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Why some Jewish groups won't denounce Steve Bannon appointment

While the Anti-Defamation League and others have spoken out against President-elect Donald Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and senior adviser, some Jewish organizations are choosing to remain neutral on the subject.

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    Stephen Bannon, campaign executive for President-elect Donald Trump, leaves Trump Tower in New York on Friday.
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The appointment of Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, as President-elect Donald Trump's chief strategist and senior adviser over the weekend elicited outcry from a number of critics who have accused Mr. Bannon of promoting white nationalist and anti-Semitic views on his website.

Among them were the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which condemned the announcement on Sunday, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"The ADL strongly opposes the appointment of Steve Bannon as senior advisor and chief strategist in the White House," said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the ADL, in a statement. "It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the 'alt-right' – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists – is slated to be a senior staff member in the 'people's house.' "

But a number of other Jewish organizations remained conspicuously neutral or entirely silent on the matter, reflecting a divide within the community between those speaking out against Mr. Trump and the perceived streak of anti-Semitism throughout his campaign and those who argue that such dissent only creates a deeper and more hostile divide, diminishing the chances of future cooperation. 

The ADL was not alone in its concern over the controversial appointment. As The Christian Science Monitor reported on Monday: 

Mr. Bannon, whose news site serves as an online community of sorts for the "alt-right" movement and who has himself been accused of harboring anti-Semitic and white nationalist views, will serve as Trump's chief strategist and senior counselor to the president. Among Breitbart readers and many other Trump supporters, the announcement was celebrated as an official validation of alt-right values and a rejection of Washington norms....

But to critics of Bannon, the appointment signifies something much darker.

Breitbart News and friends of Bannon, including the leader of one pro-Israel advocacy group, have maintained that the new White House chief strategist is not anti-Semitic. In a statement reprinted by Breitbart, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, described the accusations as "Orwellian."

But regardless of the degree of accuracy of the claims, some leaders say speaking out against the Trump administration is not in the best interest of Jewish organizations and other groups. 

"They really do want to work with the new administration as much as they can, inasmuch as their conscience will allow. They have legislative agendas," Steve Rabinowitz, a strategy consultant who works for several major Jewish institutions and also ran a Super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton, told The Washington Post. "Criticizing them six days after their election is not a great way to start, unless you feel compelled because what happened is just so egregious that you have to." 

In some cases, dissent against the Trump campaign by groups such as the ADL may have overstepped legal boundaries as well, some argue. The ADL did not endorse any candidate because of its status as a tax-exempt charity, which legally prohibits the group from intervening in political campaigns. 

It did, however, draw attention to anti-Semitic sentiments associated with Trump's campaign. In October, the organization published a report on the harassment of Jewish journalists online, largely by social media users identifying as Trump supporters. And days before the election, the ADL criticized a Trump campaign ad, claiming that the ad used images and rhetoric that "touch on subjects that anti-Semites have used for ages." 

"I understand that they are an important watchdog on these things, but it seems to me that at critical times in the course of this campaign, a pattern emerged where the ADL put their thumb on the scale," Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told Forward. "I think it bears watching, and I think that the ADL has put itself potentially in a compromising position going forward, in terms of its ability to interact with the incoming administration."

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