The Anti-Defamation League has long identified anti-Semites and racists who lurk on the Internet and in underground hate groups.
Five days after the presidential election, it condemned a leader of that corner of the internet who is about to be in the White House.
“The ADL strongly opposes the appointment of Steve Bannon as senior advisor and chief strategist in the White House,” the organization wrote about one of President-elect Donald Trump’s first choices for his new team. “It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house.’ ”
The ADL, whose mission is to prevent anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, has been joined by some Jewish organizations in calling out anti-Semitic behavior by Donald Trump’s supporters. The ADL’s stance during the campaign was criticized by the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which supports Republican candidates, as being too partisan. Other major Jewish organizations have held back in speaking out against Trump’s choice of Bannon as his chief strategist, preferring to pledge their hope of working with the new president and the administration that he is in the process of assembling.
The differing responses to the Trump presidency have highlighted tensions among Jewish Americans, who find themselves faced with what is perhaps a no-win decision. On the one hand, they fear that if Jews complain too shrilly now, they could be shut out of the decision-making process in the White House for four years. On the other, they fear assenting quietly as the terrifying anti-Semitism of the alt-right bubbles up from the depths of the Internet all the way into the highest seat of power.
“They really do want to work with the new administration as much as they can, inasmuch as their conscience will allow. They have legislative agendas,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a strategy consultant who works for several major Jewish institutions and also ran a Super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton. “Criticizing them six days after their election is not a great way to start, unless you feel compelled because what happened is just so egregious that you have to.”
For the ADL, which Rabinowitz does not work for, the appointment of Bannon — the executive chairman of the website Breitbart News, where members of the so-called alt-right aired their views, including overtly white supremacist and anti-Semitic standpoints — called for strong words. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which represents American Judaism’s largest denomination, also published a statement about Bannon’s appointment. It said, in part: “Mr. Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. There should be no place for such views in the White House.”
But others pointedly declined to criticize Bannon. The American Jewish Committee’s assistant executive director for policy, Jason Isaacson, wrote in a statement to The Washington Post, “Presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on the appointment of every key advisor.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying group, told Forward reporter Nathan Guttman that it has a “long-standing policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments.”
Many in the Jewish community disapproved of organizations that spoke out and organizations that didn’t. Jews on social media urged one another to call AIPAC to demand it condemn Bannon, and bemoaned a mostly pro forma letter from the Jewish Federations of North America congratulating Trump on his victory.
From the other side, Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told the Forward that he thought the ADL had been too partisan when it highlighted anti-Semitism among Trump’s supporters during the campaign. “I think it bears watching, and I think that the ADL has put itself potentially in a compromising position going forward, in terms of its ability to interact with the incoming administration,” he said. He declined to comment on the group’s criticism of Bannon.
Opinions were mixed Monday night at the Washington Hilton, where the Jewish Federations of North America, a group of Jewish charities from more than 150 cities, was holding its annual meeting. Howard Epstein, 65, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Omaha, said that he is willing to give Bannon a chance but that Jewish organizations “really have to be vigilant” and be ready to condemn anything that gives rise to further anti-Semitism.
Sam Hirsch, a 65-year-old physician from Ann Arbor, Mich., said Jewish organizations ought to be responding to Bannon’s appointment “not with anger, but with sincerity that this is not acceptable.” He said almost no one seemed convinced by a speaker from the Republican Jewish Coalition at the conference who tried to assure listeners that Bannon “doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which said on the day after the election that it “could not be happier with the election of Donald Trump,” is distinctly in the minority among Jews.
Jews made up just 3 percent of the electorate last week, according to exit polls, and 71 percent of them voted for Hillary Clinton, while 24 percent voted for Trump. Jewish voters tend to be liberal, but Clinton’s very strong showing with Jews was still below the support for earlier Democratic candidates from Jewish voters. Her husband won 80 percent of Jewish voters in his 1992 presidential campaign and 78 percent in 1996. Al Gore, who picked the first Jewish vice-presidential nominee, won 79 percent of Jews in 2000.
Barack Obama won 78 percent of Jews in his first campaign but dropped to 69 percent support — slightly less than Hillary Clinton received this year — in his bid for reelection, perhaps because many Jewish leaders saw him as not supportive enough of Israel. Clinton also was criticized in the Jewish community, especially among the Orthodox, for supporting the Iran nuclear deal that Israel opposed.
To Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College who studies American Jewry, Jewish organizations should just give up now on any hope of influencing the Trump White House.
“The only thing they can do is organize toward the 2018 midterm election or the 2020 election,” he said. “I’m being realistic.”
But Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, said he remains optimistic that his organization can work with the new administration, just as it worked with the Bush and Obama White Houses. The organization participated in a White House summit on Countering Violent Extremism under Obama and works with law enforcement agencies to alert them to hate groups’ activities online. ADL monitoring has helped the FBI arrest Muslim extremists in the United States and helped Arizona law enforcement arrest a white supremacist leader who was spotted in online images carrying a firearm despite the terms of his probation, the group said.
The ADL also works with companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube as they set their policies to reduce hate on the Internet. Companies have removed terrorists’ videos from their sites after the ADL informed them, for example.
Some conservatives view Greenblatt with suspicion: He worked in the Obama White House himself before taking over at the helm of the ADL from Abraham Foxman, a long-respected leader.
Greenblatt said he has hope of a working relationship with the Trump team despite a rocky start.
“Some didn’t like it when we called out the KKK decades ago in the South. Some didn’t like it here in D.C. when we called out Joe McCarthy, which we did. That’s not new for the ADL,” he said.
Greenblatt was encouraged by Trump’s words about countering hate on “60 Minutes” and by the appointment of career political operative Reince Priebus to be the White House chief of staff. Other Jewish leaders have nodded to Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, both of whom are influential in his inner circle and are Jewish.
Still, Greenblatt said of Bannon’s Breitbart website: “We saw it become really a cauldron of some of the worst impulses in society. . . . What concerns us is finding someone who traffics in those ideas down the hall from the Oval Office.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of an Ann Arbor physician who attended the Jewish Federations of North America convention. He is Sam Hirsch.