For a few hours Sunday evening, Sean Spicer and Sebastian Gorka found themselves once more the lives of the party. Inside one hotel ballroom, neither the two men’s controversial West Wing tenures nor the scandals plaguing the Trump administration seemed to exist.
Guests wanted selfies. They wanted to set up meetings. They even asked Spicer and Gorka to sign program booklets, as the annual Zionist Organization of America gala in New York City became a de facto social club for the Trump administration in exile Sunday night. And Stephen Bannon, who let admirers of his rise from Breitbart’s peddler of hate to senior Trump adviser down when he bailed on the event at the last minute in 2016, finally appeared.
The right-wing ZOA has perhaps more in common with Trump’s backers on the far right than the mainstream Jewish establishment. It’s remained close to the Trump camp in an all-out effort to undo the Obama administration’s policies relating to Israel. And the organization’s Veterans Day weekend gala was a reminder of the strange bedfellows in certain corners of the Trump administration’s base. But first came the bogeyman of liberal Jewry, at what president Morton Klein gave the inflated title of “the academy awards of the Jewish world.”
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman—slammed as a “reckless” pick by liberal Jewish groups—bellowed about the Obama administration’s “betrayal of Israel” and re-upped Trump’s neglected promise to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Friedman praised Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace talks to restrained applause: The Trump son-in-law’s attempts at peacemaking raise eyebrows with this far-right demographic.
“We live in increasingly dangerous times,” Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz told the gathered crowd, bestowing a ZOA award on Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy.
Dershowitz later defended the ZOA’s choice to invite people associated with the anti-Semitic alt-right in conversation with reporters.
“To young Jewish students, The Forward [a lefty Jewish publication] is more dangerous than people like Gorka and Bannon,” the eminent law scholar told a reporter from the paper, explaining that the former shapes public opinion.
The Forward scored a big coup earlier this year with extensive reporting on Gorka’s ties to anti-Semitic groups in Hungary. But there was no mention of Gorka’s questionable connections Sunday night.
Gorka was keen on meeting fans, but less so journalists. “Daily Beast? Don’t waste your time, I’m not going to talk to you,” he told this reporter.
Others focused their praise on Gorka’s one-time boss. A septuagenarian scribbled his own message around his “Make America Great Again” hat. “How? Make us safer,” it read in black sharpie.
“I’m gonna keep campaigning,” he said.
Another attendee, a 21-year-old finance student from Brooklyn, wore his Trump pride right on his kippah.
“Everyone likes it,” Daniel Slavin told The Daily Beast.
The president spent the weekend in Asia, but a VIP attendee list reviewed by The Daily Beast included Bannon, Spicer, and Gorka, who flitted about with Kushner confidant Ira Greenstein, as well as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former deputy to disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Some current administration officials, such as Bannon-era White House holdout Julia Hahn, were also present.
And it was Bannon—protected, like his former White House colleagues, by a VIP enclosure—who lasered in on the tensions underlying the night.
“This man brought the 45th president into the White House,” emcee Rita Cosby, a radio host, told the raucous crowd.
Klein, the ZOA president, had earlier in the evening defended Bannon to reporters against charges of anti-Semitism. (For one, Bannon referred to his media company, Breitbart, as a de facto platform for the anti-Semitic alt-right.) But Bannon is a friend of the Jewish people, who asked to speak at the gala, Klein insisted.
Not that the crowd, hungry for Bannon’s insights, needed any convincing. He handed out praise to Trump for everything from the fall of ISIS to putting the “opposition party”—he said, gesturing to the media gathered in the back of the room—in its rightful place.
“We had the finest candidate since Ronald Reagan,” Bannon said to thunderous applause. “The greatest public speaker, if not best orator, since William Jennings Bryan in Donald Trump.”
“The strongest supporter of Israel since Ronald Reagan,” he added.
The ZOA agreed.
“And imagine, all over the internet, there’s people calling me an unhinged bigot who’s promoting, mainstreaming Nazism because we proudly brought Steve Bannon to the Zionist Organization of America,” Klein said.
The crowd howled.