Stephen Bannon, US president-elect Donald Trump’s controversial pick for a senior adviser post, is a “lover of Israel” who has worked hard to combat Jew-hatred in American colleges, a close associate of Bannon said Sunday.
“Not only is he not an anti-Semite — he’s a fighter against anti-Semitism,” said Aaron Klein, the Jerusalem bureau chief for the Breitbart news website, which Bannon led until recently.
Klein, in an interview Sunday with The Times of Israel, also said he was unfamiliar with the alt-right, the white nationalist movement that was emboldened and fueled by the Trump campaign, and that by many accounts encompasses anti-Semitic and other racist elements. Bannon earlier this year boasted that Breitbart is “the platform for the alt-right.”
“Stephen Bannon approached me to start Breitbart Jerusalem a year ago with the specific goal of defending Israel against the onslaught of really unfair, negative, biased reporting on Israel by most of the world’s news media,” said Klein.
Bannon, who served as the website’s executive chairman before he was tapped as senior adviser and chief strategist in the White House, has been “particularly concerned” about, and was trying to counter, the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement on American campuses, Klein said.
Klein, who hails from Philadelphia, graduated from Yeshiva University and has been living and working in Israel since 2005, said he has known Bannon for years and has become “close friends” with him. At Breitbart, Klein said, he worked “very closely” with Bannon and they communicated several times a day, though they have not spoken since the November 8 election.
“He has personally pushed countless stories to Breitbart Jerusalem to cover the growing tide of anti-Semitism on US college campuses,” Klein said. “This is a side of him that nobody knows.”
Bannon has been accused of anti-Semitism and bigotry, though he has denied those claims. While several Jewish groups have called on Trump to cancel his appointment, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel have publicly backed Bannon, as have other Jewish groups, including the Zionist Organization of America.
Bannon was expected to attend the ZOA’s annual gala dinner Sunday night, but did not show up. Hundreds of mostly Jewish protesters had gathered outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, chanting “Steve Bannon has got to go” and other slogans calling on Trump to fire him.
Klein, who has authored several bestselling books and hosts a popular radio show in which he routinely attacks the Obama administration, said calling Bannon an anti-Semite was “patently absurd.” Reports that Bannon had told his ex-wife that he doesn’t want their children to go to school with Jews were “utterly untrue,” he said. “It’s pretty much grasping at straws when all they have is a disgruntled ex-wife in a contentious divorce document making a claim that he then disputed.”
Klein added: “I have known him intimately and not only do I not know of any anti-Semitic statements — I know him to be a lover of Israel and somebody who literally fights against anti-Semitism.”
Even the Anti-Defamation League, which “strongly opposes” Bannon’s appointment to the White House, acknowledged in a press release that it is “not aware of any anti-Semitic statements made by Bannon himself,” Klein pointed out.
However, the group also said that Breitbart “served as a platform for a wide range of bigotry” and that under Bannon’s stewardship, the site “has emerged as the leading source for the extreme views of a vocal minority who peddle bigotry and promote hate.” Bannon, the group added, “essentially has established himself as the chief curator for the alt-right.”
According to the ADL, the alt-right movement is a “loose network of individuals and groups that promote white identity and reject mainstream conservatism in favor of politics that embrace implicit or explicit racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy.”
Before being tapped for the White House position, Bannon was said to have embraced nationalism and the idea of his website being “the platform for the alt-right,” though he denounced anti-Semitic and racist elements in the movement, which he insists are a minority.
Klein, in contrast, said he is unfamiliar with the alt-right.
“Who are they? What are they? There are multiple, conflicting reports,” he said. “We don’t have any association with the alt-right. I don’t even know who they are.”
One very detailed and largely sympathetic report about the alt-right, published by Klein’s own Breitbart website earlier this year, said that, for the intellectuals of the movement, “culture is inseparable from race.” It also said the alt-right had “coalesced around Richard Spencer,” a white supremacist leader who at a Saturday event in Washington invoked explicit Nazi imagery in celebration of Trump’s victory.
Despite his close friendship with Bannon, Klein refused to comment on his specific views and policies regarding the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying only that Bannon is “one of the best friends that Israel has ever had in the White House.”