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by Marc Daalder
All photos courtesy of Gili Getz.
LAST NIGHT’S Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) gala held at New York City’s Grand Hyatt was practically a “who’s who” of white supremacists and Islamophobes. Racist luminaries and alt-right activists populated the crowd. But as outrageous as the ZOA’s normalization of the far right may be, the backlash at the organization -- exemplified by the 200 young Jews protesting outside the Gala -- gives reason for hope. Will Jewish denominational and mainstream organizations step up in turn, or continue to tolerate the ZOA’s dangerous behavior?
Founded in 1897, the ZOA was America’s first proper Zionist organization. Under liberal Zionist Louis Brandeis, the ZOA expanded and turned the United States into the core financial supporter of the Zionist movement. It helped found the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, now one of the Jewish community’s most important institutions.
Today this legacy is overshadowed by the organization’s hard-right turn. Under the leadership of Morton Klein, the ZOA has embraced a pro-Israel at all costs line, willing to ally itself with seemingly anyone so long as their politics on Israel are suitably rightwing.
Last night’s gala showed how far the organization is willing to go. Former Trump administration officials Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka both attended. Bannon is the editor-in-chief of the Breitbart website, a hate site and leader of the “alt-right” movement. Bannon is also alleged to have said that he didn’t want his children going to school with “whiny” Jews. Mort Klein, ZOA president, has repeatedly defended Bannon in the Jewish press. Jerry Strober, a PR consultant for the ZOA, told Jewish Currents that “Mort and the ZOA were happy to have Bannon as a speaker. [We] were delighted when Bannon, in his remarks, said that he was a Christian Zionist and expressed his strong support for Israel.”
[caption id=“attachment_65191” align=“alignleft” width=“402”] IfNotNow protestors arrive at the gala[/caption]
ZOA guest Sebastian Gorka demonstrates the tolerance the ZOA has for far-right association. Gorka infamously wore his father’s medals of the Vitezi Rend to Trump’s inauguration; Vitezi Rend was among the Nazi-allied organizations that helped deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz during the Second World War. The ZOA’s Strober stressed that, “Gorka was not a speaker, he was an invited guest. He sat alongside a number of other invited guests, but he was not a speaker.” According to the Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon, Gorka received a very warm welcome at the conference.
Gorka and Bannon were joined by smaller-time trolls as well. Included was Laura Loomer, who according to her twitter is “a Jew who actually admits that globalist Marxist Jews run the media” and who proudly filmed herself harassing Muslim-American women after the recent Manhattan terror attack. Present also was Jack Posobiec, a fan of Richard Spencer with a very large twitter following who, while attempting to discredit her, recently posted the photo of one of the women who has accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct.
Posobiec wasn’t the only defender of alleged sexual harassers in the audience. Repeat ZOA guest Benjamin Brafman -- lawyer for accused sexual assaulters Harvey Weinstein and formerly for Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- was there last night as well. Present also was Newsmax’s CEO Christopher Ruddy, a man who allows Bill O’Reilly use of his studio “as a courtesy to a friend” (O’Reilly having been ousted from Fox for alleged sexual harassment).
IT SAYS A LOT that the ZOA would host these characters to bolster a “strident, positive position on Israel.” In response, approximately 200 young Jews mobilized a protest called “Bye Bye Bannon.”
Led by the anti-Israeli Occupation movement IfNotNow -- who last year managed to keep Steve Bannon from entering the 2016 gala -- these millennial Jews are pushing back against those who embrace the far right and ally themselves with the defenders of sexual harassers. Speakers from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Democratic Socialists of America’s Jewish Solidarity Caucus, and Jewish Voice for Peace spoke at the event.
[caption id=“attachment_65193” align=“alignright” width=“387”] A protestor speaks at the gala entrance[/caption]
Protest organizer and IfNotNow member Yonit Friedman told Jewish Currents, “We think it’s horrific that [the ZOA] is giving Bannon a platform, but we also think that it makes complete sense. We think that this is the natural extension of the ‘Pro-Israel at any cost’ policies that our community has put forth for so long.
“These alliances [with white supremacists] won’t protect Jews. We know from history that cozying up to people in power has never kept us safe. As well, I personally would like to get through the Trump administration not just physically safe but with some integrity intact, and this is destroying that.”
IfNotNow’s strategy is to politicize these alliances, and it’s a good one. Jewish institutions, if they wish to retain whatever legitimacy they still hold with young Jews, should take action. They could start by demanding that the Conference of Presidents eject the ZOA. It is unconscionable that the country’s major denominational and mainstream organizations --– the Union for Reform Judaism, Orthodox Union, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, plus the Anti-Defamation League and others -- sit in council with an organization that is in solidarity with white supremacists and Islamophobes.
The violence of Charlottesville, Portland and beyond should reframe for us the urgency of this issue. The ZOA, though widely understood to be fringe, lends a Jewish veneer to a violent politic that endangers our and every minority community. “We in the Jewish community have seen an alarming uptick in threats against our community as well as threats against other marginalized communities,” Yonit noted, “Right now, solidarity with all marginalized groups is a matter of not just integrity but of survival.”
Marc Daalder is a student at Amherst and a journalist who has written on Jewish issues for the Jewish Daily Forward, where he’s a Scribe contributor, New Voices magazine, and In These Times, among others.