(JTA) — Stephen Bannon said in 2014 that racism would eventually get “washed out” of right-wing nationalist movements and spoke repeatedly of Western society being built on “Judeo-Christian” ideas.
Bannon, who was named this week by President-elect Donald Trump to be a top White House adviser, has been accused of being part of a broad movement, the alt-right, which includes elements of racism and anti-Semitism. Earlier this year he called Breitbart News, the website he formerly chaired, a “platform for the alt-right.” Bannon served as the chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign.
A number of Jewish groups have condemned his hiring publicly as top White House strategist and two notably have defended it.
In a question-and-answer session he gave at a conference at the Vatican in 2014 that was unearthed by BuzzFeed News, Bannon downplayed concerns of anti-Semitism and racism in European right-wing nationalist parties, suggesting that bigots were on the fringes of those movements and would fade away.
“I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that they have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial,” Bannon said, according to the transcript published Tuesday by BuzzFeed. “Some that are fringe organizations. My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.”
Bannon expressed similar sentiments in an interview Tuesday with The New York Times, saying “It’s not that some people on the margins, as in any movement, aren’t bad guys — racists, anti-Semites. But that’s irrelevant.”
In the 2014 Vatican talk, Bannon stressed several times that Western civilization was built on Judeo-Christian values.
“If you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West,” Bannon said, according to the transcript published by BuzzFeed. “They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did.”
Attempts to pin down whether Bannon shares some of the bigoted views contained in the loose-knit alt-right movement have focused in part on his ex-wife’s sworn affidavits during a 2007 custody battle in which she accused him of battery, as well as making anti-Semitic remarks while they searched for a private school for their girls. Bannon has denied her account.
According to the ex-wife’s testimony, Bannon objected to one school in the Los Angeles area, The Archer School for Girls, because Jews raise their children to be “whiny brats” and he did not want his daughters attending a school with Jews.
In another incident, at the Westland School, he “asked the director why there were so many Hanukkah books in the library,” according to the affidavit.
New York magazine on Tuesday reported that it had confirmed with the director of the Westland School that the exchange about Hanukkah had indeed taken place, but the director did not view Bannon’s question as anti-Semitic.
The director, who is Jewish and asked not to be named, said the issue of Hanukkah arose during discussion on the school’s outlook on religion; the school celebrates all religions without adhering to any of them. Bannon apparently misunderstood, according to this account, and believed that the school did not entertain any religious engagement, so he wondered why he saw so many Hanukkah books in the library.
“I think the context was different from what I’ve read in the papers,” she told New York.
Criticism of Bannon’s appointment by groups like the Anti-Defamation League and Union for Reform Judaism focused on his work as editor at the often controversial Breitbart and not his private life. The URJ statement said that in his role at Breitbart, “Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia.”
Separately, the Zionist Organization of America has invited Bannon to its annual gala next month in New York, Jewish Insider reported. The ZOA, which is right wing and noted Breitbart’s advocacy for Israel, was one of two Jewish groups that have publicly defended Bannon along with the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Morton Klein, the ZOA president, told Jewish Insider that Bannon may speak at the event.