On a professional level it would be malpractice. We don’t know what [Bannon’s appointment] means.”
Although Bannon is not expected to play a major foreign policy role, many American and Israeli Jews are appalled at the ascension to the West Wing of Bannon, a man they say at a minimum condoned anti-Semitism as the editor of the conservative website Breitbart.com and in some of Trump’s campaign messaging. Bannon was also accused by his ex-wife of disparaging Jewish people in a 2007 child-custody proceeding.
In a statement on Sunday the Anti-Defamation League called Bannon “hostile to core American values,” while other Jewish leaders have charged that Trump’s campaign attacks on “global special interests”—including a campaign ad featuring prominent Jews like financier George Soros and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen—had clear anti-Semitic undertones. The Trump campaign rejects those charges, as do friends and associates of Bannon.
But the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—which focuses on U.S. foreign policy, and which sources said is likely mindful of preserving its influence over the incoming administration’s Middle East policies—has declined to weigh in.
“AIPAC has a long-standing policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments,” said the group’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann.
Asked about reports that that unnamed AIPAC officials were privately outraged over Bannon’s appointment, Wittmann added that “any suggestions or rumors to the contrary either privately or publicly are completely false.”
In a statement to POLITICO Monday another prominent Jewish group declined to pile on Bannon, but did not defend him.
“I have never met or spoken to Steve Bannon and at the Republican Jewish Coalition [RJC] we look forward to speaking with him soon, getting to know him, and hearing his answers to some of the questions that have arisen,” said RJC executive director Matt Brooks. He added that the RJC is “thrilled” with the appointment of Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff.
“When looking at all the voices President-elect Trump has around him, from Reince, to Vice President-elect [Mike] Pence, his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared [Kushner], to Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, I believe it’s clear that the President-elect Trump has surrounded himself with the type of people he needs to succeed, and will be a true friend and ally to Jews at home and around the world,” Brooks added.
Kushner is Jewish, and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism when the two married. Gingrich and Giuliani have been staunch allies of the conservative government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Steve is fervently pro-Israel, and it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that he is anti-Semitic,” David Goldman, a conservative columnist and Bannon friend, wrote on Facebook Monday.
“Trump’s election is the best thing that has happened to Israel in many years. It eliminates the risk of a diplomatic stab in the back at the Security Council and sends a dire warning to Iran, the only real existential threat to the Jewish State. The security of the Jewish people in their homeland is vastly enhanced by the vote on November 8, and Jews everywhere should thank God that the head of state of the world’s most powerful country is a friend of Israel with Jewish grandchildren,” Goldman added.
Nonetheless, Bannon’s critics have cited instances of what they call anti-Semitism on Brietbart.com when Bannon was the site’s editor, including a headline calling Weekly Standard editor William Kristol a “renegade Jew” and a column attacking Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum that conspicuously noted her Jewish identity.
The alarm in the Jewish community extends well beyond Bannon, to include increasingly visible expressions of anti-Semitism, particularly on social media outlets like Twitter, from self-declared Trump supporters. Trump allies say that only a tiny and unwelcome fraction of his supporters hold such views, though many Jewish leaders say that Trump and his aides have done far too little to condemn them.
Netanyahu and his ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, have offered only warm words about Trump since Tuesday’s election. The day after last week’s election, Dermer congratulated Trump with a tweet calling him “a great friend of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”
Many Jewish Democrats and liberal Jews in Israel challenge that view. “For American Jews, Bannon’s appointment is the stuff of which Jewish nightmares are made,” declared a headline prominently featured on the website of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Monday.
An Israeli embassy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Netanyahu was not thought to have a strong preference in last week’s election. While Hillary Clinton cast herself as a vigorous supporter of Israel, she served for four years in an Obama administration that had poor relations with Israel and pursued policies opposed by Netanyahu like the Iran nuclear deal.
And while Trump made some statements about Israel during the Republican primaries that unsettled Netanyahu’s government, in recent months he has adopted a typical conservative Republican line of fulsome support for Israel against its regional enemies like Iran and in the dormant peace process with the Palestinians.
That may lead Israel’s government and its strongest backers in Washington to hold their tongues, sources said.
“The Israelis will look at Trump’s policies from a very realist perspective,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a U.S. ambassador to Israel in George W. Bush’s first term. “So unless Bannon influences the foreign policy side of things in a way that is detrimental to Israeli interests, Israelis might turn a blind eye to the internal issues.”
Added one Jewish conservative Israel activist in Washington: “I don’t understand why AIPAC would care, insofar as Breitbart under Bannon was strongly pro-Israel, and Bannon’s White House role is going to almost entirely be domestic.”
“I’m just not feeling the outrage,” he added. “The Obama administration has spent eight years empowering Iran, promoting the Palestinians, and condemning Israel. If Bannon does something bad, I’ll be happy to criticize him. Until then, I’d rather worry about real threats to Jews.”
Even the perception that conservatives in Washington and the Netanyahu government are tolerating anti-Semitism in the U.S. could widen the growing split between mostly left-leaning American Jews, who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton, and Netanyahu and his U.S. defenders, sources said.
“The American-Jewish community is totally up in arms about this, but I don’t think you’ll see strong criticism from Israel,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former member of the U.S. Israel-Palestinian negotiating team under Obama who is now at the Center for a New American Security.
That dynamic, he said will “further cement the philosophical distance between the American Jewish community and Israel.”
“Until now the Israeli right, in looking at [the question of anti-Semitism], has tended to accuse the American left of being the problem, because the American right has been quote-unquote supportive of Israel,” said Kurtzer.
“But what happens when the American right has within it this strain of anti-Semitism?” he asked.
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