The course that landed Orthodox Jewish journalist Joel Pollak behind the senior editor’s desk at staunchly conservative Breitbart News was far from simple.
“When you are brought up to believe that Republicans and conservatives are motivated by racism and motivated by greed, to say you are one of those people was not easy,” says Pollak.
Breitbart, the outlet where Pollak reigns as senior editor-at-large, and its executive chairman, Stephen Bannon, have become associated with the radical right since remarks Bannon made during the 2016 United States presidential election campaign.
Then, Bannon, a co-founder alongside Andrew Breitbart of the news outlet, described himself as an “economic nationalist.” Bannon told Mother Jones in 2016 that Breitbart News was “the platform for the alt-right.” This has led to further accusations that Breitbart is a voice for white supremacists and anti-Semitic ideology.
So what is a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like that?
Born in South Africa, Pollak grew up in Chicago, attended Jewish day school through 8th grade, but decided to attend the local public high school as it had a lot of Jewish students but also lots of other minorities.
“It was a fantastically positive experience,” Pollak recalls. “When I was in high school we called ourselves the United Nations because there were kids from every conceivable background. I was involved in a lot of student groups that celebrated diversity and was even the first white member of the African American student club.”
He attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he became involved politically with radical student groups which were the forebears of today’s ANTIFA or Occupy movement. Later, he spent half of 2000 in Israel studying Jewish texts at the pluralistic Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies.
But his natural liberal-leaning course shifted when he was an exchange student in South Africa, where he also later began work as a journalist and speechwriter in the South African parliament. A number of experiences there shattered his left-wing worldview and upon returning to Harvard for law school in 2007, his political leanings shifted to uncharted territory: conservatism.
In his third year of law school, a heated exchange at an event with Barney Frank, a then US House of Representative (D-MA) and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, solidified that transition. It also thrust Pollak into the political spotlight.
What drew you from the left to fully embrace conservatism?
In South Africa two things happened. First, there was a [denial of the] AIDS epidemic sponsored and supported by the government. At the same time I was tutoring in one of South Africa’s townships, Khayelitsha, which was of the poorest and most dangerous. I worked very closely there with a family that was starting a small business and at a local library I taught black students, many of whom did not have electricity in their homes. Watching the impact — or lack of impact — of some of the government’s policies on their lives was an eye opener.
The other thing that happened while in South Africa was the Second Intifada broke out and I was confronted with a vociferous and vicious opposition to Israel unlike anything I encountered before. While covering the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, I saw up-close rabid, anti-Israel and overtly anti-Semitic rhetoric — plus the complete refusal of my editors to acknowledge it all. It was completely eye opening to me that a political movement that I had admired, the African National Congress, could be so profoundly anti-Israel.
So I had a slow awakening from a left-wing worldview. I believed there were political solutions to the world’s problems and when I followed those policies through to their results — and the results were exactly the opposite of what in some cases the policies intended — I then questioned the policies.
When you are brought up to believe that Republicans and conservatives are motivated by racism and greed, to say you are one of them isn’t easy
Upon returning to the US, I realized I didn’t fit into the Democratic Party anymore. It was very hard for me initially to overcome the feeling that if I were to become a Republican or conservative that meant I was a bad person, but then I just decided, well, I’m not a bad person and I believe what I believe and that’s it. By then everything I believed seemed to line up with the Republican Party and conservatism so I spent the rest of law school as a conservative.
What did Stephen Bannon mean when he said Breitbart is the “voice of the alt-right”?
This question about Breitbart and the alt-right did not exist before the US presidential election of 2016. It is largely the result of an attempt by Donald Trump’s political enemies both on the right and left to tarnish his candidacy by tarnishing us.
It started with a 2016 article by Lloyd Grove in the Daily Beast which claimed that Breitbart was instigating anti-Semitic trolls on Twitter to attack Trump’s critics.
The entire story is a fabrication. I have the evidence that it is a fabrication and one of the sources for the story knows it’s a fabrication, but has yet to admit publicly what the source has admitted to me privately.
Nevertheless, there was a hysteria — and there’s no way to sugar coat it — among a small group of conservative Jewish intellectuals who believed firmly that Donald Trump was a disaster. They decided to make this case against Breitbart as well and that article was a seminal moment.
They also pounced on Breitbart for an article written by Milo Yiannopoulos who was then the tech editor of Breitbart. The article was documenting the alt-right and the various groups within the alt-right, and the argument was made that to merely describe these groups was in a way to sanitize them — that to list neo-Nazis alongside harmless political cranks on the internet was to legitimize the neo-Nazis. And that article became a target for a lot of this.
The funny thing about interpreting statements and articles is that once you are committed to a point of view, you have a confirmation bias, so anything that came out from Breitbart afterwards was interpreted in that light, as alt-right.
It reached its zenith during the campaign with Hillary Clinton’s August 2016 speech against the alt-right in Reno, Nevada, which I went to cover. She equated Trump with the alt-right and with some of its most extreme elements including neo-Nazis, white supremacists and so on. The occasion that led her to make this ill-advised and ultimately ineffective speech was Steve Bannon’s appointment as the Trump campaign’s CEO.
What happened was that Hillary Clinton began to run on the idea that Trump represented the second coming of Adolf Hitler and that he and this alt-right boogeyman [Bannon] sort of represented the end of civilization as we know it. She created this nightmare for people and then when they were shocked by the election results, they believed they were in the nightmare. There was this kind of hysteria that was created through the campaign of 2016, again starting on the right, moving to the left, which then engulfed the country and became the paradigm in which the mainstream media began to view everything.
What Trump said in response to Charlottesville was no different than what any president would have said
I think the reaction to Charlottesville [the August 2017 far-right rally where a 32-year-old counterprotester was killed when a car driven by a suspected white supremacist plowed into a crowd of pedestrians] is partly a reaction to that because what Trump said in response to Charlottesville was no different than what any president would have said. In fact [former US president] Barack Obama that same day made a statement that did not mention white supremacist groups and did not single them out for condemnation.
However, the media and the political opposition decided that Trump’s statement was inadequate because somehow he bore a special burden to attack these groups. Now, why would he bear a special burden to attack these groups? Because he was associated with them. Well, what associated him with them? They said he was associated with them. They believed he was associated with them.
He had no prior association with them whatsoever, but there was this picture that they had created that is still in use.
Many of the most prominent conservative outlets not only didn’t support him, but said he could never be president or could not be allowed to be president
Remember, Trump was written off by many of the most prominent conservative outlets that not only didn’t support him but said he could never be president or could not be allowed to be president. At Breitbart we didn’t take that editorial direction, and as a result Trump supporters started reading Breitbart more than other conservative websites. That’s because if you wanted to see the election from the frameworks of people who believed that one side [Hillary Clinton] was unacceptable you came to Breitbart.
And so I think our audience grew to include some on the alt-right who began circulating our articles and citing them and so forth because we were, in a sense, their journalistic anchor. If they wanted to find facts on which to base their articles or ideas they would come to Breitbart and so that’s the sense in which I think Steve made his comment which correctly quoted is: “the platform of the alt-right.”
We are not alt-right. If you just read our content, we are not alt-right and we don’t have alt-right writers and reporters and editors.
Should Breitbart do more to disavow the perception of being alt-right?
This game of disavowal is a losing game and the only person who wins is the person who makes you disavow something. Ultimately, the moment you play, you are participating in your own self-destruction.
I can’t tell you how many people in the Jewish world have encouraged me to come forward and disavow the alt-right, and so on and so forth.
I don’t need to disavow the alt-right. I mean, look at my life! I was the first white member of the African American club. I taught at South African townships that were entirely black and dangerous for me to be in, and if you want to get really personal — I never bring this up — but I’m married to a black South African woman who converted and my children are completely different colors, and aware of that. What do I have to disavow?
In every way I’ve spent my life helping people from other communities. When I was in South Africa I lived with a Muslim family for two years in Capetown studying Arabic and learning about Islam, and was asked by an imam for help in obtaining a construction permit for a mosque.
I have an interest in bringing people together, and that was an interest whether I was on the left or the right. I don’t feel I have anything to prove.
What I do worry about is the people on the left and, if I can call them out — the people in particular running around in the Jewish community who see themselves as the Partisans and we [conservatives or Republicans] by implication are the Nazis. If you really believe, and many of them do, that a Nazi political party has taken over the country, led by a Nazi would-be-dictator, and that his supporters are also Nazis, it’s morally permissible to do anything to those people to prevent them from succeeding.
There is nothing whatsoever in the Trump Administration’s behavior that justifies these Nazi/resistance comparisons.
What are your thoughts on the US Jewish community’s reaction to President Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem being Israel’s capital and moving the embassy?
I think the Jewish community’s reaction has been positive overall. In my synagogue this week, a layman who sponsored the kiddush gave a speech in which he related the story of Pharaoh elevating Joseph and connected it to current events. He said that whether you support Trump or not, the fact that a leader who is a “goy” can recognize Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel is wonderful. That met with general agreement, even though there are some people in the synagogue who really do not like Trump. I think the initial response of Reform leaders was an embarrassment and was appropriately revised.
Did the media stoke the flames of violence following his speech on Jerusalem?
Absolutely, they did. They also downplayed [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas’s incendiary remarks at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in Istanbul, reporting only what he said about Trump and not what he said about Jews. Fortunately there has not been the degree of violence that some feared.
Did Trump’s declaration change the game in the Middle East? Or has the game already changed behind closed doors (for example like the warming but covert Saudi/Israel relationship), and that’s how Trump could make a move like this, aside from it being a campaign promise.
Certainly the relationship with the Saudis and other Sunni states, who share a common interest in stopping Iran, helped smooth the way for the Jerusalem decision. But it was a bold decision nonetheless. It may help future negotiations because Palestinians will have to be pragmatic, and because Israel will feel more secure about the final status of the city.
Most of all, though, Trump’s decision deserves to be seen as what it was: not just the fulfillment of a promise, but the historic action of a leader motivated to do the right thing.
When it comes to hate crimes there are lot of people who feel a lack of reassurance from the top of the US government.
It’s so silly. What did Donald Trump do during the first joint address to Congress early this year? He spent the first two or three paragraphs talking about Black History month and condemning anti-Semitism and somehow that does not count. Like the fact he did that does not count.
With Trump I think he has a genuine empathy for victims, and you saw that when he visited the victims of the flooding in Houston, and [you can] very profoundly [see] his empathy for the victims of crimes by illegal aliens. That issue was so important for his candidacy, and in fact, you can look at the date in which he met with those families for the first time, July 10, 2015.
That was when Donald Trump began rising in the polls. Within nine days he had gone from number six in the polls to leading them.
But don’t his comments often miss the mark?
Well, he isn’t a politician and politicians spend a great deal of time sitting and talking with people. He’s a businessman and just wants to be doing work and wants to see production happening so maybe it’s just the way he operates his life. I don’t think it’s a lack of empathy.
Where do you personally draw the line between free speech and anti-Semitism?
I grew up in Skokie and [in 1977] a group of Nazis wanted to march there because it had a very large concentration of Holocaust survivors. When the local government tried to stop it the first amendment came down in favor of the Nazi march. In the end the Nazis decided to march somewhere else, but that’s what I grew up with.
Nothing should be off limits, and if you let these people shout on the street corner, most other people will ignore them. I don’t draw a line anywhere except that you have the right to say anything you want. You just don’t have the right to say it in my house.
Do you ever experience coded anti-Semitism in your professional life?
I experienced anti-Semitism growing up in different parts of the US where kids on the playground would mock us for being Jewish, and I once got into a bar fight with anti-Semitic hooligans in Capetown.
In my working life I never encounter anti-Semitism unless I’m covering the far left and the anti-Israel left.
How does being an observant Jew play into the world of politics around you which can often be very dirty?
There’s a comfort in a sense that I place who I am on the table and so people know where I am coming from, and it’s not a part of myself I have to introduce or explain. But as you said, politics and journalism can be very nasty and I wrestle with it a lot because I’m aware that what I do will reflect not just on me but on a broader community, and it’s challenging.
You wrestle with it because you’re stating up front that you have a moral commitment to certain principles and if you deviate from those principles, which everybody does from time to time, whether advertently or inadvertently, you are going to be judged by it and maybe others who share your beliefs will be judged by it too. It’s a moral burden that you accept, and I wrestle with that all the time.
But this is where I follow the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He says if you can do something positive, do it. I try not to dwell on the hazards of being publicly observant. I try to think about the potential benefits because the hazards will always be there. There will always be someone to find faults in what you do and there is nothing you can do about it. Sometimes it will be your fault, sometimes it won’t, but you can always try to do something positive.
Is Trump a racist, bigot, and anti-Semite? Can you make sense of the accusations?
I think there is a deliberate intent to create hysteria for partisan and political reasons. It began in the media and incubated on the right and moved to the left. I’m not quoting her directly, but Hillary Clinton told the country if this man gets elected they would get Hitler, and half the country voted for her but they got Donald Trump — so they think they got Hitler.
She basically said to people that this alt-right thing is what Trump represents and she created the scariest possible scenario for her voters to believe, and that has persisted.
The moment I realized nothing the media said about Trump could be trusted was at an event in Las Vegas in December 2015. There were about 3,000 people there, people of all races, and you’d think standing there openly looking Jewish that from all the hype at a Trump rally I would get angry stares from all the anti-Semites when they see my yarmulka, but that was not the case. Quite the opposite — as a visible Jew I had people coming up to me saying things like ‘it’s so nice to see you.’
At one point some people had been heckling the African American speaker, Jamiel Shaw Sr., the father of a man killed by an illegal alien. The hecklers were taken away by security and nobody thought anything of it.
The next day the way it was reported you’d think this was Nuremberg and the crowd was chanting “Heil Hitler.”
As it turns out, as these guys were carted away by the police one of the Trump supporters mockingly yelled at them “Heil Hitler” in the same way that leftists mock the police clearing student protests at administration buildings on campuses. The students would start chanting “Heil Hitler” and it wasn’t because they were Nazis. It was because they were mocking what they said were the fascistic tendencies of the police.
Basically the Trump supporter yelled “Heil Hitler” at the hecklers not because the Trump supporter supported Hitler but the Trump supporter was telling the hecklers they are a bunch of fascists by interrupting a speech by a black person. The way the NBC reporter described that event gave it the worst possible spin, making it open to the worst possible interpretations.
There are certainly ways that a more practiced politician who is more sensitive to controversy might choose to phrase things
Look, there are certainly ways that a more practiced politician who is more sensitive to controversy might choose to phrase things, but I think the bulk of the story about this misperception of Trump, these two perceptions, is that one of them is true and one isn’t. One is an illusion and the illusion is of Trump the racist, the bigot, the anti-Semite.
Nevertheless, the illusion is so imposing if you disagree with the left, or you defend Trump, or you’re not sufficiently outraged, you are accused of complicity.
In late August, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) at one point said “Give Trump a chance, maybe he can improve,” and she was vilified by the entire California establishment.
Allowable reactions to Trump are, “You should hope he gets impeached, he dies, or is assassinated.” Those are allowable, meaning this hysteria is policed by punishing anyone who dares to venture outside of it. I think that is dangerous for the country, much more so than fringe groups.
If there were three pictures of people hanging on your wall, who would they be?
I actually have three. One is George Orwell. He was a man who struggled with the left because of the left’s own inherent intolerance and tendency towards totalitarian thinking. He searched constantly for truth and he inspired me to write.
Another is of Charles Krauthammer. His is there almost as a joke but it was given to me by a colleague because although I don’t agree with him about Trump and other things, he’s another person who started out on the left and moved to the right.
Finally, there’s the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe’s emphasis on the positive and doing good things is something I think about a lot.