Lord knows I’ve had my differences with the Forward before. I have them still, and often. They rarely unsettle me, if only because robust disagreements, especially on things that matter, are what we journalists should seek, not shun. But reading the paper’s exclusive report this morning arguing that Trump aide Sebastian Gorka is an actual crypto-Nazi, I’d like to reach out to my friends and colleagues across town and ask, with clear eyes and a full heart: Have you lost your minds?
To hear the piece tell it, Gorka, a top counter-terrorism adviser in the Trump White House, has sworn a lifetime oath to Vitézi Rend, an outfit that the story tells us is nasty nationalist group in Gorka’s native Hungary that giddily collaborated with Hitler. Well, not the Vitézi Rend—that group was outlawed by the Communists, naturally—but the off-shoot of Vitézi Rend, resurgent after Communism’s fall in 1989. Or at least an off-shoot of the group: there are two, and Gorka, according to the Forward’s sources, appears to belong to one of them, called Historical Vitézi Rend. How do we know that? A member of the group, Kornél Pintér, said so. “Of course he was sworn in,” Pintér told the Forward in a phone interview. “I met with him in Sopron [a city near Hungary’s border with Austria]. His father introduced him.”
Where to begin? Even if you take the Nazis at their word—which is inadvisable, as I realized from the very first time I watched Casablanca at the age of 9—you’ll notice that Pintér isn’t saying that he’d witnessed Gorka’s swearing in; he’s merely saying that he’d met the man because he was an associate of Gorka’s father Paul, a renowned member of the nationalist anti-Communist resistance.
Gorka himself told me that the allegations are flat-out false.
“I have never been a member of the Vitez Rend. I have never taken an oath of loyalty to the Vitez Rend. Since childhood, I have occasionally worn my father’s medal and used the ‘v.’ initial to honor his struggle against totalitarianism.” It’s a perfectly plausible explanation, and you’d have to be of a very specific mindset to still pursue allegations of Nazi affiliation.
Why didn’t Gorka simply tell this to the Forward? A source close to the White House, who was briefed on how the administration treated this story, explained things a little more to me.
“These guys genuinely believed that the allegations were so blatantly false and so aggressively poorly-sourced, that no responsible journalist would ever publish them,” the source told me on the phone. “Is Seb Gorka, whose family literally bears the scars of anti-fascist fights, a secret Nazi cultist? Come on now.”
If you’ve been following the Gorka story—the Forward’s accusation is hardly the first attempt to portray the aide as a bona fide Nazi—here’s what you know. Gorka’s father, Paul, was a dedicated member of the anti-Communist underground, and had risked his life to organize the Hungarian resistance and deliver vital information about the Soviets to western intelligence agencies, including the MI6. He was eventually arrested, badly tortured, spent two years in solitary confinement and some more in forced labor in the coal mines before eventually escaping to England.
Understandably, Gorka Jr. was deeply moved by his father’s dedication. It’s why, for example, he wore his father’s Vitézi Rend medal to President Trump’s inauguration. You may find this kind of devotion to be overly doting or even creepy, but if you’re being honest, the story here is simple and in some ways touching.
Sadly, that seems lost on my friends and colleagues at the Forward. Such unreason isn’t just bad for journalism—the Forward’s piece leaps from intimations of Nazism to suggestions that Gorka may be at risk of having his citizenship revoked—but also bad for democracy. I’ve been, and remain, a critic of the Trump Administration, but all criticism is meaningless unless it adheres to reason, refuses rank rumors, and focuses on substance rather than on slinging mud. Let’s all take a deep breath. The White House is no more overrun with Nazis as with secret Russian spies. To suggest otherwise is to further flame the kind of hysteria that, traditionally, has led to social unrest and delivered no good news to the Jews.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.