It has become impossible to turn on the news, open a paper or use social media without being raked by the latest troubling move by the Trump administration. Exactly how troubled people are generally depends upon the political beliefs of each person. Some see Trump’s moves as a bold departure from predictable politics, a shock to a bloated, stale system. Others see a steadily sharpening silhouette of authoritarianism, and a chilling reversal of our democratic traditions. Getting caught in the whirlwind of these intense debates is incredibly easy as emotion frequently prevails over reasonable dialogue. It is to Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist that there should be an unquestionably unsettled response. Bannon, in response to criticism, said that the media should “keep its mouth shut.” Such a statement on its own would be alarming, but Bannon went on to describe the media as “the opposition party.” In light of Bannon’s associations with anti-Semitic beliefs, these comments should raise particular concern for Jews, both in the United States and around the world.
Regardless of the details of Bannon’s anti-Semitism-a claim disputed by a few Jewish supporters-any characterization of the media as a threat to be targeted for retaliation should not be swept aside. The modern political spectrum is unique in that both the Left and Right utilize classic anti – Semitic tropes, including that of media manipulation. This idea is often invoked subtly, hidden within the frustrations encountered by extremists when their ideas fail to garner credibility. The logical possibilities, such as ideological bias or journalistic prerogative on the part of a given media outlet, are substituted for a nefarious Jewish influence beyond all control. It is into this realm of thinking that Bannon’s proclamation strays and thus becomes troubling for Jewish people.
Jews have been the recipients of similar gag orders and threats throughout history. From the banning of Torah study by the Romans, the burning the Talmud in The Middle Ages, and the total desecration of Jewish life by the Nazis, Jews have good reason to view government restrictions or threats with apprehension. The Third Reich in particular made great use of attacking the media in maintaining its grip on power, pioneering the modern notion of the “lying press.” In this instance the media was considered just as much of a threat as Jews were. Critics will certainly balk at such comparisons, claiming that these reactions are little more than histrionics. It could be argued that no one had mentioned Jews in any way, only those who have been attacking Trump. However, anti-Semitism has proven to materialize from far lesser threats and from more disparate origins. Mere allegations of disloyalty or some other corrupting actions have had disastrous repercussions for Jewish communities in the not so distant past. It is with these traumas in mind that political alignment must be put aside when threats such as Bannon’s are made.
It would be easy to dismiss these warnings as having static, political motivations. There is-as there should be-a spectrum of social and political opinions within the Jewish community and the views of the media need not be followed without question. There is however a fundamental difference between registering an objection to an opinion, and silencing the means by which that opinion is submitted to the public. Modern Judaism has emerged as a champion of freedom and the institutions which support a free society. This commitment, in regards to the media, cannot be suspended on the basis of ideological fidelity.
Jews who are (enviably) far removed from the effects of American politics should also take notice of Bannon’s warning. Populist politicians in Europe, bolstered by Mr. Trump’s success, have positioned themselves to shape the future of the continent. While some of these groups have attempted to amend for their anti-Semitic rhetoric, such history is not easily disposed of. Sharing Trump’s political agenda, these leaders cite unchecked immigration and erosion of traditional values as the chief ailments in their society. While Jewish people have certainly been part of those societies, the traditions which are cast with such nostalgia frequently included an inveterate hostility towards them. Jews have already fled in droves as physical and verbal attacks have been increasingly tolerated. In a political tinderbox even more volatile than that of the United States, the safety of Jewish people could be more easily compromised should a presiding government target them as allies of a hostile press.
Whether one chooses to see Bannon’s comments as a bellwether for the Trump administration or its global counterparts is once again an act of opinion. That these comments have found traction in the rhetoric of a powerful democracy should prove more troubling then the words themselves. The official censure of any one group, profession, or segment of society should not go unchallenged. Jewish people in particular, having endured the hostile restraint of countless governments should put aside political differences in their condemnation of these remarks as well as any others which make such accusations. A precedent which mutes the liberty of any one group can easily be turned to victimize others. While some in the Jewish community may hesitate to voice their opinion on the acts of this administration, it is in this instance in which a pillar of freedom is suffering decay that no one should be quiet.