President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist has been criticized on the grounds that Bannon is an antisemite. There are many reasons for opposing the appointment of Bannon, but antisemitism is not one of them. I do not support the Bannon appointment, but neither do I support accusing him of being an antisemite, based on the evidence I have seen.
With regards to antisemitism, there are three distinct but overlapping issues: Is Bannon personally an antisemite? Does his publication, Breitbart, promote antisemitic views? And do Breitbart and Bannon have followers who are antisemitic?
From what I can tell, the evidence cited in support of the accusation that Bannon is personally an antisemite falls into two categories: first, that his wife testified during hotly contested divorce proceedings that he did not want his children to go to school with “whiney Jews,” and second, that he ran an article describing Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.”
Let us consider these items of evidence in order. Senator Harry Reid tried to strengthen the first accusation against Bannon by saying that it appeared in a “court document,” thus suggesting that it had the imprimatur of a judge. But that is not the case. The claim was simply made by his former wife in a judicial proceeding, thus giving it no special weight. Bannon has rigorously denied making the statement, and said that he and his wife were fighting over whether his children should attend Catholic school, rather than a secular school.
On the other side of the ledger is the testimony of Jewish individuals who have worked closely with him for years. These include my former research assistant, Joel Pollak, an Orthodox Jew who wears a kippah and takes off work for all the Jewish holidays. He is married to a black woman from South Africa who converted to Judaism. Joel assures me that he never heard a single antisemitic utterance or saw an antisemitic action in the four years he worked together with Bannon. The same is true of numerous other Jewish individuals who work with him, some of whom thoroughly disapprove of Bannon’s politics and the way he ran Breitbart, but none of whom have reported any events of antisemitism.
The second alleged item of evidence is the following headline that appeared on Breitbart: “Bill Kristol Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.” I am advised, however, that this article and the headline were written not by Bannon but rather by David Horowitz, a right-wing Jew who was upset with Kristol for his refusal to support Trump. Horowitz deemed that a betrayal of the Jewish people. While I fundamentally disagree with that appraisal and also with the article, I find it hard to characterize Bannon as an antisemite because Breitbart ran it. Breitbart has also personally attacked me (in an article, originally published with the title “Dershowitz Goes Berserk,” which falsely claimed Laureate University received money from the State Department, when Hillary Clinton was secretary), but that doesn’t change my views.
I keep an open mind waiting for more evidence, if there is any, but on the basis of what I have read, I think it is wrong to accuse Bannon of one of the most serious forms of bigotry. So I will not join the chorus of condemnation that employs this radioactive term against Bannon without compelling evidence. The Anti-Defamation League has now commendably acknowledged: “We are not aware of any antisemitic statements from Bannon.”
As to whether Bannon promotes the alt-right, and whether the alt-right includes antisemites, I think the answer to that is yes. Both Bannon and Breitbart have made bigoted statements about Muslims, women and others, which I do not condone. That is why I do not support Bannon, even though I do not think he’s an antisemite. Bigotry against any group should be disqualifying for high office. But let’s put this criticism of Bannon and Breitbart into context. Haaretz certainly serves as a platform for the alt-left in Israel. Though it features a wide range of commentary, primarily from the center-Left, it also features hard-Left writers such as Gideon Levy, who supports academic, cultural and economic boycotts against Israel and its “criminal” regime, as well as Amira Hass, who encourages Palestinians to throw stones and engage in “violent resistance” against Israel. These writers have certainly been accused, and with some justification, of promoting hatred not only against the current Israel government, but against the very nature of Israel and Zionism. Their hateful writings are often quoted gleefully by anti-Zionists and antisemites.
This is not to compare Breitbart with Haaretz, but it is to suggest caution in holding a publication responsible for all the views expressed by its writers. To be sure, Haaretz‘s general orientation tends to be, again, center-left [sic], whereas Breitbart is hard-right, but both serve as platforms for extremes on either side. The same can be said of J Street, which is a center-left organization that serves as a platform for, and includes among its active members and contributors, BDS supporters, anti-Zionists and opponents of Israel’s existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Or consider the Movement for Black Lives, an organization with a commendable goal, which has promoted antisemitism by singling out one country for condemnation in its “platform”: calling the nation-state of the Jewish people an “apartheid” and “genocidal” regime. In an article published in Above the Law, Joe Patrice attacks me for my critique of Black Lives Matter, claiming that “it’s certainly possible someone in the movement also has sympathy for Palestinians.” But there is an enormous difference between “sympathy for Palestinians” (which I share) and accusing the entire nation-state of the Jewish people of “genocide” (which I believe is antisemitic).
Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are prevalent both on the hard-Right and on the hard-Left. The Trump election has brought hard-right antisemitism into public view, but the bigotry of the hard-Left is far more prevalent and influential on many university campuses, both in the United States and in Europe. A single standard of criticism must be directed at each. We must judge individuals on the basis of their own statements and actions, and we should be cautious in judging publications and organizations on the basis of who they publish, who their audience is and who supports them.
People of good will, Jews and non-Jews, must condemn with equal vigor all manifestations of bigotry, whether they emanate from the hard alt-right or hard alt-left. That is why I cannot support Bannon’s appointment, even though he is strongly pro-Israel. But that is also why I can’t support those on the hard-Left who advocate good causes, while at the same time promoting antisemitism and delegitimation of Israel.