If someone is “pro-Israel,” does that give him or her license to promote anti-Semitism, racism and sexism without criticism?
If you are a leading voice in accusing the American Muslim community of supporting Islamic terrorism, should your organization be given legitimacy by a representative of the State of Israel?
These are not theoretical questions in the new Age of Trump.
The appointment as chief White House strategist of Stephen Bannon, whose Breitbart News is a platform for white supremacists who demean women and minorities, including Jews, is being heralded by the leaders of the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Kan. It should be a signal of deep concern to our community. But some are pointing to the fact that Bannon is a supporter of Israel and associates professionally with Orthodox Jews. That is welcome news, but not enough for us to believe it qualifies him for such a key administration position, given his long and outspoken record of promoting fear and anger in politics, including his goal to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” It surely is inconsistent with President-elect Trump’s commitment to unify the country.
The Anti-Defamation League’s CEO and national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, has spoken out against the Bannon appointment, calling the new appointee’s alt-right Breitbart website “hostile to core American values.” So far, though, other mainstream Jewish organizational leaders are holding back. The AJC, for example, took a pass, noting in a statement that “presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on the appointment of every key advisor.”
The Zionist Organization of America’s president, Morton Klein, said Greenblatt was guilty of “character assassination” regarding Bannon and Breitbart News in accusing them of anti-Semitism. Klein said they are outspoken supporters of Israel and the Jewish people.
The ZOA leader is at the center of a brewing controversy over the reputation of Frank Gaffney and his Center for Security Policy. That’s the bland name for a highly contentious national security think tank in Washington that traffics in false conspiracy theories and strong anti-Islamic sentiment. Gaffney, its founder and president, is a former top Pentagon official widely criticized for stirring up fear of and bias toward innocent Muslim Americans.
The center is honoring Klein and Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, on Dec. 13 with its annual Freedom Flame Award. It saddens us that Dermer in particular, as Israel’s envoy, gives legitimacy to an organization that fuels conspiracy theories intended to undermine the loyalty to this country of the great majority of American Muslims.
Sharp criticism of Gaffney comes from a variety of respected sources. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls him “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.” The ADL says he “has promulgated a number of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories over the years.” Those include charges that President Obama is a Muslim, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin is an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood and Gen. David Petraeus follows Sharia law.
Republican U.S. Sens. John McCain, Marco Rubio and Scott Brown have spoken out against Gaffney, as has former House Speaker John Boehner, calling such allegations “dangerous.”
Klein told The Jewish Week that Gaffney is “a great Zionist” who has “legitimate concerns about radical Muslims” in America.
Several leaders of major Jewish organizations have urged Dermer, privately, to decline the award, especially at a time when Trump’s election has heightened fears among American Muslims regarding their civil and religious rights. Dermer has held firm, though, asserting through an Israeli Embassy statement that he is honored to receive the award and “greatly appreciates the Center for Security Policy’s support for a strong and secure Israel.”
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In the past he has said that “the enemy we face” is not Islam but “militant Islam.” The embassy statement noted that Dermer “is not aware of any anti-Muslim views held by the Center for Security Policy and certainly would not endorse any such view.”
At a moment of deep anxiety about the direction of the new administration, our communal leaders need to think long and hard about how to weigh the merits of “pro-Israel” support against those who would undermine core Jewish and American values like protecting our society’s most vulnerable citizens. And our leaders need to determine if and how they will respond to government officials – even in the Oval Office – who seek to divide rather than unite our society.
Flame-throwers should not be associated with the flame of freedom.