The Future of the Anti-Defamation League

January, 13 2017

Jonathan Greenblatt: ‘The Case for a Strong, Forward-Looking Middle’

By Amy E. Schwartz

It’s not easy to succeed the “Jewish pope.” That was the widespread nickname for Abraham Foxman, Jonathan Greenblatt’s long-serving predecessor as CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, when Greenblatt took over the job in July 2015. Change was inevitable, but few could have predicted the extent of that change, or of the dramatic upsurge in the kind of hateful speech the ADL exists to monitor.

Throughout the chaotic presidential election year, Greenblatt and his organization were kept busy, whether reporting on an estimated 19,000 anti-Semitic tweets directed at 800 journalists, tracking Pepe the Frog or being asked to comment on the public utterances of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke—and even on the candidate himself.

A new, more bare-knuckled rhetorical era poses challenges for an organization expected to police that debate, and the difficulties of picking and choosing have sometimes been evident. The ADL issued a statement criticizing the White House appointment of Steve Bannon, saying it was a “sad day” when a man who “has presided over the premier website of the Alt Right” could reach the “people’s house.”

Not all the ADL’s interventions have been welcomed. Some observers, pointing to Greenblatt’s previous stints in the Obama and Clinton administrations, have been quick to accuse the organization of straying into areas that constitute politics, rather than addressing outright bigotry. (To be fair, this charge was also frequently leveled in the Foxman years.)

Greenblatt has been low-key in response to an attack leveled on the ADL by President-elect Donald Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who called the organization “morons” for raising concerns about Trump campaign imagery. The ADL released a statement in which the retired Foxman called Friedman’s comments “unacceptable” and “ugly.” Greenblatt, in an interview with NPR, did allow that he thought Friedman had “said some things that were hardly diplomatic.”

The ADL has also raised eyebrows by taking note of the discourse in Israel, criticizing a string of remarks about Reform Jews and LBGTQ Jews by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem that it said distort Judaism and deepen divisions within the Jewish people.”

Characterizing specific utterances as bigoted is always dicey, and judging public figures even more so. Greenblatt’s ADL has issued multiple and evolving statements about the candidacy of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Mich.), the only Muslim representative serving in Congress, to chair the Democratic National Committee. On November 22, Greenblatt tweeted that Ellison had “made statements and taken positions that concern us,” but that he was “a man of good character” who had been an “important ally” against anti-Semitism. Faced with pushback, he wrote November 25 that “there are serious and very legitimate concerns about an Ellison candidacy.” But on December 1, when a tape with additional Ellison speeches came to light, the ADL said it had changed its view, calling the remarks “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” (Ellison has since said the tapes were edited to create a false impression of his views.)

Greenblatt spoke by phone to Moment opinion editor Amy E. Schwartz.

Some people and groups are clearly trying to characterize the ADL as a liberal-leaning or politicized organization. How do you keep that from happening?

Well, two Jews, three opinions, you know. I don’t think the Jewish people have ever been known for falling in line. We’re the people who created dissent, who created commentary, and then created commentary on the commentary. It’s a central element of our identity that we disagree with each other. That said, it’s been a big priority of mine to ensure civil disagreement, constructive criticism. When Jews fight other Jews, anti-Semites win.

The ADL is used to being criticized. Some people characterize us as too far to the left, others as too far to the right. Some think we have been too supportive of Obama, but my first official act was to oppose the Iran deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. I’m proud to assert the case for a strong, forward-looking middle. And it’s not easy. In an environment where people like to put you in a box, being non-ideological and not hewing to a particular political pole is difficult, but it’s the right place to be.

How do you decide whether to call out individuals, such as Steve Bannon, or to respond to attacks on you, such as David Friedman’s?

Here’s what I won’t do: I won’t attack other Jewish leaders or call out other Jewish organizations. I won’t be a party to these kinds of fights—as I said, we believe in civil dissent, constructive dialogue. I don’t believe in ad hominem attacks and disagreements based on personalities. However, when it comes to tracking and evaluating the actions of individuals, whether it’s people who aspire to be in the West Wing, or to chair major political parties, we will continue to be focused on stopping the defamation of the Jewish people.

How will you go forward having said what you said about Rep. Keith Ellison, if he’s party chair?

We’re deeply troubled by the views he has expressed about Jews. But whether he’s chairman of the party or not, the bottom line is, we will evaluate him going forward the way we evaluate everybody, on the basis of what they say and what they do.

People are being confronted suddenly with a lot of new kinds of talk and action that they hadn’t seen for a while, and they find a lot of it threatening. How do you decide, and how would you advise others to decide, what constitutes actual anti-Semitism?

That’s hard. I want to go with the Oliver Wendell Holmes line and say that you know it when you see it. But in general, when we encounter those who would delegitimize Jews because of our faith, or demonize us, or hold us to double standards, or deny us, as individuals, as a group, or as the Jewish state, basic rights that we would afford someone else—that’s the thing to look out for.

Look, whether it’s coming from the extreme right or the radical left, whether it’s coming from a college campus or from a neighborhood in Western Europe, whether it’s a political party or a public figure, or whether it’s happening in a classroom or a conference hall, I think what’s important is to remember that we as Jews do have, and should have, the option to participate in any of those venues or settings and not be judged on the basis of our faith.

Do you think of ADL as speaking for the whole Jewish community? How do you decide whom to speak for? 

The person in my role has always had a very simple job description: Protect the Jewish people. I speak for my organization, but I serve the whole Jewish people and other marginalized communities.

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