What do the Jews think? It’s an impossible question, one that recalls the old joke “ask two Jews, you’ll get three opinions.” Yet on Sunday night, Jewish activists brought out about 500 protesters in New York to voice a progressive consensus on Trump’s newly appointed chief strategist Steve Bannon: he’s a fascist.
The protest was organized by a coalition of lefty Jewish groups including If Not Now, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, and Jewish Voice for Peace as a statement against Bannon’s planned appearance at the Zionist Organization of America’s yearly gala. Bannon ended up backing out at the last minute, possibly due to the protest, but his appearance – or lack thereof – was incidental. To those familiar with Bannon’s history, the ZOA invite was a shameful attempt to provide Jewish cover to an anti-semite.
During a 2007 child custody dispute, Bannon’s former wife claimed he said he didn’t want his daughters going to school with Jews because their parents raise them to be “whiny brats.” ZOA president Morton Klein stood firm, saying “Bannon was grateful that I defended him against this ludicrous charge of anti-Semitism.” Other Bannon defenders included Zionist hardliner Alan Dershowitz and celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, both of whom are known to lob accusations of anti-Semitism at anyone they deem insufficiently pro-Israel. Dershowitz showed up to the gala, unlike Bannon, and delivered a speech in which he claimed Black Lives Matter is a greater threat than European fascism.
Though there are some ideological differences between the groups (JVP explicitly supports Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, while IfNowNow and JFREJ don’t take an official organizational position), the groups all draw from Jewish tradition to fight for egalitarian ideals. “Regardless of who is President, we work to end the Jewish community’s support for the occupation,” IfNowNow spokesman Sarah Lerman-Sinkoff told me. “The appointment of Steven Bannon as White House Chief Strategist draws into sharp relief the need for Jews to form common cause with targeted groups inside and outside the Jewish community, and reject the systems of violence and separation in the United States and in Israel-Palestine.” For one night, at least, left-of-center New York Jews were all on the same page.
When I arrived at the protest around 5 o’clock, it was already dark but the brightly lit roman columns of the New York Public Library shed light on the tightly packed crowd. IfNotNow member Tom Corcoran was revving up the crowd through a bullhorn: “This is a moment to speak out, to fight!” The mere mention of ZOA drew a chorus of boos, while an excoriation of Dershowitz elicited even more righteous anger.
A woman next to me at the rally seemed as befuddled at Trump’s election as she was outraged. “The whole thing is such a shit show,” she said, shaking her head. “You heard he wants to live in Trump Tower?” As for whether there was a chance of Trump rescinding his offer to Bannon, she had no idea.
Corcoran shouted out a number for the National Lawyers Guild in case anyone got arrested, and someone passed me a flyer with the logos and mission statements of the three organizing groups. On the back was a list of nine suggested chants (sample: “When Muslim communities are under attack, What do we do? Stand Up Fight Back!”) As hundreds of voices ricocheted off the surrounding glass skyscrapers, we halted traffic to cross Fifth Avenue and made our way east on 42nd street to the Grand Hyatt Hotel where the gala was being held.
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Breitbart, the site Bannon helmed until Trump brought him onboard, is the kind of far-right cesspool that publishes stories like “Judge Lets Drunk Illegal Immigrant Go After Killing Nebraska Woman” and “Does Feminism Make Women Ugly?” Less extreme than the baldly neo-Nazi Daily Stormer (published by Trump supporter Andrew Anglin), Breitbart uses dog whistles and innuendo to attract millions of readers ranging from mainstream conservatives to genuine fascists. Roughly speaking, the views expressed lie somewhere to the right of Pat Buchanan while stopping just short of George Lincoln Rockwell.
Breitbart’s late eponymous founder Andrew Breitbart once called Bannon “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement” and Bannon himself has called the site “a platform for the alt-right,” referring to a loose network of attention-starved trolls who have taken Pepe the frog as their mascot in an attempt to rebrand white nationalism for the internet meme era.
The phrase alt-right was made popular by a neo-Nazi named Richard Spencer, who had given a much-publicized speech the day before the march at the annual conference of a white supremacist think tank he runs called the National Policy Institute. The two hundred or so attendees were treated to a live version of the awkward Nazi worshipping usually confined to Stormfront message boards. “”Hail Trump,” yelled Spencer, “Hail our people. Hail victory!” To those who believe Trump has a hidden agenda to Make America Jundenrein Again, this was the ultimate connect-the-dots moment, definitive proof that Trump and Hitler are birds of a feather.
Earlier that day I had stopped by Adam Yauch park, which had been defaced with swastikas and the words “Go Trump.” The park, named after the late Beastie Boy, was filled to capacity with hundreds of concerned New Yorkers who had gathered to see Yauch’s former bandmate Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz and a couple local politicians condemn the graffiti and similar acts of pro-Trump hate. “This is homegrown terrorism for real,” said Horowitz. “I reject Donald Trump’s vision of America.” If you were looking for more dots to connect, they were everywhere.
The night’s most popular chant – No Bannon! No ZOA! No Fascist USA! – did a good job capturing the spirit of the night. This was not the time to debate the merits of violent resistance or purge the left of liberal Zionists still holding out hope for a two-state solution. It was a time to reclaim Judaism from the crotchety bastards who have taken up space at the head of the dinner table for too long, plugging their ears with their fingers and yelling “self-hating Jew” at any critic of Israel until they ended up so out of touch that they thought it was okay to give a guy like Steve Bannon a pass.
Protester and Socialist Party member Joel Feingold told me he entered the Grand Hyatt through a side entrance, made his way down to the ballroom level and snuck past security into the banquet. When a hotel worker asked him if he needed help, he shouted to the largely modern Orthodox attendees, “Chaverim [friends]! Steve Bannon is a fascist and he is an enemy to Jews and all peoples. Don’t delude yourselves!” One attendee responded, “Steve Bannon is amazing.” As he was being escorted out by security, Feingold asked where Bannon was and a worker told him “Bannon never came tonight. He must have heard y’all were coming.” If there is a metric for successful protests, getting a fake internet tough guy to back down from a bunch of chanting Jews is pretty high up there.
Let me be clear: I do not think Donald Trump will round up Jews and put them in camps. I sincerely doubt he will send his own Jewish son-in-law or his Jewish grandchildren to the gas chambers. But he may very well crush any vestiges of Palestinian resistance in the West Bank by putting his full support behind expanding settlements. It is entirely possible that he pushes through a registry for Muslims, and not just the Bush-era kind but one for American-born citizens as well – a sort of digital yellow star for the country’s favorite scapegoats.
Perhaps most importantly, he has already empowered the kind of casual bigotry that liberals tend to see as passé, or even dead. Trump doesn’t have the grand vision of Ferdinand II or Hitler or Stalin – he’s too self-centered, too obsessed with petty grievances and net worth. Trump is his father’s son, the type of anti-Semite who would gladly play in a Jews-free country club but isn’t averse to stringing along a Jew like Michael Cohen as an attorney (I can almost hear him say “don’t they make the best lawyers?” in his trademark Queens growl). His bigotry does not belong to 30’s Berlin or 50’s Biloxi, but to this present moment, where he can continue the conservative presidential traditions of Nixon’s anti-Semitism, Reagan’s racism, and Bush’s Islamophobia (not to mention the anti-Palestinian bigotry of both parties).
The rally felt like a rebirth of sorts for what might traditionally be referred to as the New York Jewish Left. It’s a group united by political, rather than religious, beliefs: that Jews should not normalize authoritarianism even in its incipient phases and that the Zionist Jewish establishment must not be allowed to hijack a religion in order to defend a reactionary enterprise in Palestine. In the past, I saw this conflict as largely generational – an impression I got from attending Israel lobby events as a journalist and gazing over a sea of white hair.
This time, though the crowd skewed young – and the ZOA leadership is undoubtedly old – I saw less of a generational gap. There were elderly couples and children, liberals and radicals, those who enthusiastically sung Hine Ma Tov and others who mumbled along, unsure of the words. The unity was electrifying, and it was something I had never felt in a synagogue. If such a thing as the “Jewish community” exists, I felt sure it was out there on the street rather than at a $700 per head event in a hotel ballroom.
When the enemy is as slippery as Donald Trump, knowing how alarmed we should be is tricky. Standing in the frigid New York air, staring at the rows of cops lined up across the street with plastic handcuffs, it was not hard to imagine that our country was drifting towards autocracy. But there is something to be said for heightening the contradictions, for knowing what side you’re on, and on Sunday night the lines could not have been clearer.