Yesterday, insofar as anyone can recall, was the first-ever White House commemoration of Israel’s birth as a nation.
It was a top-of-the-line, incredible Israel Independence day celebration, attended by many of America’s leaders paying homage to the Jewish state.
Here you had the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, representing himself and President Donald Trump, summoning Jewish, Christian, and other American leaders to our country’s center of power to celebrate the creation of a foremost ally, a nation comprised of survivors of history’s greatest crime.
The event showed such immeasurable respect from the Trump administration toward the world’s only Jewish state, and was profoundly moving.
David Friedman, in his first official role as the new U.S. Ambassador to the State of Israel, served as master of ceremonies. Also present was Jason Greenblatt, a true friend of Israel who serves as Chief Middle East negotiator. Mike Pence gave a religiously-themed address, quoting often from the Bible. He displayed a deep connection to his Christian faith, fused as it is with a sincere attachment to Israel and the Jewish people. As he spoke of the Jewish people’s return to their land, and the fulfillment thereby of so many Biblical promises, one could see just how moved he was. Then, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, followed with another beautiful address about the deep and fundamental friendship shared by America and the Jewish State.
Steve Bannon, the President’s Chief Strategist, agreed to receive me and my wife, and I thanked him for his deep friendship to Israel, which he had always displayed as head of Breitbart and now as a trusted counselor to the President.
I had first met Steve during the transition. You can imagine how busy he must have been at the time, too. Still, when I asked to discuss the importance of the administration having a strong human rights agenda, he immediately agreed and was generous with his time.
In Syria, Aleppo was being bombed regularly. The Assad offensive was devastating civilians, with untold thousands being murdered. I believed firmly that something had to be done.
In the end it would be the Trump Administration which would be the first to take action against Assad, punishing for gassing Arab children, after years of inaction on the part of President Obama.
I greatly enjoyed the conversation with Steve. I found him to be stimulating, direct, focused, warm, knowledgeable, and to the point.
As I left the meeting, I was astonished that this was the man who was being so demonized. What was more disturbing was that he was being labeled an antisemite.
How can a man who publicly fights BDS, stands as a foremost opponent of the Jew-hating genocidal regime in Iran, and opens a Breitbart bureau in Jerusalem so that Israel’s voice can be heard be labeled an antisemite? Tell me, if you can, how a man who appoints some of the proudest Jews I know – like my friend Joel Pollak – to senior positions at Breitbart be an enemy of my people?
Some at the time, and on my Twitter feed since, have taken to calling Bannon a “Nazi.” And here, you must forgive a brief diversion.
Just last week, I visited Auschwitz, this time as part of the hope-filled and inspiring March of the Living. If you were to walk through Auschwitz-Birkenau, seeing the tens of thousands of pairs of shoes, of men, women, and especially children; or seeing the tons, literally, of shorn hair from the women brought to the camps so as to be used by the SS in manufacturing; or, had you just walked through the haunting shadows of the gas chambers, the idea that there are those who would trivialize the horrors of the Holocaust and abuse the word “Nazi” would sicken you to your core.
What is most shocking is that this smear comes from people want to be decent, all while burning with such ferocious hatred that they will take a presidential advisor whom they dislike and drape him with history’s most damning term, drawing an equivalence between him and the men who gassed 1.5 million children.
Let’s call such name-calling what it is: the trivialization of the Holocaust and the demeaning of its victims.
I am well aware that we have just been through a tough election and I completely understand those who disagree with Trump or Bannon’s policies. I personally and publicly disagree with a refugee ban, and as a Jew I stand up strongly for those who are fleeing horrors at home. America should be a sanctuary for the oppressed.
But to call someone an antisemite with zero evidence, or the disgusting moniker “Nazi,” is completely beyond the pale, especially when the person in question has shown stalwart support for the State of Israel. And I, as a member of a people who have been unfairly demonized often, will stand up to defend the name of those being falsely maligned.
While America should most definitely take in Syrian refugees, something I have said publicly and repeatedly, the real issue is that there should never have been refugees in the first place. President Obama should have done something to stop the slaughter. We pleaded with him to do so. But while Aleppo was falling in December 2016, and being bombed into oblivion, the Obama administration seemed more concerned to condemn Israeli settlements at the United Nations than the mass murder of Arab civilians in Syria. The world would have to wait for the Trump administration to see action taken to punish Assad’s despicable use of poison gas.
Joel Pollak had shared with me many times how Bannon showed the highest respect to Jewish employees at Breitbart, always accommodating their religious requirements. Joel told me how Bannon would often ask questions about Judaism in order to ensure that the Jewish employees would have all their needs accommodated, like leaving early on the Sabbath and festivals.
It goes without saying, of course, that Breitbart itself is arguably one of the most consistently pro-Israel sites on the web today, and has been a staunch adversary of the antisemitic “boycott, divestment, sanctions” (BDS) movement, which seeks the economic destruction of the State of Israel.
As for racist comments, I write for Breitbart, just as I write for the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, the Jerusalem Post, the New York Observer, and the Daily Beast. I have seen racist nut-jobs comment on my posts at each of those outlets. My innumerable columns about Israel on The Huffington Post have brought significant Israel-hatred. But I never saw that as a reflection on the publication.
As for charges of extremist rhetoric, some of the most anti-Israel screeds I have ever read have appeared in places like the Huffington Post, even as I consider my long-time friend Arianna Huffington an obvious and phenomenal friend of the Jewish people. I condemn in the strongest terms white supremacist hate speech wherever, and in whatever outlets, it appears. No one has suffered more under white supremacist hate speech that we Jews and all must be vigilant against racism of every stripe.
In my religion, defaming someone unfairly is a sin. And there is zero evidence that Steve Bannon has anything but warmth and respect toward the Jewish people. I have my disagreements with Bannon on some important policies. But the level of hate I have witnessed on my Twitter feed over the past few days disappoints and saddens me. We have to learn to live with each other and respect each others’ views. Argue, disagree — but not hate.
All of us are responsible. And all of us must make more of an effort at harmony in America so that we can disagree but without the levels of acrimony that are becoming unacceptable.
Yesterday I invited Bannon to our organization’s annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala, being held on May 21 at New York’s Cipriani. The dinner will also feature President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, the only living person to have stopped a genocide, which he did in 1994 after nearly one million Tutsis had been hacked to death by Hutu genocidaires. We are also extremely honored to host Martin Luther King III as a keynote speaker at our gala.
At the White House this week, after thanking Steve for his support of Israel on its 69th birthday, we took a picture and he allowed me tweet it.
— Rabbi Shmuley (@RabbiShmuley) May 2, 2017
— Rabbi Shmuley (@RabbiShmuley) May 2, 2017
Needless to say, the picture — with the whiteboard of campaign promises and priorities in the background — seems to be the tweet heard around the world.
While I did not notice anything on the board behind us at the time, I must say that I am happy to see that repealing the catastrophic Iran nuclear agreement, and moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, remain important to the administration.
Many condemned me for the picture, and a steady stream of hate has been channeled, one again, in my direction. That will not deter me from standing up for friends of Israel and my people.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 31 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.