WASHINGTON — There were two Steve Bannons at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs gathering this week.
At one session, the presidential adviser was the man seeking the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Bannon put it last week.
At a session an hour later, Bannon was a man of the people who “has been friends with Jews his entire life,” as one speaker said.
And while neither Bannon nor President Donald Trump attended the three-day JCPA conference, they weren’t far from the minds of the 200 staffers of the liberal policy organization and representatives of Jewish community relations councils from around the country in attendance.
The two back-to-back sessions served up vastly different conclusions about the first month of the Trump administration, and how Jewish advocacy organizations should deal with Trump & Co.
First came three journalists who are critical of Trump’s actions and who see the constitutional system of checks and balances “hanging in the balance right now,” said panelist Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post.
“It’s immensely depressing to see how many on the right have given up on their signature issues” — small government, balanced budget, among them, she said.
Even so, E.J. Dionne, a liberal columnist for the Post noted there was “a fair amount of good news so far,” in the Trump era. The three-judge 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel not only blocked what Dionne called “the Muslim ban,” but “they went out of their way to appear nonpartisan” in their decision.
As journalists, Dionne, Rubin and panelist Wajahat Ali, creative director of Affinis Labs, viewed as dangerous Trump’s attacks on the media and his labeling of stories that put him in a bad light “fake news.”
“What is it about politics that makes us think that facts are fungible?” said Dionne.
The columnist, a Boston Red Socks fan, said politics should at least be held to standards used in sports.
“If the Red Socks were playing the Yankees and the Red Socks won, and another source said, ‘No, the Yankees won,’ he would be thrown out of baseball.”
Ali, who identified himself jocularly as the panel’s Muslim and person of color, talked about joking with people during the presidential campaign. He’d ask them, “Will you come visit me in the camps?” — a reference to the Muslim registry that candidate Trump called for. The reply always was, “He’s not going to do that. He’s just saying that.”
But with the immigration ban issued and Trump refusing to rule out a Muslim registry, Ali said he’s no longer getting that reaction.
As for Bannon, “he wants to see the entire establishment go down,” Ali said, adding that the Muslim ban was authored by Bannon and Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller.
Rubin said there are two issues that can create a “fault line” between Trump and Republicans. One is Russia. The party is hawkish on Russia and hostile to President Vladimir Putin, but Trump is neither.
The other is corruption. Trump wants to protect his brand even more than be president, Rubin said.
“It’s a weakness,” Rubin said. “It’s something that he doesn’t have an excuse for. When Republicans see they aren’t getting what they want out of him” — entitlement and budget reform, for example — “they’ll be more amenable” to opposing him.
The lessons at the second session were very different, where two Republican activists looked at the Trump phenomenon and offered advice to liberals.
“Events of the past year caught everyone by surprise,” said Noah Silverman, congressional affairs director for the Republican Jewish Coalition. He charged that “the Democratic establishment is more interested in deploring the deplorable than” understanding how the election turned out as it did.
Noah Pollak, a conservative political writer and consultant, said Trump is not the threat that “the left” makes him out to be. It is a tactical mistake to “BDS” or boycott the president and “treat the other side as the enemy. It may feel emotionally satisfying to BDS someone, but you still gotta work with people,” he said.
Silverman said liberals should not do to Trump what Republicans did to Obama. “The job of advocacy is to advocate” for your cause.
Asked if the Jewish community should be concerned about Bannon — former head of Breitbart News, which Bannon called “the platform for the alt-right” — Pollak said, “I am not the least bit concerned.”
Bannon’s political philosophy, which has been described as white nationalism, actually “could be called American exceptionalism,” Pollak said. “It’s more about culture. It’s totally unobjectionable.”
The two men spoke the same day a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalized and a week after headstones were toppled in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Just who is behind the crimes is “still the subject of conjecture,” Silverman said, who counseled caution. “We’ve impressed on the administration how we feel about it.”
“A couple of cemetery vandals does not make America an anti-Semitic country or that America has a problem with anti-Semitism,” Pollak said.
Asked if America in 2017 is like Europe in 1933, Silverman said the analogy should not crowd out the facts. Trump’s immigration ban was “caught in the courts and is back at the drawing board” — a very different result from Hitler’s time.
“My hope is the Jewish community would be able to provide a voice that is infused with caution and wisdom,” Silverman said. “We don’t want to be a source of hysteria.”
Attendees also discussed criminal justice reform. William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, received the JCPA Chair’s Award.
The conference was an opportunity to network, said Joshua Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
“There are a lot of opportunities to build strong alliances,” he said. “We’re reaching out and saying, ‘What’s going on in your community? How can we help?’”
Randy Whitlatch, a Pittsburgh attorney and a JCPA Frank fellow, or young leader, said there are “intersectionalities” with the African American community on criminal justice reform.
“Twenty percent of Jews are people of color, and people of color are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system,” Whitlatch said. “We have a shared goal of trying to improve it.”
The American role in pursuing Middle East peace was the day’s big topic. Former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller had a piece of advice for his JCPA audience. When it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, don’t do “the cosmic oy vey.”
“It’s the notion that somehow the U.S-Israeli relationship is always at stake. There’s always a crisis. We’re about to sacrifice Israel’s interests on the altar of expediency. It’s all nonsense,” said Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“No American official should ever have to appear before a Jewish audience and be hammered and criticized because the U.S. has not provided an extraordinary degree of financial, economic, political, moral support” to Israel, he said.
Miller said America’s core interests in the region are: protecting the United States, weaning the country off of Arab oil and preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon. The most likely would-be hegemon is Iran, Miller said, but it wasn’t clear how hegemonic Iran could be.
Speaking alongside Miller was Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She said that the 1993 Oslo Accords, which acted as frameworks for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, needs to be replaced.
“That framework that worked for 20 odd years of bilateral direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations mediated by the United States exhausted itself,” said Wittes. “Until we have a new framework, we will have a vacuum filled with mostly bad ideas,” she said.
In a breakout session, attendees heard from clergy who attended the Interfaith Partners for Peace mission to Israel, which aims to show the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The essential message [of the trip] is that [the conflict] is complicated, because it seems simple,” said panelist Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “We all think whatever narrative we’ve understood to be the case is truth, but truth is complicated.”
The theme of competing narratives — Israeli and Palestinian — dominated the discussion.
“From my understanding, the Jews don’t understand the Palestinian narrative, and they need to,” Steinlauf said. “Because you can’t have a conversation with people if you’re sure you’re right, and they’re wrong.”
David Holzel is managing editor and Justin Katz is a reporter of Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of The Jewish Chronicle.