The Zionist Organization of America feted Stephen K. Bannon at a gala dinner in New York on Sunday night. What a disgrace.
What a mistake, too.
It’s a disgrace because no organization that purports to represent the interests of the Jewish people should ever embrace anyone who embraces anti-Semites. Jews have enemies enough. To provide those enemies with moral cover for the sake of political convenience or ideology corroborates the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes and strengthens the hand of those who mean us harm.
That means that when a far-left group such as Jewish Voices for Peace makes common cause with someone like Linda Sarsour – the Palestinian-American activist who advocates the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state and publicly praised a convicted terrorist – it disqualifies itself as an advocate of any Jewish interest save its own. To deny Israel’s right to exist, as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres noted in April, is “a form of modern anti-Semitism.”
It also means that when a right-wing Jewish group such as the ZOA chooses to overlook Bannon’s well-documented links to anti-Semitic white nationalists, it puts itself on a moral par with JVP. Bannon is the man who expressly called Breitbart News “the platform for the alt-right,” knowing full-well the toxic range of opinion encompassed by the term. Bannon is also the guy who only last month got around to disavowing his long and productive association with Milo Yiannopoulos, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer’s favorite chanteur.
Spencer thinks Jews have no place in the United States. Breitbart has sung the praises of Spencer. Bannon knows all this because he edited the article that sung those praises. Connect the dots.
That, however, is something the ZOA has seemed unwilling to do, on the theory that Bannon is a self-declared, and possibly even sincere, supporter of the Jewish state. On Sunday he called himself a “Christian Zionist,” and praised Israel as “one of the greatest nations on earth and the foundation of the Judeo-Christian West.”
But just as there are anti-Zionist Jews, there are also anti-Semitic Zionists. The Nazis initially endorsed the idea of getting German Jews to shove off to Mandated Palestine. Spencer calls himself a “white Zionist,” on the factitious theory that Israel is the sort of ethno-nationalist state he’d like to see America become.
Simply put, support for Israel is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a friend to Jews. (Richard Nixon, who was nothing if not an ally of Israel in its time of need, was known to tell aides that “most Jews are disloyal” and that “you can’t trust the bastards.”) That distinction may not trouble the right-wing ZOA audience that gave Bannon a standing ovation, but it should profoundly alarm all Jews who call themselves pro-Israel.
Why? Two reasons. Unlike Nixon, whose anti-Semitism seems to have been of a knee-jerk and atavistic variety, Bannon’s alt-right views – his opposition to free trade, a liberal immigration policy, “international bankers,” “corporatist global media” – are consonant with a sinister worldview that always finds a way to get back to a certain class of rootless cosmopolitans. His is not a personal bigotry so much as it is an ideological obsession. Its potential for destructiveness is that much greater.
The second reason is that political support for Israel is too important to tarnish through association with the likes of Bannon or European kindred spirits such as Holland’s Geert Wilders or Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Israel is not a latter-day Crusader kingdom holding out against a 21st-century Mahometan horde. It is a small democracy trying to uphold a set of liberal values against autocrats and religious fanatics sworn to its destruction. Zionists love Israel because of the way in which it brings together the values of individual freedom and Jewish civilization, not because of some blood and soil nationalism.
If Israel is going to retain mainstream political support, it cannot allow itself to become the pet cause of right-wing bigots and conspiracy theorists. That requires putting serious distance between Bannon and every pro-Israel organization, to say nothing of the Israeli government itself, by refusing to provide a platform for him and his ilk. Personal and national reputations alike always depend on the company one keeps. Not every would-be supporter deserves consideration as a friend.
That thought may have dawned on Sheldon Adelson, who skipped Sunday’s dinner and seems belatedly to have realized – too late for much comfort – how destructive Bannon and his brand of arsonist politics have become to the Republican Party and the causes it used to champion. The thought needs to dawn, too, on right-of-center Jews who have become so attuned to dangers from the woke-left that they have tuned out dangers from the alt-right.
Anti-Semitism is both the socialism of fools and the conservatism of creeps. If the past century holds a lesson for Jews, it’s to beware every form of illiberalism, including the illiberalism of those who purport to be on our side. Repair of the world may not be the central teaching of Judaism. But it’s always wise to stay far from those who wish to tear it asunder.