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The grassroots Jewish movement to get Steve Bannon out of the White House

While major Jewish organizations stay silent, young activists say they will “stand up instead.”

Two Jewish protesters outside Trump’s transition offices in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Two Jewish protesters outside Trump’s transition offices in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

WASHINGTON, DC — Standing on the steps outside Donald Trump’s transition headquarters Thursday morning, 25-year-old Jenna Bluestein spoke to more than a hundred young Jews about her grandmother’s experience surviving the Holocaust.

“I’ve heard firsthand the horrors that she and her sisters faced… the hurtful, baseless stereotypes, the violence targeted at their communities,” she said.

When Trump named Stephen Bannon to be his chief strategist on Sunday, giving an official government position to a white nationalist figure who ran a website that disparaged Jews and other minority groups, Bluestein said she immediately feared that his rhetoric could turn into national policy.

“We’ve seen this before as a Jewish community,” she told ThinkProgress. “We know this, and that’s why it’s so important to keep Bannon out of the White House.”

At least 100 young Jews, some involved with advocacy organizations and other concerned about Trump’s impending presidency, joined a protest on Thursday organized by IfNotNow, a group that aims to end the Jewish community’s support for the Israeli occupation. Together they called on Trump to fire Bannon and for larger Jewish organizations to join the resistance to Trump.

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“We Jews will stand up against deportations,” they chanted together inside the lobby of Trump’s transition headquarters. “We Jews will stand up against violence against Muslims. We Jews will stand up against misogyny, transphobia, and queerphobia. We Jews will stand up against all forms of racism and anti-Semitism.”

Marching from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in downtown Washington to Trump’s transition team headquarters near the White House, the group also shared personal stories and sang the traditional protest song, “Which side are you on?,” interlaced with Hebrew songs.

Protesters outside Trump’s transition headquarters and a flier IfNotNow handed out. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Protesters outside Trump’s transition headquarters and a flier IfNotNow handed out. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

During his tenure as the head of the alt-right Breitbart News, Bannon published stories calling conservative commentator Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew,” comparing abortion to the Holocaust, and alleging that Planned Parenthood has pro-Nazi roots. The website frequently uses anti-Semitic tropes to attack Jews outside the right-wing, calling them “self-hating” enemies of Israel.

Bannon has been called an anti-Semite by his ex-wife, who said that he “doesn’t like Jews” and that he didn’t want his children to attend a school with Jewish students.

Trump internalized much of Bannon’s rhetoric during his campaign, saying that Hillary Clinton is guiding a “global power structure” and using classic anti-Semitic themes. His last campaign ad featured that message alongside images of Jewish leaders, leading a Washington Post columnist to declare: “Anti-Semitism is no longer an undertone of Trump’s campaign. It’s the melody.”

“If they’re not going to stand up and be the leaders that we need them to be, then we’re going to stand up instead.”

While the Anti-Defamation League has demanded that Trump fire Bannon, other major Jewish organizations like the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have stayed silent. In fact, after the election, JFNA wrote a letter to Trump saying that its leaders “very much look forward to working closely” with his administration.

“We appreciate as well your recognition of America’s and Israel’s shared values, to the U.S.-Israel relationship, and your commitment to the Jewish state’s security,” the letter said.

Several organizations within the JFNA, which is comprised of Jewish charities from more than 150 cities, have taken a stance against Bannon, but Jewish activists said Thursday that the umbrella organization needs to follow suit.

“The Jewish Federations and too many other mainstream Jewish organizations that claim to speak for our people have stayed silent on Bannon and stayed silent on the anti-Semitism that pervaded Trump’s campaign and continues to this day,” said Ethan Miller, an organizer of the protest. “If they’re not going to stand up and be the leaders that we need them to be, then we’re going to stand up instead.”

Jewish protesters in Washington, DC on Thursday. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Jewish protesters in Washington, DC on Thursday. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

While JFNA may think that Trump and Bannon will be strong supporters of Israel, Miller said that Jewish activists like himself “won’t be sold out for an occupation that we don’t support.”

“We are taking over as the leaders that our Jewish communal institutions refuse to be in this moment,” Bluestein said. “They haven’t come out against Trump or Bannon, and so we’re here today to show them that they need to do that. And we’re here if they want to come out with us.”

As they held signs and chanted outside Trump’s transition offices, Jewish activists acknowledged that getting Bannon out of the White House will not solve all of their problems. The group will continue to ally with Muslims, Latinos, and other groups who will be marginalized under Trump’s presidency, Bluestein said.

“Bannon is the face of this protest today, but not the end of Trump’s rhetoric,” she said. “It’s a first step in denouncing Trump’s appointment, but it’s definitely not the end of the fight.”