Over the past three weeks, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon for chief strategist has drawn a lot of attention. Bannon has been accused of turning conservative website Breitbart News into a home for neo-Nazis and the alt-right movement, of being a racist, a white supremacist, and even an anti-Semite. At the same time, however, many major American Jewish organizations have remained silent or even sided with Bannon. These groups must condemn him immediately or risk being left behind by a far more radical generation of Jewish activists.After all, the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party praised Bannon’s appointment too.
And the silence of Jewish organizations stands in marked contrast to a great flurry of attention and criticism from all corners. Conservatives, liberals, and leftists have all condemned Bannon – as have the editorial boards of The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and dozens of other newspapers nationwide.
The Jewish Federations of North America, on the other hand, have largely remained uninvolved in the Bannon drama, saying, “It is not JFNA policy to comment on pending executive branch appointments.”
Similarly, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee told Politico, “AIPAC has a long-standing policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments,” despite insiders reporting they are “apoplectic.” The American Jewish Committee (AJC) told The Forward’s Nathan Guttman that “Presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on appointment of every key advisor.”
Worse, a number of notable establishment organizations have backed Bannon’s appointment wholeheartedly. The Republic Jewish Coalition (RJC) released a statement praising his dedication to Israel, with Board Member Bernie Marcus writing, “I have known Steve to be a passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel.” The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) not only supported Bannon but demanded an apology from his critics – and even went so far as to invite him to their annual gala.
On the other hand, a number of courageous groups have come out strongly against Bannon. Chief among them is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), whose CEO wrote in a statement, “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 activist wing of the Union for Reform Judaism announced that they were “deeply disturbed” by Bannon’s appointment, and the National Council of Jewish Women advocated, “Bannon and his ilk must be barred from [Trump’s] administration.”
Perhaps most significant, there have been fierce reactions among millennial Jewish groups. Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization founded in 2011, called the appointment of “avowed bigot” Steve Bannon “as horrifying as it is unsurprising.”
But the group went beyond statements, immediately organizing a campaign to have Bannon fired and express solidarity with other marginalized groups in the post-election United States. Entitled “We’ve Seen This Before,” the campaign roots a powerful call for mobilization in Jewish history.
Similarly, IfNotNow – which formed to protest Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – went beyond condemnation of Bannon and actively scheduled a number of protests. The first action coalesced around the ZOA’s inviting Bannon to their gala. Five hundred Jewish protesters attended, and Bannon was a no-show. On Nov. 30, IfNotNow also led a “Jewish Day of Resistance” against Bannon and several aspects of the Trump administration, protesting in dozens of cities and towns across the country.
In light of all this, I have come to two conclusions as a millennial Jew. The first is simple and straightforward: Groups that have yet to denounce Bannon must do so.
As Jews, we have a moral obligation to not stand silently in these times. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel famously swore “never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
If American Jewish groups truly claim to represent American Jews, they cannot be silent when someone who poses a threat to our safety comes to power in the White House.
My second conclusion accompanies the reluctant understanding that many Jewish groups will not heed this moral imperative: Those who remain silent will be left behind.
The American Jewish community is experiencing vast changes, unlike any it has undergone since the early twentieth century when waves of Russian Jewish immigration reshaped our linguistic, cultural, and ideological landscape. Today, my generation represents a sea of change in the cultural and particularly ideological makeup of our community. We are far more dedicated to social justice and far more willing to criticize Israel than our elders – but that doesn’t make our commitment to Judaism and Jewishness any less strong.
We simply draw our values from a different part of Jewish history. Our generation is uniquely radical. Jews have always aligned themselves with the cause of social justice, but rarely have entire generations rooted their Jewishness in that cause.
We should follow in the footsteps, not just of our good liberal parents and grandparents, but also in those of our radical forebears – Rosa Luxemburg, Abraham Cahan, Noam Chomsky, and even Bernie Sanders.
Doing so means recognizing that Bend the Arc and IfNotNow represent the future of American Jews, bolstered by conventional groups like the ADL and the National Council of Jewish Women. Doing so means not shying away from tackling the Jewish Federations, AIPAC, and the ZOA.
The conservatism and traditionalism of previous generations of American Jews is on its last leg, and the radicalism of my generation is on the rise. Jewish groups have a choice to make.
Groups that remain silent in the face of white supremacy and anti-Semitism are the remnants of an establishment that we millennials have no fear grappling with – but even more importantly have no fear leaving behind.
Marc Daalder is a junior at Amherst College majoring in History. He is a Scribe contributor for the Jewish Daily Forward and has also been published in the Financial Times, the Chicago Reader, In These Times, and the student publication AC Voice.