In trying to figure out who Donald Trump’s new White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is, journalists, activists, and others are looking primarily at two sources: Breitbart News, the far-right publication Bannon ran before decamping for the Trump campaign in August, and statements Bannon himself has made over the years. In light of what they’ve found, the Bannon appointment has been decried by a variety of rights groups and liberal politicians, from Harry Reid to the Anti-Defamation League. Just about all of the statements that have been issued accuse Bannon of promoting white nationalism or anti-Semitism on Breitbart, and some accuse Bannon himself of being a white nationalist or an anti-Semite (the Huffington Post explicitly referred to Bannon as an anti-Semite in its headline on the controversy).
There’s little question that Breitbart has regularly published materials designed to stoke fears about African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and other groups, and to explicitly normalize white-nationalist and white-supremacist beliefs, and that it has at the very least tiptoed right up to the line of anti-Semitism (the Forward has a good rundown on the question of whether Breitbart is an anti-Semitic outlet — there’s certainly a strong case to be made, but the argument is a bit less straightforward). And Bannon himself has said no shortage of outrageous things, including, in one radio interview dug up by BuzzFeed, suggesting that progressives dislike conservative women because they aren’t a “bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England.”
The claim that Bannon is personally an anti-Semite, though, is one of the most potentially explosive criticisms of him circulating at the moment. It comes primarily from sworn testimony his ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, gave in 2007, during a contentious divorce battle over child custody — the same testimony in which she accused Bannon of domestic battery and of attempting to intimidate her into not cooperating with the subsequent investigation, which was eventually dropped (there was, in fact, a police report indicating a domestic-violence incident that was obtained by Politico).
NBC News reported in August:
The court declaration from the ex-wife outlined three separate anti-Semitic remarks that Bannon allegedly made as she toured some of the most elite private schools in the Los Angeles area for their daughters.
At one, Westland School, Bannon’s ex-wife said he “asked the director why there were so many Chanukah books in the library.”
Then after the couple toured Willows Community School, she said he “asked me if it bothered me that the school used to be in a Temple. I said no and asked why he asked … he did not respond.”
Regarding another academy, The Archer School for Girls, the ex-wife claimed Bannon “went on to say the biggest problem he had with Archer is the number of Jews that attend. He said that he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiney brats’ and that he didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.”
On the one hand, this story was told in a sworn declaration. On the other, it did come from a custody battle, in a context in which each party had an incentive to make the other look as bad as possible. And in a statement he sent to NBC News via a spokesperson, Bannon denied having made anti-Semitic remarks.
But in a phone conversation yesterday, the former director of Westland School confirmed the Hanukkah-book exchange took place.
That director, who asked that her name not be used and who is herself Jewish, said she couldn’t remember the precise details of the conversation, but she did remember that during the meeting, which included only the director, Bannon, and Piccard (she said the admissions process first involved a meeting with parents, with kids only visiting the school later on), Bannon asked a question along the lines of “Why did we have so many books about Hanukkah?”
The director didn’t interpret the question as anti-Semitic. “I think the context was different from what I’ve read in the papers,” she said. “The school doesn’t celebrate holidays — we celebrate all holidays and no holidays, so we don’t have costumes at Halloween, but when a holiday comes up, we talk about it, and there are books in classrooms, and they put them away for the next holiday. So I thought he was referring to, How come you say you don’t celebrate holidays? There were all these books about Hanukkah.”
So from Piccard’s point of view, then, the Hannukah question was a signal of Bannon’s anti-Semitism, of his desire to not have his daughters in too Jewish a school environment. From the director’s point of view, it was an anodyne question about whether and to what extent the school was truly secular.
The director’s recollection doesn’t conclusively prove Bannon made anti-Semitic statements, of course. But it does show that the most immediately checkable part of this episode checks out: According to the only other person who was present, Bannon did, in fact, ask why there were so many Hannukah books at a potential school for his daughters. This means that Piccard, who didn’t return a message left yesterday at what a public-records search indicated was her number, was truthful about that. Whether you believe Bannon holds anti-Semitic views depends on whether you believe Piccard was similarly honest in the rest of her testimony as well.