PORTLAND, Maine — Klan members, white nationalists and neo-Nazis believe they have gained an ally in the White House with President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon to a top White House position.
Some Maine Jews are worried they might be right.
“Overwhelmingly, the sense of the Jewish community is that the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign and his choice for leadership raise concerns for the Jewish community not only for our own wellbeing but for the wellbeing of other minority communities in our country,” Rabbi Jared Saks of South Portland’s Congregation Bet Ha’am said.
In addition to being embraced by open anti-Semites, Trump’s top adviser and former campaign CEO has been accused of holding anti-Jewish views himself. In a 2007 court statement made as part of a child custody dispute, Bannon’s ex-wife said he didn’t want the couple’s twin daughters to attend a private California school because of the many Jewish students there. A spokeswoman for Bannon denied these claims to CNN.
But it is Bannon’s “verifiable history” that concerns Saks. With a congregation that mostly voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton but also has some Trump voters, the rabbi said he hopes the president-elect will fulfill his pledge to unify the country and govern for all Americans. But Saks finds Bannon’s record worrisome: He has been denounced by the Anti-Defamation League as an agent of the alt-right.
Bannon kept a low profile during the campaign, but he has not denied this association. A motley, mostly male movement of white supremacists and white nationalists that opposes feminism, multiculturalism and integration, the alt-right was little known before the 2016 election. It rose to prominence largely through Bannon’s website Breitbart News, which he reportedly called “the platform for the alt-right,” shortly after taking over the Trump campaign.
The website’s relationship with Jews is complicated, and the definition of alt-right is contested, but the anti-Semitism of self-declared members is unabashed and unrestrained. Online, members of the alt-right make sport of harassing minorities, including altering photographs of Nazi concentration camps to show a variation of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” on the gates of Auschwitz and imposing the faces of Jewish journalists on emaciated prisoners.
David Brenerman, a Democratic member of Portland’s City Council who is Jewish, said it is troubling that the president-elect would bring Bannon into the West Wing. He noted that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is an observant Jew and that his daughter Ivanka converted to the faith but nonetheless expressed concern with what message Bannon’s appointment broadcasts to the nation.
“I think that symbols mean something and this guy worked for an organization that was a vehicle for white supremacists,” Brenerman said of Bannon. “By hiring him it indicates that there is tacit support for his perspective.”
But American Jewry is divided in what to think of Bannon. Prominent lawyer and Zionist Alan Dershowitz told MSNBC on Tuesday that he’s seen “no evidence” that Bannon himself is an anti-Semite, noting that while he is supported by bigots he also hired and worked with Jews at Breitbart.
Several Maine congregations declined to comment on Bannon’s appointment, saying they were reserving judgment on the man who will sit down the hall from the Oval Office.
The Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine is likewise taking a wait-and-see approach, according to executive director Ellie Miller. But the organization already has worries.
“The accusations [against Bannon] make it clear that we need to be both watchful and concerned,” Miller said.