Steve Bannon and the End of the Israel Litmus Test Myth

Steve Bannon’s relegation to the category of “anti-Semite”, in spite of his clear affection for Israel, marks a milestone in American politics that cannot be entirely walked back on now.

Oh, when the "saints" go marching in. (photo - Twitter)

For decades, it was an open secret in Washington. Many members of Congress long labored under the delusion that Israel was both the most important political issue for American Jews and a unifying force for the Jewish community.

The truth though, was that this was always a myth, albeit one that many Jews were happy to encourage. It made the job of lobbying the powers that be on behalf of pro-Israel policies easier.

That is not to say that most American Jews don’t care about Israel. Even Jewish demographic surveys that provide the most pessimistic data about continuity issues and the declining sense of Jewish peoplehood, make it clear that most U.S. Jews still care about the fate of the Jewish state. But for the vast majority, it is just one of many issues of concern and usually far down the list, below ones associated with the domestic liberal agenda they support.

Yet it was also true that a public figure who was devoted to Israel could count on at least a degree of sympathy from the organized Jewish community, even if the liberal establishment did not view their political views sympathetically.

But that is no longer the case.

Steve Bannon, the CEO and former White House Senior Counselor, has become a driving force in the transformation of the Republican Party, as well as a deeply controversial figure. He can now add one more item to his list of accomplishments. He’s also conclusively exposed how little most American Jews think about the question of support for Israel, when considering their political choices.

Since the end of his brief tenure as one of the main combatants in the Trump West Wing circus, Bannon has returned to “Breitbart” and is leading an effort to purge establishment Republicans from Congress. While his influence over the president and his supporters may be exaggerated, his attempt to rouse the GOP base – those who love Trump and despise the party’s Congressional leadership as much, if not more than it does Democrats – is at the center of a struggle for control of the party, heading into the 2018 midterm elections.

Bannon’s outsized reputation as a key figure in American politics has less to do though with his role supporting primary challengers to Republican incumbents, than it does with his stewardship of “Breitbart” and its supposed reputation as the leading voice of the “Alt Right”. That has made him the focus of a counter-attack from establishment Republicans, denouncing him as an anti-Semite from whom all members of the party ought to steer clear.

These charges echo the attacks on both Trump and Bannon coming from liberals and Democrats over the last year, in which the president’s alleged anti-Semitic attitudes are backed up by citing the publisher’s influence. Now, some Jews, notably Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, have stepped into the fray defending Bannon, who spoke at the group’s national dinner in New York last weekend.

The most significant aspect of this episode is not so much the unusual manner in which a Jewish group has involved itself in this debate, as it is the way Bannon’s pro-Israel stance and the prominent role Jews play at “Breitbart”, have been dismissed as irrelevant by most of those Jews commenting about him.

Bannon, a former U.S. Naval officer, investment banker and film industry figure, took over the online publication after its founder, Andrew Breitbart, died in 2012. The publication began life as merely another conservative voice challenging the liberal media on a host of issues, including bias against Israel. It is best known now for embracing harsh stands on immigration and trade that Donald Trump wound up championing in the 2016 presidential campaign.

As a leading voice of the populist faction of the right, “Breitbart” gained new importance during the 2016 presidential campaign, as Donald Trump’s rise demonstrated the decline in influence of traditional conservative thought leaders.

Like Trump, Bannon’s “Breitbart” pandered at times to extremists, with Bannon even claiming at one point that it was “the platform for the alt-right.” But that line — which has since been repeatedly thrown in Bannon’s face by critics — was something of an empty boast. Though “Breitbart”, like Trump, may be guilty at times of dog whistling to extremists, the website published nothing that could be fairly termed white supremacist, let alone anti-Semitic.

That has not stopped Bannon’s detractors from continuing to assert that he is an anti-Semite. The best “Breitbart” bashers can do — other than to refloat unsubstantiated personal attacks on Bannon that stemmed from a contentious divorce he went through — is to point to an article by David Horowitz in which William Kristol, the “Weekly Standard”’s publisher, was termed a “rogue Jew” for opposing Trump. The headline and the article were debatable, but its argument — that Jewish opponents of Trump were undermining Israel, since electing Hillary Clinton would hurt the Jewish state — was actually rooted in support for Israel, not anti-Semitism.

Yet the charge has stuck largely because liberal Jews seem unable to separate their distaste for Bannon’s politics — especially his backing of Trump and willingness to attack his foes — from the idea that anyone associated with the populist right must, almost by definition, be somehow tied to anti-Semitism, even if evidence to support that charge has yet to be produced.

What is most curious about this debate is that Bannon’s record of unstinting support for Israel, is considered by liberals to be wholly irrelevant to the discussion. For those who see Judaism as liberalism — or, as the old joke goes, the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in — Israel has become an afterthought, if not discarded altogether as a criteria to judge individuals.

At a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism spreading around the globe is largely predicated on anti-Zionist slurs against Israel, one might suppose that evidence of genuine sympathy for the Jewish state and fervent opposition to its Palestinian and Iranian foes ought to be treated, at least until proven otherwise, as testament to a favorable view of Jews and their rights. That’s especially true when it is combined with a record of hiring and empowering Jews, as is the case at “Breitbart”. Yet liberal Jews are not willing to give Bannon that benefit of the doubt.

Indeed, many liberal Jews seem inclined to make allowances for an Israel-hater who has dabbled in anti-Semitic rhetoric like Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, because of her public opposition to Trump. Just as troubling is the way they are willing to damn those Jews who defend Bannon, like Klein or even liberal journalist J.J. Goldberg, who debunked the anti-Semitism charge in a Forward column, as somehow betraying the Jews for Israel’s sake.

Bannon will continue to thrive without the approbation of liberal Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which has helped fuel the attacks on him. But the real casualty here is the entire notion of an Israel litmus test in which political figures can be judged, at least in part, on the basis of their willingness to defend Israel.

Bannon’s relegation to the category of an anti-Semite in spite of his clear affection for Israel, its government and its people, marks a milestone in American politics that cannot be entirely walked back.

If support for an embattled Israel gains a figure no credit among the group with the strongest ties to the Jewish state, then from here on out any conservative who does so must understand that Jewish liberals won’t give him the time of day, no matter how fervent his affection for the cause they assumed Jews cared about.

If they hadn’t figured it out before, the slurs against Bannon will remind members of Congress that they must look to Christian supporters of Israel for validation, not an organized Jewish community that is steadily being co-opted into the anti-Trump resistance.


Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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