Tel Aviv Diary: Steve Bannon Raises the Specter of an Anti-Semitic America

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When you’re sitting with friends in Tel Aviv these days, it’s really easy to become depressed about the state of world. Though the weather has been glorious—65 at night, 80 during the day, without a cloud in the sky—the winter storms do not feel all that far away.

For Jews (and Tel Aviv is the most Jewish major city in the world), the universe seems to have been turned upside down in the past few months and days. The election of Donald Trump is just another in a series of events that has changed the way residents of Tel Aviv view the world.

Every Israeli is taught to never forget the Holocaust and to fear there might be another such unspeakable atrocity lurking just beyond the horizon. This dread is buried deep in the DNA of most Israelis and, for that matter, within most Jews worldwide.

In the United States, when the Pew Research Center asked American Jews, “What does it mean to be Jewish?,” 73 percent believed remembering the Holocaust was the most important element of Jewish identity.

However, for the past several decades, the “Nazis” were Arab states or militant groups that wanted to destroy Israel and kill Jews. When Israelis were concerned about anti-Semitism, it generally seemed to be the anti-Semitism on the left of the political spectrum (i.e., those obsessed with Israel’s actions beyond their concern for the behavior of any other country in the world.

To further confuse matters, over the past few years, Jews in Europe have repeatedly been victims of anti-Semitism at the hands of Muslim immigrants. This has resulted in some Jews supporting calls to stop the immigration of Muslims into their countries.

Today, all of this appears to have changed. Suddenly, Jews are waking up to the fact that the real threat might be not from the left but from the right. It started in Hungary, where the government took an ultra-nationalist approach and elected the Jobbik party. Now a clearly neo-Nazi party has become a serious player in Hungarian politics.

In Poland—a place with so many terrible Jewish memories, but where, nonetheless, there has been no need for guards at synagogues—a right-wing government has been in power for the past two years. The new Polish government has fostered an atmosphere conducive to the neo-Nazi National Radical Camp (ONR) party, which has been growing with tacit government support. The ONR was outlawed in prewar Poland for being too anti-Jewish.

In France, the fear is that the far-right National Front Party, led by Marine Le Pen, might win the next election. In Britain, voters passed Brexit and, with its victory, unleashed a wave of xenophobia that most Brits did not believe existed.

And this past week we had the election of Trump after a campaign that brought out a level of explicit anti-Semitism most people thought had disappeared from the American scene forever.

11_16_Bannon_Antisemitic_01 Stephen Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump's new chief strategist, at Trump Tower in Manhattan on August 25. Marc Schulman writes that Israelis are realizing that the anti-Semitic threat might come not from the left but the right. Carlo Allegri/reuters

Many Israelis are doing their best to ignore the election outcome. Israel Hayom, the country’s newspaper with the largest circulation, owned by Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson, has completely ignored the controversy surrounding the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist.

The sudden rise of primordial anti-Semitism has come as a shock to most Jews, whether in Israel or the United States. For the majority of American Jews, there had been a sense that over the course of the past 20 years, Jews had become so much a part of the American fabric that any explicit anti-Semitism was a relic of the past. In the eyes of many Israelis, the only anti-Semites were the critics of Israel.

For Israelis, and especially those on the far right, the re-emergence of classic anti-Semitism is particularly confusing. Many of them instinctively supported right-leaning parties and were not all that concerned about some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric. After all, in their minds most Muslims do not like Israel, and many are clearly anti-Semitic.

These Israelis have been coming to the wrong conclusion, but for different reasons compared with Israeli leftists. To the right, if you are pro-Israel, you cannot be anti-Semitic; to the left, if you are liberal in your views and support human rights, you cannot be anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, they are both wrong.

Some on the right cannot get over the cognitive dissonance of right-wing anti-Semitism. So much so that one prominent right-wing writer, Caroline Glick, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, felt she had to say on Facebook that “Steve Bannon is not an anti-Semite, he is anti-leftist. Despite the ravings of the [Anti-Defamation League], which is now a Jewish organization staffed by leftists, ‘Jewish’ and ‘leftist’ are not synonymous.”

An amazing tweet against an organization that has been at the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism. I have no idea whether Bannon is an anti-Semite, but according to Glick, he can’t be because he supports Israel.

The Jewish people are suddenly facing a whole new world, one where nationalism has risen and where dormant xenophobia has been awakened and with it the most ancient of all hatreds.

For some Israelis, these newly emboldened forces of evil only strengthen their worldview. They insist that we can rely only on ourselves and that we must turn inward. However, most residents of Tel Aviv see themselves as residents of a global city in the new world we may have to confront, which is indeed a very dangerous and unfamiliar place.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.