JFNA Dragged Into Bannon Debate
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JFNA Dragged Into Bannon Debate

Protests against Trump appointment, and concern about rise in hate crimes.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

The reaction in the Jewish community over the appointment of Steve Bannon as President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist intensified this week as protesters called on the federation system’s national umbrella group to denounce the appointment.

A petition with more than 3,500 signatures urged the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella group of North American federations, to condemn Bannon’s appointment.

JFNA, a nonprofit, has a longstanding policy of not commenting on administration appointments.

The effort is being organized by a newly formed ad-hoc group called the Jewish Community of Action Against Hate.

“After it was announced that Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon as White House chief strategist and senior counselor, we looked to our leading Jewish organizations,” said petition organizer Lindsay O’Neil, 35, who lives in Seattle and described herself as a Reform Jew who grew up in a Conservative home. “When JFNA stayed silent, we decided to create a petition to urge them to make a public statement denouncing the appointment of a man with demonstrable ties to white nationalism…”

As of Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of the petitions were being faxed to JFNA offices in New York, according to O’Neil.

A JFNA spokesperson noted that a number of the communications it received in recent days were phone calls from people who identified themselves as active in Jewish Voice for Peace, widely regarded as the largest anti-Zionist group in the U.S. “Their messages were nearly identical and appeared to be scripted,” said the JFNA spokesperson.

Bannon is the former chairman of Breitbart News, a website he described as “the platform for the alt-right,” a movement of the far right whose followers traffic in white nationalism, anti-immigration sentiment and anti-Semitism.

Individual federations have taken positions on controversial issues like the Iran nuclear deal and visits to communities in the West Bank, but JFNA has not.

In an interview with reporters and editors at The New York Times on Tuesday, Trump defended Bannon, saying that “if he thought his he was a racist or alt-right,” he wouldn’t have hired him. Trump also told the paper that he did not mean to “energize” the alt-right movement, and he denounced a white nationalist conference in Washington last weekend where some members gave the Nazi salute.

Meanwhile, a number of incidents in recent days have raised tensions in the Jewish community. From swastikas found on the subway to death threats aimed at Jewish journalists, there has been an uptick in apparent hate crimes directed against minorities — including Muslims, African Americans, immigrants and LGBT individuals.

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A swastika photographed this week on a New York City subway is part of a rash of hate in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory.

More than 100 protesters attended a rally at a Brooklyn park on Sunday to protest anti-Semitic graffiti discovered at the playground last Friday. Swastikas and the words “Go Trump” were found at Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn Heights, the playground named for the late Beastie Boys star, who was Jewish.

Elected officials including State Sen. Daniel Squadron and City Councilmembers Stephen Levin and Brad Lander joined Beastie Boys member Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz at a rally decrying the incident, according to several news reports. Protesters included families with young children.

Hundreds of protesters joined a rally on Sunday evening outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan protesting Bannon’s expected attendance at the annual gala of the Zionist Organization of America, a large pro-Israel organization. (Bannon did not attend.)

“I felt lost in a sea of people,” described Sarah Miriam Revesz, 22, press liaison for IfNotNow, an anti-occupation Jewish millennial group that helped organize the protest together with Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. She estimated there were 800 protesters in attendance.

Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, said protests against their annual gala are “nothing new.” (In the past the organization has received pushback for opposing a Palestinian state and supporting settlement-building in the West Bank, referred to by the organization as Judea and Samaria.)

“Given Trump’s platform, I have never been more confident that we will have a president who supports Israel,” said Klein. “Trump has assembled the most pro-Israel group of advisers since the State of Israel was established.”

At Yeshiva University, tensions hit close to home when a student draped himself in a Confederate flag on election night. The photo, widely circulated on social media, was first posted on Facebook by Yerachmiel Lopin, author of a blog that decries abuses within the Orthodox community.

On Monday, Yeshiva University Vice President Rabbi Kenneth Brander addressed the issue in an email to students stressing that the Confederate flag is “a symbol too closely linked to the forces of regression and hate antithetical to our religion for it to be countenanced in the halls of our institution.” (The student who wore the flag was promptly identified and deeply apologetic, according to the email. He did not intend to appeal to racism but rather “to celebrate his family’s roots in the South,” according to Rabbi Brander.)

One student who requested not to be named for fear of reprisal said she thought the university’s “failure to respond quickly” demonstrated a larger problem with Jewish organizations.

“As Jews, we shouldn’t wait for things to get really bad to speak up,” she said. “You’d think we’d have learned that by now. Our institutions — and not just YU — need to be proactive about responding to these types of situations. It might start with a flag, but hate spreads quicker than any of us know.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Jewish Community of Action Against Hate is based largely in Seattle. A spokesperson later clarified that the group does not have a base and includes individuals from 48 states. We regret the error.

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