At Lavish New York Gala, the Jewish Right-Wing Rises to Defend Alt-Right Godfather Steve Bannon

Right-wing Jews and Israeli ministers celebrated Bannon and the Trump era.

Alan Dershowitz rises in defense of Bannon and bashes Black Lives Matter at the ZOA gala.
Photo Credit: Dan Cohen

The rise of Donald Trump has elevated white nationalism to the forefront of American politics, but neo-Nazi-oriented groups are not the only ones feeling empowered by his election. On Sunday night at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York City, the Zionist Organization of America hosted its largest gala since its inaugural dinner in 1897. Scheduled to attend was Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News head whom Trump named as his chief White House strategist.

Since taking over Trump’s campaign last Summer, Bannon has faced sustained charges of anti-Semitism. He has boasted that Breitbart is “the platform for the alt-right,” a loose collection of open white nationalists, men’s rights advocates and anti-Muslim fanatics joined together in support of an all-white ethno-state. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist posterboy who coined the term “alt-right,” recently concluded a speech by roaring, “Hail Trump!” while several crowd members leapt to their feet and joined him in delivering Nazi sieg heil salutes.

Outside the ZOA gala, hundreds of protesters gathered to protest Bannon’s appearance. Organized by progressive Jewish groups like IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, the crowd chanted “Say it loud, say it clear, Nazis are not welcome here!” and sang the traditional Jewish hymn Hine Ma Tov (“Behold how good and nice if brothers could sit together in unity”).

Under police protection, some of the bigwigs of right-wing pro-Israel politics filed into the event. They included Israel’s far-right education minister Naftali Bennett; Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, a top funder of Trump and right-wing pro-Israel causes; the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, who has declared his support for annexing the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank; Republican Rep. Ed Royce; and philanthropist Ken Langone.

The dividing lines were clearly drawn around this gala. Outside were progressive Jews of all stripes: liberal Zionists, anti-Zionists, and those in between, all united against the domestic threat of extreme right-wing Islamophobes, anti-Semites and white nationalists gathered under Trump’s banner. Inside were the Jewish Republicans who consider unfailing support for Israel’s Likud-led government and the illegal settlement enterprise to be the ultimate measure of Jewishness. As long as Trump was willing to bend to Netanyahu’s will at every opportunity, ZOA would support him and his appointees, even those who have knowingly cultivated an online home for fascist Judeophobes. Given that ZOA was wholly dependent on the generosity of right-wing casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, also a key funder of Trump, the relationship was a natural one.

As the gala got underway, news gradually spread that Bannon, the man of the hour with an air of white power, would not attend. The mood in the VIP room turned against him.

“After all that, the f*cker didn’t even come!” event planner Rachel Glazer seethed to me as she exited the VIP room. I asked her half-jokingly if she thought Bannon’s non-appearance made him an anti-Semite.

“Probably. I believed that before,” she said before backtracking. “He’s not an anti-Semite...” she said. “I think he’s anti-women, anti-gay, and anti-African-American.”

Her statement belied ZOA’s official line on Bannon. “If there was a hint of anti-Semitism with this guy, I’d be all over him,” ZOA president Morton Klein told me. “Believe me, I’m a child of Holocaust survivors.”

Inside the main event, the disappointment over Bannon’s absence was overshadowed by the excitement of Trump’s election, as a who’s who of right-wing Zionists took the podium in front of 1,200 attendees. Following a performance of the Star Spangled Banner by Yeshiva University's a capella group the Y Studs and a video of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, the event host earned applause when he claimed Trump’s victory was by the “hand of god” and “Divinely directed.”

Despite the Bannon no-show, Morton Klein pledged to defend far-right gentiles on the condition that they are Zionists. “We will defend non-Jewish Zionists who are routinely attacked by other Jewish groups as anti-Semitic,” he railed, before launching into a fanatical and ahistorical tirade dripping with Islamophobia. “It is a propaganda myth that Jerusalem is holy to Muslims,” he shouted to the eager crowd as they sipped white wine and ate salmon. Klein went on to invoke Israel’s apocalyptic right-wing Temple Movement. “It’s not called the mosque movement!”

After reciting Bob Dylan’s ode to Zionism, "The Neighborhood Bully," Klein assured the audience, “We in this room and the Jewish people in Israel are right, and the whole world is completely and totally wrong!”

Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett claimed his birthright to all of historic Palestine. “Not a foreign land did we conquer,” he recited, quoting the Hashmonean Dynasty-era rebel Simon Maccabeus, “but what we did was return our parent’s estate.” Bennett later admitted his parents are from the San Francisco Bay Area.

While paranoia about left-wing and Islamic threats was plentiful at the ZOA banquet, irony was in short supply. When he approached the dais, celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz launched into a stemwinder warning about the rise of European far-right figures like Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders, then hammered what he called the shift to the “hard left” of universities and the Democratic National Committee. Suddenly, he veered off into an attack on the Black Lives Matter movement: “It was very hard for me to come out against Black Lives Matter,” he explained. “But as soon as I saw they put in their platform an accusation against only one country—the nation-state of the Jewish people—and accused them of genocide and being an apartheid country, I totally severed all relations with Black Lives Matter.”

This was met with gales of applause from people who had come to celebrate the far-right operative who had streamlined Breitbart News into a full-time anti-black activism attack machine.

'Treason will not go unpunished'

As Dershowitz concluded, I left the ZOA gala and hurried seven blocks up Lexington Avenue to the Marriott Hotel. Inside, a few dozen people gathered to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born rabbi who organized squads of Jewish Defense League thugs against black New York City youth and Arab activists before winning election to Israel’s parliament on a platform of ethnically cleansing all indigenous Palestinians from within Israeli-controlled borders.

Though attendees at this event reflected a much smaller, more ideologically extreme subset of pro-Israel activists, the rhetoric was strikingly similar to that at ZOA’s $700-per-plate gala. Jonathan Stern, a New York-born former Israeli soldier who runs a combat training camp in Pennsylvania implored Jews to arm themselves against “Muslims and Black Lies Matters thugs.”

“Rabbi Kahane used to say, Every Jew a 22," Stern said. “Personally, I prefer a more powerful caliber such as 9 millimeter or a 45, but his message still rings true.”

Most of those who had come to honor Kahane were elderly Jews, remnants of the now defunct Jewish Defense League Kahane founded in 1968 before he left for Israel. Among them was Yaniv Baron, a Kahanist activist who agitated against other Jews using harder and more direct rhetoric than Morton Klein had just an hour before.

“The Jewish traitors of J Street, the ADL and even the Jewish Federations who help fund radical left-wing anti-Semitic groups such as B’Tselem, Jews for Justice in Palestine and Peace Now, should know that treason will not go unpunished,” Baron said. “Everything has a price and god will see to that punishment.”

Before I arrived, the Kahanists had played a pre-recorded video greeting from Yehudah Glick, the public face of the Temple Movement who became a member of Israel’s parliament earlier this year, and whom the Israeli police described as the most dangerous man in the Middle East. Just moments before, I had listened to ZOA president Morton Klein celebrate Glick’s apocalyptic organization before a crowd of hundreds.

As the event concluded, the Kahanists recited the mourner’s prayer for the late rabbi, followed by the night’s second rendition of the Israeli national anthem. Blocks away, police had dispersed the largely Jewish crowd of nearly 1000 chanting its lungs out against Bannon outside the ZOA gala. Trump is not yet president, but he has already brought simmering Jewish divisions to the fore and out into the streets.

Dan Cohen is a contributing writer at AlterNet.

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