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The Battle Over Bannon

President-elect Donald Trump’s new ‘chief strategist’ rejects — and supplies ammunition to — those who label him antisemitic

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — Steve Bannon, in his first interviews since Donald Trump named him a top White House aide, denied being antisemitic or a white nationalist, but continued to advance a theory of “globalist” conspiracy that echoes centuries-old antisemitic libels.

“Breitbart is the most pro-Israel site in the United States of America,” Bannon told the Wall Street Journal in an interview posted Friday, Nov. 18, speaking of the conservative news site where he was CEO until this summer when he joined President-elect Trump’s campaign.

Expressions of alarm by an array of Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform and Conservative movements, have not denied the pro-Israel posture of Breitbart and Bannon, but have focused on echoes of antisemitic theory found elsewhere on the site and in Bannon’s messaging for the Trump campaign. Some critics have called out Bannon for at least two recent uses in Breitbart of “Jews” or “Jewish” that some saw as pejorative, and for claims by his ex-wife that he was hostile to Jews. Bannon has vigorously denied his wife’s claims.

Bannon has also, more substantively, been criticized for advancing, through Breitbart and in the Trump campaign’s final weeks, conspiracy theories that involve international bankers, secret meetings and a servile media – all elements of classic antisemitic propaganda. In the campaign’s final days, a Trump campaign TV ad ran excerpts of a Trump speech advancing theories of a secretive conspiracy seeking global control and accompanied the excerpts with images of three prominent Jews.

Neither Bannon nor the campaign have explicitly blamed Jews as a class.

Bannon’s critics compared such messages to the “polite” antisemitism of the post-Holocaust period, which avoided pejorative anti-Jewish terminology and at times embraced Israel as a means of divesting non-Jewish societies of Jews.

“That the antisemitism is unintentional on [Trump’s] part doesn’t make it any less dangerous,” Cheryl Greenberg, a historian at Trinity College, wrote in an Oct. 26  article discussing Trump and Bannon’s influence on him. “By invoking these conspiracy theories without naming Jews, antisemitic ideas are introduced without fanfare into the mainstream political conversation while sending encouragement to those white nationalists who fully understand their implications. And so antisemitic sentiment and activity rises without anything explicit being said.”

At least according to their published interviews, neither the Wall Street Journal nor the Hollywood Reporter pressed Bannon on these echoes of antisemitic propaganda in the company he helmed, Breitbart, nor in the campaign. Indeed, in both interviews Bannon doubled down on his worldview in which “globalists” are seeking control, and once again, wittingly or unwittingly, invoked echoes of movements that have been hostile to Jews.

“I’m an economic nationalist,” he told the Journal. “I am an America first guy.” “America First” was the World War II era isolationist movement that decried mounting calls for America’s involvement in the war as Jewish manipulation.

Bannon acknowledged, as he has in the past, that the nationalists he admires have attracted antisemites and racists to their ranks – but also that he rejected these expressions, and believed that these elements would soon fall away.

“I have admired nationalist movements throughout the world, have said repeatedly strong nations make great neighbors,” he told the Journal, apparently referring to movements led by Nigel Farage in Britain and Marine LePen in France, both of whom have in recent weeks celebrated Trump’s victory. “I’ve also said repeatedly that the ethno-nationalist movement, prominent in Europe, will change over time. I’ve never been a supporter of ethno-nationalism.”

While the European nationalist movements have in recent years distanced themselves from explicit anti-Jewish comments, racially charged theories remain integral to their platforms, particularly those targeting Middle Easterners and, in central Europe, Roma. Jewish groups in those countries tend to be skeptical of claims that the nationalist movements have divested themselves of anti-Jewish hostility.

In the Journal interview, Bannon praised the “alt-right” movement, which he defines as “younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment.” He also acknowledged  the alt-right has “some racial and antisemitic overtones.” But he also “makes clear,” according to the interviewer, that “he has zero tolerance for such views.”

Bannon sought in his interview with The Hollywood Reporter to distinguish the nationalism he embraces from white supremacism, but segued immediately into theories of “globalists” maintaining control over the working class.

“I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist,” he said. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over.”

Speaking to the Journal, Breitbart outlined areas where Breitbart has championed Israel.

“I have Breitbart Jerusalem, which I have Aaron Klein run with about 10 reporters there. We’ve been leaders in stopping this BDS movement” — boycott, divestment and sanction — “in the United States; we’re a leader in the reporting of young Jewish students being harassed on American campuses; we’ve been a leader on reporting on the terrible plight of the Jews in Europe.”

The Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition have both defended Bannon against charges of antisemitism, noting Breitbart’s pro-Israel content.

(Bannon was a no-show at a Nov. 20 dinner in New York hosted by the ZOA, which the organization had publicized he would attend and which was attended by politicians from Israel and the United States as well as hundreds of guests.

Morton Klein, ZOA’s president, told JTA Bannon was never offered an official invitation, but rather had asked the group if he could attend the dinner and was told “yes.” Outside the dinner, a protest of Bannon and the ZOA organized by IfNotNow, a Jewish group that opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, drew several hundred people.)

Attorney Alan Dershowitz, a regular advocate for Israel and Jewish causes, told Breitbart Jerusalem that he saw no evidence of “personal antisemitism on the part of Bannon.”

“I think the larger problem – and it’s a very complicated one today – is how you assess a person who himself might not have negative characteristics, but who has widespread appeal to people who do,” Dershowitz continued, describing a problem he sees on the right and left. “And I think the same thing is probably true of some very right-wing conservatives who appeal [intentionally] or inadvertently to people whose values they probably themselves don’t agree with.”

In a new backgrounder on Bannon published on its website, the ADL concedes that “we are not aware of any antisemitic statements made by Bannon himself,” despite the allegations from his ex-wife. It also acknowledges that Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau was started under his tenure. “Nevertheless,” the backgrounder continues, “Bannon essentially has established himself as the chief curator for the alt-right. Under his stewardship, Breitbart has emerged as the leading source for the extreme views of a vocal minority who peddle bigotry and promote hate.”

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