Moments after Stephen Bannon addressed the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) Sunday night, urging Jews to join his “insurgency” against the Republican establishment, ZOA President Morton Klein took to the stage triumphantly and shared what he knew many Jews outside the annual gala were saying and thinking.
“Imagine,” he began, “all over the Internet, there are people calling me an unhinged bigot who is promoting [and] mainstreaming Nazism” for having brought Bannon to the ZOA.
But by Tuesday morning, speaking from his home in a suburb of Philadelphia rather than in a ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York, Klein recalled that he had asked Bannon to limit his speech only to Israel, the Jewish people, and the ZOA — a request to which Bannon agreed, but didn’t honor.
Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief political strategist before his dismissal in August, appeared at the dinner to introduce top Republican donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, two of the night’s honorees, Klein said. But, instead, he gave a speech linking his fight against anti-Trump Republicans to issues of concern to the ZOA audience.
“As the storm clouds are rising in the Middle East — and they are rising now — we’re leading an insurgency movement against the Republican establishment and against the permanent political class in Washington,” said Bannon, who has returned to his position as chairman of Breitbart News.
Members of that establishment are “lowering the bar,” Bannon continued, adding, “That’s how you get the Iran deal, and that’s how we still allow the American government to finance people who have blood on their hands of innocent Jewish civilians” — a reference to American aid for the Palestinian Authority.
Calling himself a “fighter,” rather than a “moderate,” and referring to himself as a Christian Zionist, Bannon said it would take “strong leadership” to deal with Iran, Turkey, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. “President Trump needs our back, and President Trump needs our back because we’re a nation at war.”
Those words surprised Klein, the ZOA leader said Tuesday, saying that he had asked Bannon to refrain from discussing politics because of the controversy that surrounds the Breitbart executive.
“He then went ahead and gave his political speech,” Klein told NJJN. “He promised me he wouldn’t do that.”
Meanwhile, the Adelsons, sizable contributors to the ZOA, bowed out of attending the event, citing another obligation, Klein said. On Tuesday, though, Politico reported that a spokesman for Sheldon Adelson said the casino magnate skipped the gala largely to distance himself from Bannon.
“The Adelsons won’t be supporting Steve Bannon’s efforts,” said Andy Abboud, the Adelson spokesman. “They are supporting Mitch McConnell 100 percent,” he added, referring to the Senate majority leader who is now engaged in a heated political battle with Bannon.
The announcement that Bannon would appear at the dinner stirred controversy weeks ago, prompting reaction from Jewish groups and leaders who regard him as a member of the extreme right and, at best, an ally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. They cite his support of Trump’s comments after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer in which the president said those at the event included some “very good people.” They also refer to Bannon’s support for far-right nationalists abroad, including France’s Marine Le Pen, and his backing of such domestic figures as Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, who, at one point, equivocated when asked if gay people should be executed, and who has been accused of sexual misconduct by five women.
Bannon has denied any affinity for neo-Nazis or white supremacists, calling them a “bunch of losers” and a “collection of clowns,” and has said he supports nationalists, not white nationalists.
“If you look at the identity movements over there in Europe, I think a lot of them are really ‘Polish identity’ or ‘German identity,’ not racial identity,” he recently told one interviewer. “It’s more identity toward a nation-state or their people as a nation.”
Others, though, aren’t buying it.
Among the skeptics are members of Torah Trumps Hate, a group of about 2,000 people created on Facebook after the 2016 election, according to Victoria Cook, 47, an Upper West Side resident and one of its founders.
Cook stood outside the Grand Hyatt Sunday night holding a homemade sign, designed to look like the Israeli flag, that said, “The ZOA doesn’t speak for this Zionist.” By her side were two other women carrying signs with the same message: “Orthodox Jews Against White Supremacy.”
Asked if she considered Bannon a white supremacist, one of the two women, Kressel Housman of Monroe, N.Y., said, “Either he is one or he’s willing to weaponize that ideology. Either one is not good.”
Cook and others from Torah Trumps Hate protested the gala alongside 100 members of If Not Now, a group of American Jews opposed to Israel’s control of the West Bank. Housman said they weren’t part of If Not Now, which is too far to the left for her. Instead, she said, they had come specifically to protest Bannon’s appearance.
Klein pointed out that Bannon’s was among a long list of speakers Sunday night, including U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), former U.S. Senator and vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, former Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel. He described ZOA as a non-partisan organization and said the group has honored scores of Democrats through the years, including U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx).
What’s more, Klein said, the ZOA has invited speakers in the past knowing that what they say might be odds with what the organization believes. One of those speakers, he added, is Dershowitz, who describes himself as a liberal Democrat, favors a two-state solution, and opposes the extensive construction of settlements in the West Bank.
In his speech Sunday night, Dershowitz cautioned members of the ZOA that Israel must remain a non-partisan issue and that Jews should avoid the extreme ends of the political spectrum — comments that drew a tepid response from the audience. In an interview later, Dershowitz said he has three goals for the Jewish community: bipartisanship, a move toward the center, and a shift away from the extremes.
He’s been critical of the ZOA in the past for seeming to lean toward Republicans, Dershowitz told NJJN, but he added that he gives “more credit to the ZOA than I do to [the left-learning] J Street. Why? Because they’ve invited me,” while J Street hasn’t.
Despite his objection to extremes, though, Dershowitz said he didn’t think the ZOA made a mistake in hosting Bannon. Bannon, he said, represents a sizable group on the right, heads an important media company, and can’t be ignored.
Another view came from Michael L. Brenner, 37, an attorney in Woodmere, N.Y., active in the Jewish community.
Figures like Bannon are constantly using words like “cosmopolitan,” “globalist,” and “anti-elite” that “would have raised a huge red flag” for nearly all Jews only a few years ago, Brenner said. “All are terms you used to hear anti-Semites say about Jews: that they were all internationalists and weren’t interested in being loyal to one state. … When you have this kind of anti-elite language, there’s always a danger of it turning into anti-Semitism.”
Doug Chandler is a correspondent for The New York Jewish Week.