If anything has been made clear since President-elect Trump’s election, it is the telling reactions to his most controversial move yet, in selecting Steve Bannon as his chief strategist in the White House. In the days since, the appointment of Bannon, who has championed white nationalism and trafficked in anti-Semitism, discrimination and misogyny in his role at Breitbart, has elicited the condemnation of Democratic leaders and prominent organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, Bend the Arc and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who failed to reject Trump throughout the hate-filled demagoguery of his campaign, have feigned ignorance. But from an array of major American Jewish organizations, there has been deafening silence on Bannon. A cleavage within American Jewry has existed for some time, along political and ideological lines. Yet the refusal of a number of major Jewish organizations to even issue a basic statement of disapproval on Bannon’s appointment over the last week signals something larger: these groups are failing in their mission to promote the values and responsibilities with which we, as American Jews, have been inculcated. In their silence, they certainly don’t represent me, and perhaps they don’t represent a majority of American Jews anymore either.
These organizations, and their leaders respectively, may be deeply troubled by the events taking place in real time, yet they seem to espouse a “wait and see” approach to Trump’s election and the deeper, more sinister problems endemic to it. The main problem with any “wait and see” approach taken by American Jewish organizations toward Trump’s incoming administration is that it paves the way for acquiescence to what has already occurred as a result of the election. This past weekend, at a conference of the alt-right movement in DC, we got a small taste of how the white nationalist movement, which the incoming White House chief strategist championed while overseeing Breitbart, feels about the election. As Richard Spencer, one of the rising leaders of the movement, spoke in language exhorting Trump filled with anti-Semitic tropes, the audience cheered, at multiple times breaking into Nazi salutes.
While the alt-right movement perniciously espouses “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” its followers and others around the country may not be as reluctant toward violence. Since the election earlier this month, there has been an exponential spike in hate crimes reported. It would be foolish to think that Trump’s election hasn’t emboldened racists, anti-Semites and white nationalists, whether in their hate-filled rhetoric or actions. You don’t need to wait and see with a propagandist like Bannon, who helped disseminate Spencer and his odious ilk through Breitbart, a man who sought and continues to seek to empower other radical, fascist parties in Europe that have threatened Jews, Muslims and other immigrants alike across the Atlantic. To address it directly, if a man like Steve Bannon were to appear in the inner sanctum of 10 Downing Street or the Elysee Palace, would major American Jewish organizations unanimously and roundly condemn it? I would be stunned if they didn’t.
As an American Jew who proudly supports and loves Israel, I can think of only a couple reasons for why major Jewish organizations here in the United States, as well as their senior leadership, would refrain from explicitly condemning Bannon’s appointment, and the motives involve Israel. Perhaps they fear that such a condemnation out of the gate would imperil the American alliance with Israel or, perhaps more accurately, their organizations’ credibility in the eyes of the incoming White House on issues related to Israel. Perhaps they are quietly waiting to see who rounds out President-elect Trump’s national security and foreign policy team, anticipating that a national figure that has demonstrated their commitment to strong U.S.-Israel relations, such as Romney or Giuliani, will join the administration.
If major American Jewish organizations cannot muster a condemnation of Steve Bannon, what else will they be incapable of directly opposing?
I believe this “wait and see” approach is misguided at best, and dangerous and reckless at worst. First, as with pretty much everything before him, President-elect Trump does not owe anybody anything. We have no clue how he will lead on issues related to Israel. The idea that he will be committed to preserving the U.S.-Israel alliance seems predicated consistently on anything from vague platitudes he delivered at AIPAC’s conference earlier this year to the fact that his son-in-law is Jewish. Yet I can think of a number of all too plausible scenarios now that should give little comfort to Trump’s cheering corner in the American Jewish community. Here is one: what if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loses power in the next couple years, and a center-left government emerges in Jerusalem? What if Trump doesn’t like things that Israel’s political opposition may have said about him, and he punitively stonewalls Israel’s new government in retaliation? What if, as he was wont to say throughout his campaign, Trump declares that the United States is over-committed globally and can no longer be expected to always defend her allies, upending decades of bipartisan ironclad American support and defense for Israel? Sure, a chorus of voices in Congress would cry foul, Republicans and Democrats alike. But maybe it won’t matter to President Trump.
More importantly, in a unique moment in which Trump’s election seems to be a harbinger that conventional wisdom and politics as usual are no longer relevant, we should be leading with our values and principles more than ever. Regardless of how President Trump does lead on issues pertaining to Israel, leading American Jewish organizations should be prepared to condemn and oppose a cavalcade of policies and proposals from the incoming administration that have nothing to do with American Jewry but nonetheless could harm marginalized groups across the country. Over the weekend, we heard both Vice President-elect Pence and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus essentially say the same thing, that nothing is off the table when it comes to President-elect Trump. The very prospect that Trump could put forward a plan to register Muslims here at home in the not-so-distant future, for example, should terrify us. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I shudder to think of how my Muslim-American friends and their families could be harmed, not only by the rise of racism in our communities but also by federal agencies following the president’s directives. If major American Jewish organizations cannot muster a condemnation of Steve Bannon, what else will they be incapable of directly opposing?
As the late Elie Wiesel has stated, “silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I do not doubt the repulsion that the leaders of organizations which purport to represent me and my community may feel, individually and collectively aghast at the choices and rhetoric of the incoming president so far. But their repulsion must be galvanized into words and actions. If we keep silent now, a world of torment could very well await all of us.