Outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan, hundreds of protesters decried bigotry and hatred. Inside, the Zionist Organization of America heard that Donald J. Trump had been guided into the White House thanks to divine intervention.
A Long Island neurologist, who delivered the dvar torah at the ZOA’s gala, regaled the ballroom with tales of the ancient Israelites who witnessed miraculous interventions into the natural order. “Well, so did we,” bellowed Alan Mazurek. He declared that the election had been “divinely directed.”
The crowd roared.
“Once again, the United States will be blessed. Once again, the prime minister of Israel will enter through the front door of the White House,” he said.
The guests broke into applause as he called on the world to unite with Trump to stop “barbaric radical Islamic savages.”
On a jubilant evening where food was plentiful, and booze flowed, President-elect Donald Trump’s right-hand man, Stephen Bannon, was expected to appear as a last-minute speaker.
Bannon’s appointment as chief strategist, a job for which he won’t have to undergo a potentially embarrassing Senate confirmation, unleashed a slew of criticism for his tight links to the emergent alt-right. He once proclaimed Breitbart, the website he headed, as the movement’s de facto platform.
His new role was swiftly denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for his role in promoting hateful rhetoric, if not anti-Semitism, on Breitbart. The ADL acknowledged that Breitbart’s Jewish employees have defended Bannon from charges of anti-Semitism. (Those allegations stem from a bitter divorce in which his ex-wife accused him of domestic violence and making three anti-Semitic remarks, including one in which Bannon allegedly said that Jews raise "whiny" children while choosing a private school for his daughters. New York magazine found that at least one of the exchanges she described, regarding Bannon asking a school about why it has so many Hanukkah books, is confirmed by a third party.)
The ZOA, though, jumped to Bannon’s defense, arguing that Breitbart was staunchly in favor of Israel, and Jewish people. (“Breitbart is the most pro-Israel site in the United States of America,” Bannon told The Wall Street Journal.) Soon enough, news broke that Bannon would be appearing at the group’s annual Louis D. Brandeis award dinner, as a last-minute featured speaker.
“I think Bannon was grateful that I defended him against this ludicrous charge of anti-Semitism,” ZOA President Morton Klein said. “That’s why he is coming, I guess.”
The Daily Beast purchased this reporter a ticket to hear him out. But Bannon never showed.
Early in the night, hopes were high. Rumors swirled about when Bannon would speak. Perhaps even Trump himself would make the trek down, some whispered, as a man in an autographed Make America Great Again cap pushed his way through the crowds.
“All of his Israel advisers are here,” said one New York board member.
The crowd was still flying high from Trump’s unexpected electoral sweep two weeks ago. One woman pulled up a “January 20, 2017: The End of an Error” meme to show this reporter.
Klein, the president, opened with a joke about people with Tourette’s syndrome, which he has, having a higher IQ but fewer dates. “I would’ve preferred a lower IQ and a few gals, you know?”
“Donald Trump told me to say that,” he added. “It’s guy talk. Don’t worry, ladies.”
The nod to “grab them by the pussy” was a hit with the crowd.
Klein’s introduction-cum-stump speech socked everyone from the ADL to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who Klein suggested is an anti-Semite for his past links with the Nation of Islam. Then he turned his ire to the “Arab-Islamic war against Israel.”
America’s oldest Zionist organization has, in recent years, been accused of veering away from its mission and into right-wing Islamophobia under Klein’s leadership. He was a speaker at the anti-Muslim ACT! for America conference, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and is scheduled to speak to Frank Gaffney’s organization next month.
“Our holiest place is the Temple Mount. You notice it’s not called the mosque mount!” Klein shouted at the dinner. “It’s a propaganda myth that Jerusalem is holy for Muslims! It is not!”
The bravest man of the night turned out to be Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who delivered a bitter pill when he came on stage to accept the Mortimer Zuckerman award for pro-Israel journalism.
“I’m a little worried today that there are Jews in many parts of the world that are being seduced by the hard right. We must not become complicit in bigotry, whether it is from the right or the left,” he told the fiery crowd. “I think that being pro-Israel can never serve as an excuse for bigotry against any other group.”
The professor himself is no stranger to controversy, most recently for declaring Black Lives Matter an anti-Semitic group and saying that he cannot stand with them, though he stands with the cause. He also condemned Bannon’s anti-Muslim rhetoric in a Haaretz op-ed, saying that “bigotry against any group should be disqualifying for high office.”
But while those comments left the room in a fitful silence, it was his commentary on the election as a “tie” that nearly got him booted off stage.
“One person won the electoral and one person won the popular vote,” Dershowitz said.
First there was a cough, then a boo, then a chorus. (The crowd had warmed up by booing The New York Times earlier in the evening.) The response put the good-natured ribbing of Dershowitz as the token Democrat in sharp perspective.
In a slip of the tongue, or perhaps disconcerted by the response to his statement of fact, Dershowitz called the ZOA the Zionist Association of America towards the end of his acceptance speech.
“Zionist Association?” a woman whispered.
“That’s why he never should have been invited,” her tablemate replied.